It's not how Super Bowls start. It's how they finish.
Super Bowl LI kicked off at 6:38 p.m. ET, and for three hours—Lady Gaga notwithstanding—it was a dud. Despite the fact the game contained two of the league's best offenses, the first quarter was scoreless. The second quarter was dominated by the Atlanta Falcons, who eventually jumped out to a 28-3 third-quarter lead over the lifeless New England Patriots.
This thing was a write-off. Donald Trump left his own Super Bowl party, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell. The blowout was derided on Twitter.
It felt like one of those midseason Thursday night games in which one team hadn't shown up. When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wasn't taking sacks or missing wide-open receivers, said receivers were dropping important throws. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a perfect passer rating for three quarters, barely having to break a sweat.
Even when the Patriots finally scored their first touchdown of the night with 2:06 remaining in the third quarter, this didn't feel like a competitive football game—especially when kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the ensuing extra point and when they gave Atlanta great field position on the ensuing onside kick.
New England got the ball back and moved into the red zone early in the fourth quarter, but Brady took a sack on third down, and the Pats had to settle for a field goal down 19. Cutting it to 16 made it a two-score game, but there were few indications history would be made. Nobody had ever come back from a deficit of more than 10 points in the Super Bowl, and it didn't feel as though this game had that in it. The Falcons were dominant, and the Patriots faced too large a deficit against such a stout opponent.
Again, three relatively mundane hours, saved only by Gaga at halftime. And then, at 9:38 p.m. ET, exactly three hours after kickoff, everything changed.
That's when Ryan—the 2016 NFL MVP and a man who had gone two months without turning the ball over—took a shotgun snap on a 3rd-and-1 from his own 36-yard line. His running back, Devonta Freeman, failed to pick up blitzing Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Ryan also failed to see him until it was too late. Strip-sack, recovered by New England's Alan Branch.
Five plays and five real-time minutes later, the Patriots were in the end zone. Two-point conversion at 9:43 p.m. ET, and it's a one-score game.
The Patriots weren't ready to die, even after wide receiver Julio Jones made an unbelievable, Tyree/Manningham-esque sideline catch to put Atlanta into field-goal range with less than five minutes to play.
The Jones catch felt like the clincher. It looked like it'd be the iconic play we'd all remember Super Bowl LI for. "It wasn't a very good game," future Brad Gagnon would say in 2025, "but the Patriots made it interesting before Jones made that incredible catch."
The Falcons lost yardage on each of their next three snaps: one-yard loss on a run, 12-yard sack, 10-yard offensive holding penalty. The sack, which Ryan never should have let happen, was a killer. The penalty moved them out of field-goal range, and an incomplete pass on third down gave New England the ball back on a punt with three-and-a-half minutes to play.
The Falcons left the door open a crack for the most decorated quarterback in NFL history, and it cost them. Brady completed six of nine passes for 90 yards on a 91-yard touchdown drive. One of those completions was as silly and improbable as Tyree's nine-year-old circus grab. Julian Edelman for 23 yards, with no room for error on a ricochet, and with help from the shoes of an Atlanta defender.
A two-point conversion tied the game with 57 seconds remaining.
The comeback began with a James White touchdown at 9:06 p.m. ET. It was complete with Danny Amendola's two-point conversion at 10:06 p.m. ET.
A 25-point lead gone in exactly an hour.
Overtime. The Patriots won the coin toss at 10:16 p.m. ET. In their minds, the now-lifeless Falcons were halfway to George Bush Intercontinental Airport. We all knew poor Ryan and Co. would never get the ball back. Eight New England plays and nine minutes later, at 10:25 p.m. ET, the Patriots were Super Bowl champions on a walk-off White touchdown, completing the second-largest comeback in the NFL this century.
|Largest comebacks in NFL history|
|Patriots||Falcons||25||2016 Super Bowl|
|Pro Football Reference|
One hour and 20 minutes from 28-3 Atlanta to 34-28 New England. The most monumental momentum shift in the history of professional football. Only 47 minutes elapsed between Ryan's turning-point fumble and White's two-yard, game-winning touchdown. The best 47 minutes in Patriots history, the worst 47 in Falcons history.
Twitter burned for all 47.
Step back and consider just what happened between 9 and 10:30 p.m. ET on Sunday night. David was digging Goliath's grave, but Atlanta's long-overdue football fairy tale became an episode of Black Mirror.
We just witnessed the fifth-largest comeback in the history of the sport. For that to happen in the final 18 minutes of a freakin' Super Bowl—for it to happen in a championship matchup between the most accomplished dynasty in league history and a franchise still without a title—is practically unfathomable.
Throw in the awkward tension stemming from Deflategate, and this had it all.
A great game usually needs to be close, and this was the first Super Bowl ever to go to overtime. Can't get closer than that.
A great game usually requires a big comeback. The larger the comeback, the more special the game usually is. And this comeback was one-and-a-half times larger than the previous largest in Super Bowl history.
A great game requires a signature play or two. This one had at least three: White's I-refuse-to-be-denied walk-off touchdown is instant history, but let's not forget that two of the most outrageous catches of all time took place in a 10-minute span late in the fourth quarter.
And a great game requires heroes. Had Atlanta won, Ryan would have put the cherry on top of an MVP campaign with his 144.1 Super Bowl passer rating. The guy completed all but six of his 23 passes, but he might not have been MVP because Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett tied a Super Bowl record with three sacks.
But with New England winning, Brady is the prototypical hero. He had a record 43 completions for a record 466 yards, winning a record fifth Super Bowl ring among quarterbacks. And with 139 yards on 20 touches and three touchdowns, White qualifies as a hero too.
It also helps if a game is novel. The Falcons lost despite scoring on a defensive interception and despite dominating for three quarters. The Patriots won despite that already-famous deficit and the fact they were held scoreless for almost the entire first half.
You kidding me?
Like art, football is—to an extent—subjective. And it's personal for many. There's no unassailable formula we can use to determine which games are or aren't great. But you know it when you see it.
We didn't see it for three hours Sunday night, and then we did. Falcons fans wish they hadn't, but even they—once the shock has worn off—should be capable of acknowledging this was one of the greatest games in football history, let alone Super Bowl history.
Try to find me a game with as many of the key ingredients as Super Bowl LI. You won't.
Super Bowl XXV (Giants 20, Bills 19) was technically closer, and an upset to boot. But there was no comeback there. Super Bowl XLIX (Patriots 28, Seahawks 24) was a thriller, and a comeback victory for New England to boot. But that game's most memorable play was a goal-line gaffe from Seattle. Super Bowl XLII (Giants 17, Patriots 14) was a huge upset and had Manning-to-Tyree, but it didn't have close to as much action and wasn't a big comeback.
Just ask NFL.com senior analyst and former Cowboys VP of player personnel Gil Brandt, who until Sunday night had Super Bowl XIII (Steelers 35, Cowboys 31) ranked atop his list.
No argument here, although my 9 p.m. ET self would find that hard to believe.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.