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Patriots erase deficit, defeat Falcons in Super Bowl LI

HOUSTON -- The greatest quarterback of all time capped off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, leading an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession of the first Super Bowl overtime. Here's what we learned in the New England Patriots' 34-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI:

  1. After throwing a second-quarter pick-six to put his team in a seemingly insurmountable 21-0 hole, Tom Brady bounced back in the most dramatic fashion possible, earning Super Bowl MVP honors for an unprecedented fourth time. En route to a Super Bowl-record 466 passing yards, Brady erased a 25-point second-half deficit by orchestrating four touchdown drives and a field goal in New England's final five series. Thumbing his nose at Father Time in the last game of his thirties, Brady completed 26 of 33 passes (78.7 percent) for 284 yards (8.6 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and a 122.7 passer rating on those five legacy-cementing possessions from the middle of the third quarter through James White's game-ending touchdown run.

"There were a lot of plays," Brady told Fox Sports' Terry Bradshaw during the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy. "Coach talks about how you never know which play it's going to be in the Super Bowl. There were probably 30 of them tonight. Any one of those would have been different, the outcome would have been different."

  1. If the quarterback position wasn't the most uniquely important in all of professional sports, White would have been the runaway choice as MVP. The shifty scatback authored the most brilliant performance of his career on the game's brightest stage, hauling in a Super Bowl-record 14 receptions for 110 yards while adding three touchdowns and a clutch two-point conversion. From Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen and, now, to White, no quarterback utilizes pass-catching "satellite" backs to greater effect than Brady.
  1. Nine years later, the Patriots extracted a decent payback for David Tyree's miraculous "Helmet Catch," instrumental in the Giants' Super Bowl XLII upset. Facing an eight-point deficit with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, Brady unfurled an ill-advised pass over the middle into double coverage. Although the ball was tipped by Robert Alford as two other defenders arrived, the cornerback's leg prevented it from falling incomplete. Julian Edelman plucked the ball off of Alford's ankle, bobbled it for a second and somehow hung on without allowing it to hit the turf. Edelman's "Ankle Catch" is New England's answer to the circus-catch antics of Tyree and Seahawks wideout Jermaine Kearse.

"I couldn't believe it," Brady said after the game. "One of the greatest catches. You know we've been on the other end of a few of those catches."

  1. If the prolate spheroid had bounced differently in the second half, the Falcons could have turned Super Bowl LI into a lopsided laugher. Reminiscent of the Seahawks' lopsided Super Bowl XLVIII victory, when Dan Quinn's Seattle defense dominated Denver's record-breaking offense, the Falcons simply outclassed the Patriots in terms of speed and athleticism for the first 40 minutes of Sunday's ultimate affair. Atlanta jumped out to a forbidding 28-3 lead, with fleet-footed middle linebacker Deion Jones setting the tone as a true sideline-to-sideline force on defense and big-play tailback Devonta Freeman shredding New England's defense on the other side of the ball.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff cut his teeth in the Patriots' front office, learning how to construct a successful organization from team-building master Bill Belichick. When Dimitroff was afforded the chance to run his own operation in Atlanta, he parted ways with his mentor in one key area: Whereas Belichick emphasized size and power, Dimitroff coined the phrase "urgent athleticism" to describe his own draft philosophy. That difference played out in stark terms for one half at NRG Stadium on Sunday evening. Despite the heartbreaking loss, the talented young roster compiled by Dimitroff, Quinn and assistant GM Scott Pioli is poised to remain an NFC powerhouse for the next few years.

  1. That said, Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will battle persistent nightmares over an ultimately decisive sequence in the middle of the fourth quarter. After Julio Jones tight-roped the sideline for one of the most acrobatic catches in postseason history, the Falcons simply had to call three straight runs that would have forced the Patriots to use their timeouts. They would then have the opportunity for a field-goal attempt of roughly 40 yards, extending the lead to 31-20 with less than four minutes remaining. Instead, Trey Flowers sacked Matt Ryan for a third time, turning a three-point opportunity into a punting situation. It's hard to crush play-callers for remaining aggressive, but this was a costly miscalculation for the Falcons.
  1. Atlanta's epic second-half collapse will effectively circumvent wall-to-wall post-Super Bowl coverage of an offense that ranks among the greatest in NFL history. Had the Falcons held on for the win, they would have recorded the most points in a season by a Super Bowl champion, featuring an MVP quarterback fresh off the hottest playoff streak of all time. Extending his own record of 120-plus passer ratings to seven games, Ryan finished the postseason completing 70 of 98 passes (71.4) for 1,014 yards (10.4 YPA), nine touchdowns and a staggering 135.3 passer rating. His eight completions of 15 or more yards tied Carolina's Jake Delhomme (Super Bowl XXXVIII, also in Houston versus the Patriots) for the most in one Super Bowl game.

Considering the inflated, offense-friendly environment in which they shined, the 2016 Falcons won't quite stack up to the era-adjusted dominance of the 2007 Patriots, 2000 Rams, 1998 Vikings, 1994 49ers, 1983 Redskins and 1950 Rams.

  1. When Julio Jones' Hall of Fame bust is unveiled in Canton 10-15 years from now, they will run a loop of highlights from his spectacular 2017 postseason run, played through a painful toe injury. Double- and even triple-teamed at times, Jones made the most of his four targets, hauling in all four for 87 yards. His balletic, leaping sideline grab over Eric Rowe is perhaps the best example of aerial acrobatics since the Flying Wallendas made big-top magic -- or at least since Lynn Swann's sensational Super Bowl X leap.
  1. Flowers, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Chris Long were the standouts for a Patriots defense that buckled down in the second half. After going 20 consecutive possessions without a three-and-out sequence this postseason, the Falcons were forced into a pair of quick punts twice in three third-quarter sequences as New England chipped away at the lead. Hightower hit Ryan's arm in motion, forcing and recovering a fumble that put the ball in Brady's hands at Atlanta's 25-yard line. Brady found Danny Amendola on a 6-yard touchdown pass five plays later, trimming the lead to one score in the middle of the fourth quarter.
  1. Dwight Freeney isn't ready to make a decision on retirement after a fantastic performance in which he and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett dominated the Patriots' offensive line for three quarters. "I don't know what the story will be for me after this," Freeney told reporters after the game. "I don't know if I'll return next year." Freeney, 36, is no stranger to languishing on the open market until he finds the right fit with a Super Bowl contender.
  1. Further evidence that the opening frame of the Super Bowl is a one-game outlier, governed by nerves and anxiety to a greater degree: For the seventh time in seven Super Bowl appearances under Belichick and Brady, the Patriots failed to score in the first quarter. In a similar vein, the Falcons' record-setting streak of eight consecutive games with an opening-drive touchdown was halted when Flowers sacked Ryan on third down. The two teams were ranked first and second in first-quarter scoring during the regular season.
  1. Further evidence that change happens quickly in the NFL: One year after the Broncos' swarming defense carried a limping offense through the postseason, one of the themes of the 2016 season played out again in Super Bowl LI. Whether it was the Ravens, Texans, Giants, Seahawks or Patriots, the top-ranked defenses couldn't handle the highest-octane aerial attacks. Atlanta averaged a whopping 7.5 yards per play against New England's No. 1 scoring defense, but ran only 46 plays compared to the Patriots' 93. Will that trend reverse itself in 2017?
  1. Belichick and Brady earned their fifth Super Bowl rings, the most by any coach-quarterback tandem in history. If Brady has separated from the pack in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks, Belichick can certainly claim to be the greatest head coach in the most sophisticated era of NFL football.

Don't miss: Live coverage of the Patriots' Super Bowl LI victory parade starts at 10 a.m. ET Tuesday on NFL Network.

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