The past year in sports has been all about the unbelievable. No one expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to come back from down 3-1. No one thought the Chicago Cubs would do the same. For as great as those championship series were, Super Bowl LI might have topped them both.
The NFL has never seen an overtime game in the Super Bowl. A team has never come back from more than 10 points down in the big game either. Both occurred Sunday.
It was all capped by a little-known running back, James White, and a two-yard run.
When the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons took the field, they appeared to be two evenly matched teams. Atlanta had the league's top-rated scoring offense in the regular season (33.8 points per game), while the Patriots had its best defense (15.6 points per game allowed). For nearly four full quarters, though, the Falcons appeared to be a team in an entirely different class.
Atlanta led 21-3 at halftime and held a 25-point lead in the third quarter; however, the Falcons couldn't put the game away. The Patriots offense proved to be too much in the second half and the Falcons play-calling too questionable.
White's game-winning touchdown run gave the Patriots their second Lombardi Trophy in three years, but it took a whole lot of football to get to their 34-28 victory. Let's take an in-depth look at the quarter-to-quarter action.
The Falcons won the opening coin toss and chose to defer to the second half, so New England got to open up the action offensively. Unfortunately, New England was forced into a three-and-out after LeGarrette Blount was stopped on 3rd-and-short.
The Falcons were able to set the tone a bit defensively on the opening drive, swarming to the ball on Blount's carry and on the Julian Edelman reception right before it.
Atlanta set the tone offensively with its first possession when Devonta Freeman ripped off a 37-yard run to open the Falcons' first drive. The Falcons couldn't afford to be one-dimensional on offense or in the running game—and the run on the perimeter showed they wouldn't be.
A sack, though, ended Atlanta's drive just into New England territory.
As Ben Volin of the Boston Globe pointed out, the Patriots opened the game with Logan Ryan matched up against star Falcons receiver Julio Jones:
This was a tactic that wouldn't continue throughout the game.
The Patriots were able to methodically move near field-goal range, but two sacks on Tom Brady moved them back to the 50 and ended the drive there.
While the New England offense definitely took its time on the second drive, it didn't lean on Blount and the ground game. This allowed the Atlanta secondary—which is ranked sixth by Pro Football Focus—and pass rush to make the difference.
Atlanta came out running the ball on its next drive and found more success with outside runs. It seemed the Falcons were trying to get the Patriots defensive front to spread out in order to defend the perimeter.
Another takedown on Matt Ryan, though, ended Atlanta's second drive.
After two drives by each team, Falcons running backs Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 56 yards running while the Patriots had just four yards on the ground.
One thing that became apparent during the first quarter was the Falcons were prepared to match New England's defensive intensity right out of the gate. The first quarter ended with zero points scored—the seventh time the Patriots failed to score in the opening quarter of a Super Bowl.
New England again threatened to reach field-goal range to open the second quarter. However, Blount fumbled at the Falcons' 29-yard line, and the ball was recovered by Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford. Though the game remained scoreless, the feeling at this point was the Falcons were the team playing with more focus.
Two quick strikes to Jones set Atlanta up in scoring range after the fumble recovery. The Patriots were at this point trying to double Jones, but the tactic failed.
The Falcons wasted no time setting up plays on the drive and clearly had the Patriots defense on its heels. Atlanta repeatedly gashed the defense on the ground following Jones' second reception, and Freeman cashed in from five yards out to open the scoring for Super Bowl LI.
At this point, Freeman had already racked up 71 yards on the ground, and the Falcons were the team dominating in the running game.
Atlanta 7, New England 0
Perhaps because of the fumble, the Patriots chose not to give the ball to Blount on their next possession. The fast Falcons defense proved to be too much for New England's multiple-receiver looks. Once again, the Patriots were forced into another three-and-out.
Quick strikes to Taylor Gabriel and Jones quickly got the Falcons into field-goal range on their next drive. Ryan had hit on all six of his first six passes.
A couple of plays after getting into field-goal range, Ryan found tight end Austin Hooper for another touchdown. It was at this point that it really started to feel like the Falcons offense might be too much for New England's vaunted defense.
Atlanta 14, New England 0
The Patriots narrowly avoided a three-and-out on their ensuing possession thanks to a defensive holding call. Yet the atmosphere definitely pointed to Atlanta being the better team overall. The speed of the Falcons defense was still playing a part to this point, and defenders were getting themselves into the right position more often than their New England counterparts.
A second and a third defensive holding call extended New England's drive, but it was tough for the Patriots to inch their way forward even with the penalties. The Patriots were slogging their way on offense while the Falcons were sprinting.
Bad turned to worse quickly for the Patriots. With the offense in field-goal range, Brady saw his third-down pass picked by Alford and returned 82 yards for a touchdown.
No team had ever come back from a two-touchdown deficit in Super Bowl history, and the Patriots now saw themselves 21 points down.
Atlanta 21, New England 0
The Patriots got the ball with another chance to cut the deficit with just over two minutes to go in the first half. Defensively, the Falcons opened this drive just like the last several ones—swarming to the football and making life miserable for Brady.
The Patriots did manage to get on the board just before halftime, but only after a plodding and controversial drive. New England pushed its way to the red zone; however, a holding penalty and a questionable call from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels forced the team to settle for a field goal.
Atlanta 21, New England 3
The Falcons were clearly the dominant team in the first half. Not only did Ryan outplay Brady, but Atlanta outperformed the Patriots in the running game and on defense.
Brady finished the half 15-of-25 for 179 yards with an interception, while Ryan finished 7-of-8 for 115 yards with a touchdown. The Falcons amassed 86 yards rushing while the Patriots had just 35.
The big difference, though, was the two turnovers forced by the Falcons defense. Both led to Atlanta scores, and both came with New England in scoring range.
Since the Falcons deferred to start the game, they got the football to start the second half. However, it had been over an hour of real time since the Atlanta offense was on the playing field. As one might expect, the Falcons offense came out a bit cold to start the third quarter.
New England forced a three-and-out and then got the ball near Falcons territory after a long punt return from Edelman. Things went terribly for New England in the first half but couldn't have gone much better to open the second.
Unfortunately for New England, Atlanta's defense was able to force a three-and-out of its own. Every possession counted for New England at this point, and this one was wasted.
The Falcons didn't waste their next opportunity on offense, marching down the field into scoring position. The biggest play on the drive came after Gabriel shook cornerback Malcolm Butler to the ground and hauled in a 35-yard reception.
The Patriots appeared to have the Falcons ready to settle for a field goal, but a pass interference penalty gave Atlanta a fresh set of downs in the red zone. Coleman caught a pass and took it to the end zone on the next play.
Any momentum the Patriots managed to regain after halftime appeared gone.
Atlanta 28, New England 3
New England had no choice but to get desperate on their next drive. Edelman attempted a pass on 3rd-and-short, but it was dropped. The Patriots then went for it on fourth down from their own 46-yard line in order to extend the drive.
Brady even scrambled for 15 yards on the drive.
The gambles paid off this time for New England, as White cashed in with a touchdown reception. However, the drive took a whopping 6:25 off the clock. To makes matters worse, kicker Stephen Gostkowski drilled the upright with the point-after attempt.
At this point in the game, the Falcons were perfectly content to allow the Patriots to gain yardage in small chunks. Even the touchdown here barely seemed to hurt the Falcons' chances of keeping on with the onslaught.
Atlanta 28, New England 9
The Patriots followed their touchdown up with more desperation. A failed onside kick set Atlanta up with the football on the verge of field-goal range. However, New England's defense succeeded where it had so often failed to this point in the game.
The Falcons were driven backward on the drive, but they did manage to run out all of the time remaining in the third quarter.
New England showed a bit more urgency on their first possession of the fourth quarter. While Brady still didn't look as sharp as we've seen him this season, he made enough strong throws to put the Patriots into scoring range.
Unfortunately, the Patriots were unable to cash in with a touchdown.
New England started the drive at the team's own 13-yard line and drove all the way to the Atlanta 7-yard line before a pair of sacks brought up fourth down. The Patriots settled for a 33-yard field goal to pull within two scores (with two two-point conversions).
Both of the sacks on the drive came from defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who tied a Super Bowl record with the second one.
Atlanta 28, New England 12
The next series for Atlanta was a pure disaster. First, Coleman suffered an injury. Then, Ryan was strip-sacked by Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower. New England recovered the fumble already in field-goal range.
Dwight Freeney managed to sack Brady to start the ensuing series, but the sack only mattered in terms of time lost. A few plays later, Brady found Danny Amendola for a touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt was successful after a direct snap to White.
Suddenly, New England had momentum again in a one-score game.
Atlanta 28, New England 20
The Falcons started their next drive inside their own 10-yard line, but a busted play led to a 39-yard catch-and-run by Freeman. Just like that, the Falcons were at midfield and close to what might be a dagger field goal.
An incredible catch by Jones at the sideline set the Falcons up within range for that field goal. He toe-tapped the field just inside the line for a 27-yard completion. When it comes to great Super Bowl catches, we remember the scores, but this was one of the great ones.
Unfortunately for Jones, his heroic catch meant little. A 12-yard sack by Trey Flowers and a holding penalty knocked Atlanta out of field-goal range. Atlanta was forced to punt and to give Brady and Co. another shot with the football.
It's actually a bit puzzling the Falcons didn't simply run the ball inside field-goal range. They could have drained a lot more clock and added to their lead.
Even with a lot of pressure in his face, Brady drove the Patriots into Falcons territory, thanks in large part to an incredible catch by Edelman. Somehow, Edelman managed to pluck a tipped pass out of the air just before it hit the ground while in traffic.
A play later, the Patriots found themselves at the edge of the red zone and at the two-minute warning. The missed extra point from earlier in the game now loomed large.
White took the ball into the end zone with one minute remaining on the clock. A pass from Brady to Amendola made for a successful two-point play. Against all odds, the game was now tied.
Atlanta 28, New England 28
Ryan and the league's No. 1 offense took over with the ball at their own 11 and with 52 seconds remaining. The Falcons had no timeouts and had to weigh their options carefully. A miscue could easily allow the Patriots another shot with the football. A turnover here would be even worse.
After one first down, the Falcons were forced to punt.
New England got the ball back with three seconds left and enough time for a Hail Mary attempt. Instead, we got a fake kneel-down and the first overtime in Super Bowl history.
New England won the overtime coin toss and chose to receive. After a kneel-down on the kickoff, Brady and Co. started on their own 25.
Three quick plays and the Patriots offense was already into Atlanta territory. The Falcons defense, which spent the better part of the second half on the field, began to look truly fatigued for the first time all game.
The team that had looked so much better for the majority of four full quarters looked like it had just been rope-a-doped. No one is going to suggest head coach Bill Belichick or the Patriots planned things out this way, but New England now appeared to be the fresher team.
The Patriots definitely held all the momentum.
A few more plays plus a pass interference call against De'Vondre Campbell set the Patriots up with 1st-and-goal. White capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown run, and the Patriots earned the most unlikely win in Super Bowl history.
New England 34, Atlanta 28