Monday, February 06, 2017

Hey, I Got the 34 Points Right.

One man's miracle comeback is another man's historic disgrace of a choke and both men are right. That sentence is the story of Super Bowl LI.

All chokes in every sport are someone else's comeback and vice versa, something that first came to me during the 1986 World Series. Here in Boston it was "One Strike Away." In the New York metro area, it was "Mets Do It Again." The dynamic is no different in 2017. What's being celebrated in New England as a crowning achievement of the NFL's greatest dynasty is being condemned everywhere else as an unspeakable Falcons' collapse of body, mind and spirit, almost a rejection of victory by the losers.

It cannot be stressed enough that each of these assessments are accurate, accurate but incomplete. Every legendary comeback game or series of games in team sports is at bottom a murder-suicide pact. The comebackers must generate an unbroken string of feats of derring-do. But the losers must also cooperate in their own demise, or the comeback fails.

The Falcons' sins of omission and commission down the stretch are already legends. With a 28-3 lead well into the third quarter, Atlanta ran the ball on offense exactly five more times. They couldn't get a first down after recovering an onside kick. Unforgivably, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose welcome in 49erland will be less enthusiastic that it might have been, called two pass plays on 2nd and long from the Patriots' 22, leading by eight with four minutes to play, when a field goal would make it a two-score game. Result: Two sacks, one holding penalty, one punt, one lost NFL championship. When will coaches learn that there's such a thing as too much imagination?

The Falcons' defense didn't choke, it just ran out of gas. Speed may kill, but speed is also very hard work, especially speed pass rushing. It leads to lost steps, and in Atlanta's case, the loss of their entire defensive rationale. By the overtime, those poor 11 guys were rubber-legged boxers without ropes to lean against.  

So choke it is. But miracle it is to. Julian Edelman's catch had nothing to do with Atlanta at all. Nor did James White's performance, when at times he WAS the Patriots' offense, nor the improvement of New England's offensive and defensive lines in the fourth quarter. That was all on them. That is why they are champions, past and present.

Most of all, of course, Tom Brady's ability to regroup from what had been a very poor game while absorbing one of the worst physical beatings of his career to become an unstoppable force in the final 20 minutes was all him (well, that and getting some blocking). One mark of the true greats is their belief that failures are aberrations, flukes than can be erased by simply going out and trying again. Brady has that quality as much or more than any of his very few sporting peers. Without that, the Falcons could've punted on first down on every fourth quarter possession and the Pats would've lost anyway.

Comebacks look inevitable in retrospect. In real time, they are the messiest of affairs, a vortex of chaos from which the winners suck energy as the losers are sucked into its maw. The Patriots are winners and champions. They deserve all the celebration that comes their way.

But they had help, from the most unwilling of helpers. Ignoring the Falcons' collapse doesn't make the Pats' feat more impressive, it just presses three dimensional reality into a flat two-dimensional falsehood.

Amazing comebacks are best thought of as the ultimate team accomplishment, because it takes two teams to make them happen.


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