Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Patriots' Comeback Wasn't (Quite) As Unexpected As You Think It Was

This is Tom Brady. Tom Brady is good at football. Look at Tom be good at football.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

I'll be up front - I'm still not totally prepared to talk about this game rationally. There's a 40% chance that I died on Sunday night and this is just the afterlife that I've chosen for myself (and it just happens to be remarkably similar to the life I was living previously - right down to the ongoing recovery from a recent surgery).

That being said, I feel like everything I've heard and read about the Super Bowl over the last day-plus has been expressing abject incredulity that the Patriots were able to mount a comeback. I'm here to present a few loose, scattered thoughts that hopefully apply some degree of logic to how and why it happened.

1. Don't forget - this game was tied 0-0 after the first quarter. In fact, through the first five drives of the game (the first quarter, plus the New England drive that bled over into the second quarter), the Patriots had 103 total yards of offense (34.3 yards per drive), the Falcons had 56 yards (28 yards per drive).

2. Yes, the second quarter was incredibly lopsided. On the scoreboard. But that's it. If this time, you count that New England drive that straddled the first and second quarters towards second period numbers, the Patriots had three drives of over 50 yards each (157 yards total) that amounted to a total of three points. The Falcons had two drives (totaling 163 yards) that went for touchdowns, plus a pick-six.

2b. Just, for the sake of a hypothetical, let's assume that Blount doesn't fumble the ball at the end of that second-quarter drive, and that Robert Alford sees that interception slip out of his hands. And let's be very conservative and say that the Patriots settle for field goals at the end of each of those drives. In this hypothetical, the Falcons go into halftime leading 14-9, not 21-3. If the Patriots had punched both of those drives in for touchdowns? It's 17-14 Patriots at halftime. And your yardage totals at the end of the first half? New England 215, Atlanta 189. Does a comeback seem so improbable now?

3. Even despite New England out-gaining Atlanta in the first half, there was an impression that the New England offense was sputtering and Atlanta's offense was on fire. I'm just not sure I buy that, especially considering most of New England's struggles in the first half involved (obviously) turnovers and (less obviously) dropped passes and Brady being less than precise on a few throws even when he wasn't under pressure. Which of those things were people expecting to continue in the second half?

4. The Patriots dominated time of possession in the first half - 19 minutes and change to 11 minutes and change (again, had a lot to do with all of Atlanta's scoring drives coming in under two minutes), and ran more than twice as many plays as Atlanta did (42 to 19). That's a trend that conceivably could have continued, considering, you know, Atlanta's offense is built on explosiveness and New England's is based on grinding out long touchdown drives. If that trend continued in the second half (which obviously bore itself out), Atlanta's defense was going to be gassed come the fourth quarter.

5. Both teams forced a turnover that led to a quick score (Atlanta's pick-six, New England forcing a Matt Ryan fumble), and both teams had (effectively) forced a turnover backed up in their own territory on a drive that otherwise almost certainly would have led to points (Atlanta forcing a Blount fumble, New England picking up a sack and a holding penalty to push Atlanta out of field goal range). All things considered, both teams had two "turnovers," both teams cashed in their turnovers for touchdowns, and all of these breaks were equally likely (or, more specifically, unlikely). It just so happens that the breaks that favored New England happened to be at higher-leverage moments in the game, and the breaks that favored Atlanta happened earlier in the game, leaving enough time for New England to rally.

6. People have talked about Atlanta's play-calling "blunders," but I'm not totally seeing them either. The only questionable moment was on 2nd-and-11, with 3:56 remaining (two plays after the ridiculous Julio Jones catch). They were at the New England 23, and a run would have either (a) chewed 30+ seconds, or (b) forced New England to take a timeout. But consider the following - Atlanta's running game had been absolutely shut down in the second half, even more so once Tevin Coleman and right tackle Ryan Schraeder left with injuries and the Patriots subbed Elandon Roberts into their nickel package, and they had just been stuffed on first down following the Jones catch. You're way more likely to surrender a sack (or worse, a turnover) on a 3rd-and-long, obvious passing situation than on 2nd-and-11. I'm not saying that passing was decidedly the right call, but I can totally see the logic. It obviously wasn't the perfect sequence of play calls (considering it didn't work), but hindsight is always 20-20, and ignoring the remaining context leaves a lot left out.

Here's the takeaway that I would like for you to have. The comeback was amazing. It was unprecedented. But it wasn't inexplicable. For the first three-plus quarters, the game was way, way closer than anybody was talking about. And anybody that's followed the Patriots at even a passing level over the last two decades who said "I can't believe the Patriots are mounting a comeback right now" is absolutely full of crap.

Was I expecting the Patriots to come back to win? I mean, not really. But the only thing more ridiculous than saying that the Patriots would definitely win is saying they would definitely lose. I was confident that the Patriots would get back within semi-reasonable striking distance (which they did), and from there would have a semi-reasonable chance to have a semi-reasonable chance of pulling even (which they did), and from there would have coin-flip odds of winning in overtime (which they did).

Just saying. Or maybe I've just taken too many painkillers over the last week and my brain is fried. Whatever. I enjoyed the game. Sue me.

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