The Debrief  

Intel Trueview  

The Debrief: How Patriots, Falcons get back to Super Bowl LII

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HOUSTON -- Before Tom Brady rewrote the history book one more time with the most improbable comeback in a most improbable career, herds of foolish sportswriters had their own rewriting to do.

"I'm sure at halftime you wrote your stories," said a grinning Logan Ryan on Sunday night, after the Patriots beat the Falcons 34-28 in overtime to win Super Bowl LI. "Then you had to select it, paste it, delete all and restart."

(Guilty.)

We should have known better. Fifteen years after Brady and Bill Belichick stunned the football world with one of the great upsets in Super Bowl history, they found the only situation possible where a four-time champion could confidently be called heavy underdogs: down 28-3 midway through the third quarter to one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. Facing long odds is a role that Brady has always relished, though the comeback didn't happen all at once.

The advanced metrics said the Falcons had a 99.6 percent chance when they took possession of the ball up 28-12 with 9:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, but it didn't take a statistician to know what would happen after the Patriots came all the way back to force overtime and win the coin toss.

"When we got to overtime, I basically untied my cleats and watched Tom like you guys did," Ryan said.

It will take time to process what took place in Houston on Sunday night. It doesn't take time to know that greatness was witnessed. To cement his place as the greatest quarterback of all time, Brady had to author the greatest comeback of all time. It's the type of too-perfect coda to a too-perfect career -- matched with a too-perfect dimple -- that even the cheesiest writer would have to delete.

How the Patriots adjusted

1) Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have five rings in large part because they are better at adjusting mid-game than any other player or coach. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia did a fantastic job in the second half, with Patricia giving credit after the game to his cornerbacks for providing valuable feedback. Patricia told me that he made second-half adjustments in the secondary, leaving Ryan and Malcolm Butler on an island while the team sent pressure.

"You can't sit back in zone coverage down 25 and think you are going to win a Super Bowl," Ryan said of the change. "If you ever played 'Madden,' we were in engage-8. Punt block -- send everyone and hope for the best."

2) One version of the deleted Falcons championship story on Sunday night focused on Julio Jones' ridiculous catch over Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe with under five minutes left. The catch put the Falcons in field-goal range with a chance to go up 11 and put the game out of reach. It looked like the crowning moment on an electric night by Jones.

Just two plays later, Matt Ryan made a crucial mistake by taking a sack. Defensive tackle Alan Branch described how that moment went down.

"We had a play called with a stunt called. Trey [Flowers] stepped up and said, 'Look, let me do the stunt.' He went in there and I covered him," Branch said.

"He likes to step up in the pocket, so anytime you can get inside pressure, it's huge," Flowers said.

Branch's ability to take up blockers has been an underappreciated factor to the Patriots' success all season. Flowers' emergence as a special pass rusher was on display all night, culminating in the biggest defensive play of the Patriots' season.

3) Falcons pass rusher Vic Beasley insisted that fatigue was not the issue for his defense despite the unit being on the field for 93 plays. He credited Brady's ability to adjust and throw the ball quickly.

"He kind of picked up on our game plan and started throwing quick passes," Beasley said.

The game told a different story. While Brady started to identify where pressure was coming from better, many of his big throws down the stretch were after deep drops. They took incredible timing, anticipation and trust in some of his receivers, like Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett. Those three players weren't even on the team last season, a testament to Brady's ability to coach up his receivers like few others.

Narratives that were busted

1) Big-name pass rushers aren't always necessary for a title in today's NFL. The Patriots won a Super Bowl with Flowers as their best defensive player. He finished Sunday's game with 2.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and five quarterback hits.

It's hard to overstate how improbable Flowers' rise has been. A fourth-round pick in 2015, he only played one game as a rookie because of injuries. He did much of his damage as an inside pass rusher despite being just 265 pounds.

"I saw the other side of it. My opportunity was seemingly fading away. It could have," Flowers said Sunday night, before shaking his head and praising God.

2) The Falcons' offense can be stopped. Or, at least, slowed down. Atlanta's offense only scored once on six second-half possessions, four of which lasted four plays or fewer.

A safer game plan, especially after Julio Jones' fourth-quarter catch, looks advisable in retrospect. But the Falcons didn't make it this far -- or lead the NFL in scoring during the regular season -- by being conservative. They just came up short at the biggest moment.

Super Bowl storylines that deserve attention

1) Dwight Freeney's spin move will live forever. But he proved prescient earlier this week when he bemoaned having to go up against Brady again and again on big stages. Freeney deserved a better fate Sunday night after beating Patriots left tackle Nate Solder snap after snap. Give Freeney an assist on cornerback Robert Alford's second-quarter pick-six for pressuring Brady and making him throw sooner than he wanted.

Freeney, perhaps the best pass rusher of his generation, could have ended his career on top -- like Hall of Famer Michael Strahan did -- with a second Super Bowl trophy. Instead, Freeney said after the game he's unsure if he'll retire.

2) James White said he had an idea that he was going to be a big part of the game plan in Super Bowl LI, but he didn't know how the game would play out. The running back finished with 139 yards from scrimmage, 14 catches and a game-winning touchdown in the end zone.

"I definitely thought I got in," White said about the decisive play. "You saw me running away!"

Leave it to Bill Belichick to roll with White while everyone expected LeGarrette Blount or Dion Lewis to dominate the backfield. White mostly struggled for two seasons after being drafted as a pass-catching back, but the Patriots stuck with him, coached him up, and now he's never going to buy a beer in Boston for the rest of his life.

3) Linebacker Dont'a Hightower has recorded two of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history, and neither will likely ever receive the recognition it deserves. Hightower made the tackle of Marshawn Lynch to set up Malcolm Butler's game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX. And he made the strip-sack of Ryan on Sunday night that keyed the Patriots' comeback.

What the Patriots need to do to get back to the Super Bowl

1) Replenish their defensive free agents: No team in the NFL has more key free agents than the Patriots. On their defense alone, key contributors like Hightower, Ryan, defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, defensive tackle Alan Branch and safety Duron Harmon could all get quality deals from other teams looking to bring "the Patriot Way" into their building. It's a dangerous situation, because New England's defense is lacking core difference-makers beyond Butler and Flowers.

As tight end Martellus Bennett put it: "I'm going into free agency as a Super Bowl champion. You know they overpay Super Bowl champions!"

Bill Belichick almost seems to relish reloading his roster every season with players on short-term contracts. With LeGarrette Blount also set to hit the market on offense, next year's Patriots team will be drastically different than the one that took the field at NRG Stadium on Sunday night. Strangely, that's how Belichick likes it. It makes it even easier for him to convince the 2017 team they are starting from scratch.

2) Get fair value for Jimmy Garoppolo: After a few separate successful fill-ins, Garoppolo has shown to be the most promising prospect the Patriots have ever had to back up Tom Brady. He's under contract next season, and the Patriots shouldn't bother to trade him and his two rings away unless they can acquire a bounty for him. They should look for a mid-to-high first-round pick and go from there. While Tom Brady wants to play another three to five years, retaining Garoppolo for another season has plenty of value, too. A lot can change in one year, especially with Brady turning 40 before the 2017 season.

3) Draft a pass rusher: It's remarkable how well the Patriots' defense played all season without much of a pass rush. After dealing away linebacker Chandler Jones last offseason, the team could desperately use an edge rusher.

What the Falcons need to do to get back to the Super Bowl

1) Find the right offensive coordinator: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that the Falcons might allow quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur out of his contract to join buddy Sean McVay in Los Angeles. Chip Kelly is believed to be a realistic candidate to take over in Atlanta if he keeps Kyle Shanahan's system, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. Shanahan, who is now the 49ers' head coach, earned his Assistant Coach of the Year award and will be very difficult to replace. But it would be ideal for the Falcons to find a coach who shares some of Shanahan's schematic concepts.

2) Improve bulk up front: Atlanta's young defense has great team speed, but it could still use more strength up front. Second-year player Grady Jarrett was a force Sunday night, and third-year pro Ra'Shede Hageman made strides late in the season, but the team needs more. Another edge rusher to pair with Vic Beasley would also be excellent for a team that doesn't need to touch its offense much.

3) Handle success: Devonta Freeman's contract request before Super Bowl week was only the beginning. The Falcons will have to manage the spoils of being on top better than last year's NFC South surprise Super Bowl team, the Panthers. The loss of Kyle Shanahan is the most obvious example of what can happen to winning teams, but the Falcons will have to get used to being the hunted -- and without the championship memories to make the process easier.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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