The first 50 Super Bowls were pretty good, but if Sunday is any indication of what’s to come in the next 50, the NFL should be charging twice as much for a 30-second ad.
You watched the game, you read the recaps and you checked Facebook, so you already know what happened in Super Bowl LI. America took a half-day from obsessing over world events to share in the viewing and discussing of Tom Brady, Lady Gaga, Julian Edelman’s “David Tyree in the upside down world” catch and the comeback. The New England Patriots were in the Super Bowl for the seventh time in the last 15 years, and for the seventh time, they partook in a show worth watching; even when they lose, fans of wildly-interesting football win.
While it didn’t really feel great to be rooting for the Patriots to complete a 25-point comeback over the Atlanta Falcons for so many reasons, who could quell their bloodthirst for drama when unbelievable moments kept popping up? Who wasn’t doing two-point conversion math in their head after Stephen Gostkowski missed the PAT? You don’t have to like New England, you don’t even have to respect them, but you have to acknowledge that their Super Bowls are really damn fun to watch.
Other teams, not so much.
With Brady and Bill Belichick, the absolute closest thing they’ve come to a blowout in the Super Bowl was the 24-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005. The Patriots needed last-second field goals to beat the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers, they needed a late touchdown and a goal-line interception to beat the Seattle Seahawks, they dropped a duplet of Super Bowls to the New York Giants in large thanks to historic catches, and they’ve topped it off with the first overtime and biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. And “topped it off” implies that there isn’t more to come, but of course there could be.
I can’t deny that if I don’t have a dog in the fight, it’s more than palatable to watch New England, because they deliver where so many other Super Bowls fail.
In the eight Super Bowls since 2001 in which the Patriots haven’t been a participant, the only great games were Steelers-Cardinals in 2009 and Ravens-49ers in 2013. If you ranked all of the last 15 Super Bowls on the basis of excitement, entertainment, historic value and quality, seven of the top nine would be Pats games, with Santonio Holmes incredible game-winning catch for Pittsburgh placing Super Bowl XLIII in the top three; not even the Harbowl in 2013 featured a single lead change between Baltimore and San Francisco. Wade through the chaff and you’ll find Rex Grossman, a 35-point victory by the Seahawks, Cam Newton’s postgame press conference and the Oakland Raiders.
Consider the delivery of Sunday’s contest that had plenty of hype to live up to.
The Patriots put up 546 yards of offense and had a Super Bowl record 37 first downs. That was just one of 11 single-game Super Bowl records set by New England, including most passing yards by a player (466 for Brady), most points for a player (James White, 20) and most catches by a player (White, 14). On a highlight-level basis, Edelman gave the NFL maybe the best play in the game’s history, Gostkowski kept things interesting in forcing the Patriots to go for two twice, which they did, successfully and New England went seven-of-eight on third down and converted a fourth-and-three that they were compelled to try in their own territory before the fourth quarter even started. They also ran the most plays ever in a Super Bowl with 93, more than double Atlanta’s 46, though the Falcons averaged 1.6 more yards per play than the Patriots did.
This is a good time to set a reminder that New England did all of this but still trailed 28-3 late in the third quarter.
The rich can’t get richer without making the poor poorer, and the city of Atlanta still finds themselves with only one championship in any of the four major sports. The Falcons probability to win the game reached levels that not even Nate Silver could have imagined thanks to so many things that are already forgotten, like Grady Jarrett’s three-sack performance, Julio Jones’ “Catch before The Catch,” Robert Alford’s pick-six, and a completely efficient, totally MVPish performance by Matt Ryan. The Patriots bring out the best in their opponents because the opponent knows that’s what is necessary, but unfortunately for Atlanta, their best was not enough.
But the Falcons will be back. Unlike some recent teams who came apart after losing the Super Bowl, Atlanta should be fine because all of their key players are under contract to return next season with the exception of Taylor Gabriel, who is a restricted free agent. They have some money to play with and could even afford to extend Ryan, as they’d like to do. Don’t get caught up in the debate that losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will disrupt a balance in the force, because it’s an overrated and circumstantial argument at best. The defense is going to get a lot better and the offense will take a step back, but only because it was historically good in 2016.
If they do make it back to the Super Bowl in a year, you know New England could be waiting again. It’s possible that only the Cleveland Browns and 49ers will have more cap space than the Patriots this year, Rob Gronkowski is coming back, and Brady’s “This Is 40” campaign will likely be more successful than Judd Apatow’s. Fans hopeful that New England’s dynasty would end soon saw a shimmering ray of hope in the middle of the third quarter on Sunday, but as White crossed the goal line for the last time, the reality set in again that this light wasn’t ready to be shut off. It doesn’t feel any better to write that sentence as it does to read it, I’m sure, but let’s also admit one thing about the Patriots: They put on one hell of a show.