Fair or unfair, for better or for worse, Super Bowls shape legacies. Often times, they define them.
1) Tom Brady
Brady owns the playoffs and big games. But Sunday night's effort was the next level of the highest level. While earning his record-setting fourth Super Bowl MVP, Brady passed for a Super Bowl-record 466 yards. But obviously, the story is the epic comeback Brady authored. Atlanta took a 28-3 lead with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter. Here is what Brady did from that point on:
26 of 33 for 284 yards and two touchdowns (against zero picks) -- good for a 122.7 quarterback rating. Oh, and for good measure, he converted a key third-and-8 with a 15-yard scramble.
Yep, that's how you spark the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Never hate. Always appreciate watching the best to ever do it -- and I'm not just talking about quarterbacking here.
Tom Brady is the best football player to ever play the game. We're beyond best quarterback ever. Nobody has enjoyed a more decorated career. Sorry, Jerry Rice.
2) Bill Belichick
Like with Brady, I've argued for years that Belichick is the best to ever do what he does. Thus, Sunday's outcome didn't matter on that front. Regardless of the outcome, I always would've come out of that game thinking the same thing: Bill Belichick is the best coach in football history.
But Sunday's comeback win for the ages solidifies this statement: Bill Belichick is the best coach in sports history.
To me, what sets Belichick's next-level greatness apart is the maintained domination in a salary-cap league hell-bent on fostering competitive balance. Belichick's Patriots have won eight straight division titles (13 of the past 14) and participated in the past six AFC title games. These are feats that will never be duplicated in NFL history. It speaks to Belichick's coaching and preparation. Consider how things transpired in New England this year: Brady missed the first four games of the season due to suspension (a wrongful suspension, if you ask me), Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins was traded in late October and Rob Gronkowski went on injured reserve in early December. The season's result: The Patriots go 14-2 and win the Super Bowl.
Belichick's the best ever. In any sport.
3) Kyle Shanahan
Look, I love this cat. I love the hire by the San Francisco 49ers. I gave Shanahan my AP vote for Assistant Coach of the Year, an award he won. He should've been a head coach years ago. He's brilliant at building a scheme to maximize the quarterback, from Matt Schaub to Robert Griffin III to Matt Ryan.
But now, there's a Super Bowl LI taint. After going up 28-3, the Falcons proceeded to run the ball a grand total of five times. Most alarmingly, after Julio Jones' amazing catch put Atlanta on the Patriots' 22-yard line with 4:38 remaining and an opportunity to retake a two-score lead, Shanahan passed the ball. And Atlanta kept going backward.
You run the ball! You run the ball!! You run the ball!!! Control the clock -- it's your friend! Atlanta's approach was unfathomable. It defied logic, math, sports, time, score, probability, statistics, down and distance.
Of course, Shanahan's play-calling here backfired. Atlanta fell out of field-goal range after a sack and a holding penalty. The Patriots took over and, of course, sent the game to overtime.
It was a critical and crazy error. And it gave New England a chance. That's how you collapse in the Super Bowl. And that stays with Kyle Shanahan.
4) Matt Ryan
Ryan's passer rating was perfect for a long stretch of time on Sunday, and while he deserved a much better fate, the Falcons' final four drives went PUNT, RYAN FUMBLE, PUNT, PUNT. That turnover -- Ryan's first since the Eric Berry "pick-two" loss in Week 13 -- was gigantic. Dont'a Hightower's strip-sack midway through the fourth quarter was one of the biggest plays and momentum swings in the game, giving New England new life.
If Ryan had won the Super Bowl, we would be having the conversation about where his 2016 ranks among all-time QB seasons, considering the MVP award, gaudy stats and top-ranked offense. While Ryan had a career year and was dominant, the collapse really hurts him in the court of public opinion -- it prevents him from entering that next level of quarterbacking. And a Lombardi Trophy could've put him in the Hall of Fame discussion down the line.
5) Julian Edelman
And given the circumstances -- late in the fourth quarter, on a game-tying drive -- it'll go down as one of the most clutch grabs in Super Bowl history. We'll be seeing that in highlight reels for years to come. And Edelman won't have to buy a beer in New England ever again.
6) Robert Kraft
Kraft has set up the best organization in the NFL, allowing Bill Belichick and his football people to establish the culture. One of the most wonderful and influential owners in sports today, Kraft is the patriarch of "the Patriot Way." And he's also a future Hall of Famer.
7) James White
White became a part of Patriots lore on Sunday -- his extraordinary effort entrenches him as a fan favorite for life.
8) Grady Jarrett
You almost have to jog the mental rolodex to remember the Falcons dominated the first three quarters of the Super Bowl, holding the mighty Patriots to just nine points through 45 game minutes. And Jarrett was en route to being Super Bowl MVP, bulldozing the Patriots offensive line and sacking Brady three times. Jarrett was seemingly in the backfield as much as Brady.
Jarrett made a name for himself on the sport's biggest stage. Could this be a sign of big things to come in Year 3?
9) Dan Quinn
Maybe it's not fair, but he's the head coach of the team that blew the largest lead in Super Bowl history. And after the game, he lamented the team running out of gas (while a 39-year-old Brady led a comeback).
This kind of loss sticks to the ribs for any coach. Not to mention, Quinn could've entered the exclusive club of Super Bowl-winning head coaches in just his second year at the helm in Atlanta. What could've been ...