Super Bowl LI left many people in disbelief. The Patriots’ comeback was unprecedented. Not only was this one of the most exciting Super Bowls of all time, it was one of the best games in NFL history. So how does a team orchestrate a Super Bowl comeback from a seemingly insurmountable deficit?
The Anatomy of a Super Bowl Comeback
When a team is attempting to come back from a twenty-five point deficit, they do not need to figure out how to score twenty-five points. They need to figure out how to score three to eight points enough times to get to or surpass twenty five points. To do this, the Patriots needed to score four times and not allow the Falcons to continue to score. In order to score four times, they needed to figure out how to possess the ball four times in the time remaining.
On their second drive of the third quarter the Patriots scored a touchdown but missed the extra point. The Patriots took nearly six and a half minutes off the clock on the drive and only seventeen minutes remained in the game. The Patriots were down by nineteen points and needed three possessions to come back. At that rate, the Patriots would likely only get the ball twice more. They needed to figure out how to create another possession so they attempted an onside kick.
Slowly Not Surely
Their onside kick attempt was unsuccessful, but their defense forced a punt and the Falcons took barely over two minutes off the clock. The Patriots got the ball back to begin the fourth quarter. This drive resulted in a field goal. Although a field goal was not the ideal outcome, it did cut the Falcons’ lead to sixteen points and it kept the Patriots on track to be able to tie the game in two possessions. Unfortunately, the Patriots took over five minutes off the clock on the drive.
Stealing another Possession
The Falcons’ next possession started with 9:44 left in regulation. To stay on track, the Patriots needed to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion before the clock hit 4:52 (half the score needed in half the time remaining). The Falcons were doing their part to secure the win, by running the ball on first and second down and letting the play clock run down before snapping it. On third and short the Falcons dropped back to pass and the Patriots found the extra possession they were looking for as Dont’a Hightower came up with a strip-sack.
The Falcons took less than a minute and a half off the clock on the drive and the Patriots got the ball back in scoring territory. The Patriots took roughly two and a half minutes to score and a two point conversion cut the Falcons lead to eight with just under six minutes to play.
The Falcons came out swinging in the next drive and quickly had a first down on the Patriot twenty-two yard line with 4:40 remaining in the game. The Falcons’ kicker Matt Bryant was nineteen of twenty this year from inside 39 yards. Given the situation, if the Patriots decided to use their timeouts, the Falcons would be able to make it a two possession game by kicking a field goal and run the clock down to just over four minutes. This would put the Patriots in a position where they would need to score fast and attempt an onside kick. If the Patriots did not use any of their timeouts, the Falcons could drain the clock to less than two and a half minutes without even getting a first down.
The Falcons ran the ball for a loss on first down. On second down, the Falcons chose to pass the ball and a Trey Flowers sack led to a loss of twelve. A holding penalty and an incomplete pass pushed the Falcons from the edge of Bryant’s range into punting territory on fourth down.
The Patriots got the ball back on their own nine yard line with three and a half minutes left to play and two timeouts and the rest is history. The Patriots were successful on the drive scoring both a touchdown and the game tying two-point conversion. The Falcons were not able to do anything with their final possession and the Patriots won in overtime.
The Patriots were able to accomplish their Super Bowl comeback by breaking a large task down into small pieces. They understood what they needed to do to accomplish their goal and focused on executing their comeback one play at a time.