The real reason the Patriots beat the Falcons?

The Patriots had a 0.4% chance of winning after being down 28-3 in the 3d quarter. Many improbable events had to transpire for the Pats to win, but one big question was why the Falcons stopped running the ball to run down the clock, especially when they only needed only a yard or two. I have not seen anyone else offer this explanation: The NFL’s best center Alex Mack, the third most important player on the Falcons, was playing on a broken leg. He was shot up with enough pain-killers to make it through the first half, but the Super Bowl is almost double the length of a regular game, and apparently you can’t use those pain killers twice in one day. The Falcons rely on Mack to call the blocking schemes, letting QB Ryan focus on calling the plays and routes. The Falcons’ mistake was being overly reliant on Mack and not having a quarterback or a backup center who could take over Mack’s blocking calls. Their other mistakes cascaded from this basic weakness in their offensive line. To the Falcons’ credit, I have not seen anyone blame Mack or his injury.

Throughout the game, the Falcons avoided running the ball up the middle (near Mack). Many of their runs for negative yards or short yards were near the center/guard. In the 2d half, the Falcons ran the ball only 9 times for 15 yards, and almost entirely off-tackle (away from Mack).

 The Pats moved their best linebacker, Dante Hightower, away from the “Mike” (middle) to the edge because, I think, they knew the Falcons could run up the middle. That move enabled the key play on defense: Hightower’s blitz from the edge that produced a strip sack and five plays later, a TD. That pass was remarkably on 3d and 1 with 8 minutes left. And yet the Falcons didn’t run. Hightower was playing the run from the edge, but when Ryan dropped back, he blitzed. It seems crazy to pass at that point in the game, unless you cannot run the ball for short yardage.

Then, needing only a field goal to seal the game with 4 minutes left from the Pats’ 23 yard line, the Falcons tried to run on 1st down. Freeman has to run to the left side (again avoiding the middle) and gets dropped for a loss. On 2d and 11, the Falcons are still in FG range, but Ryan drops back and gets sacked for a 12 yard loss. That’s mostly Ryan’s fault for taking a deep drop and a sack, but it was also Trey Flowers plowing through Mack up the middle for the sack. Then there was a critical offensive holding, as the offensive line was breaking down in the 4th quarter. 

It is amazing that Mack played at all on a broken leg. But I wonder if the blame needs to focus on an NFL culture of demanding players to play when hurt — a macho badge of courage for Mack? A fear of being considered soft? A coaching staff too stubborn to see a problem and too dismissive of player safety? 

One final point: the legend of Patriots’ comebacks has intimidated teams into playing too aggressively at the end of games and making odd play calls. The Falcons passed at the end of the game. Did they decide not to play for a field goal and an 11 point lead with 3 minutes left because they thought Brady could score twice?  The Seahawks made a similar mistake two years ago. They ran the clock down while at the 5 yard line to prevent Brady from getting the ball back with a minute left. The clock meant that the Seahawks needed to pass once in order to run four plays. They passed on 2d down from the 1, instead of running Lynch… and thus, the fateful Butler interception.

One last thought: is anyone organizing a rally or parade for the true patriots, the Pats boycotting Trump?  Marty Bennett, McCourty, Chris Long, Blount, Branch, maybe James White (the Super Bowl co-MVP)?

Author: Jed Shugerman

Legal historian at Fordham Law School, teaching Torts, Administrative Law, and Constitutional History. JD/PhD in History, Yale. Red Sox and Celtics fan, youth soccer coach. Author of "The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America" (2012) on the rise of judicial elections in America. I filed an amicus brief in the Emoluments litigation against Trump along with a great team of historians. I'm working on "The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians," a history of prosecutors and political ambition (a cause of mass incarceration), and "The Imaginary Unitary Executive," on the myths and history of presidential power in America.

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