Perry's Super Bowl Report Card: Pats ace final test
Go ahead and stop Patriots players after they run the hills behind the Gillette Stadium practice fields at training camp. Ask them about what they'd just been ordered to do. You'll see eye-rolls. You'll hear expletives. You'll even sense a touch of nervousness, as if talking about the hills might anger those heaps of turf the next time they meet.
The Patriots emphasize conditioning year-round, and though they usually dial back the hill runs late in seasons when players are sometimes limping to the finish, they hit the hills in their final week of practice before taking off for Houston.
The ability to be "comfortable being uncomfortable" as Danny Amendola once put it, something hill runs help to reinforce, played a significant role in the Patriots recording the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Yes, they adapted their scheme. Yes, they won one-on-one matchups. Yes, they executed. But part of the reason they were able to do all those things was because they had the wind to do them. In the end, Atlanta didn't.
That's why, despite grading out poorly in several spots for much of the game, the Patriots returned to New England with their fifth Lombardi Trophy.
The game declared itself early for the Patriots offense. It was a Cover 1 game, Bill Belichick explained to ESPN immediately afterward. Single-high free safety. Man-to-man. It was different than the Cover 3 and Cover 6 zone looks they'd been expecting, and with extra attention paid to Julian Edelman in the middle of the field, it meant they'd have to go away from what had been their bread and butter for much of the year. Until they found their footing, Atlanta's speed made them look like they were stuck in first gear. They turned it over twice, they couldn't run between the tackles, and Tom Brady found himself on his back more often than he would've liked. The reason the grade is as high as it is? Once the Patriots spread things out, sped things up on the Falcons, and began to hit throws to the outside -- with their receivers winning their matchups and Brady making pinpoint passes -- they were able to establish a rhythm, and they ran Dan Quinn's defense right off the field. Because of their adjustments, their resilience after taking a beating, and their execution in critical situations -- red zone, hurry-up, gotta-have-it third (and fourth) downs and two-point plays were all near flawless late -- they ended up with honors.
The wheels came off in the second quarter for Brady. After going 6-for-8 for 68 yards in the first, he looked rattled after being hit and having Edelman taken away. His low point came when he he didn't see Robert Alford reading his eyes and hit the Falcons corner for a pick-six. Brady's slide continued at the end of the first half when he missed Edelman deep down the right side from a clean pocket. He later missed Chris Hogan by three yards on a quick-hitting throw to the right, and missed him again when both Hogan and James White ran shallow crossing routes. Brady hit White, but Hogan was wide open in front of White and was primed to turn up-the-field for a longer gain. Brady later threw behind Edelman near the goal line on a pass that was broken up. The Patriots picked up a field goal on the drive to make it 21-3, but it was clear that Brady would have to clean things up in order for the Patriots to come back. He did. And then some. His throws in the fourth quarter and overtime -- particularly comebacks to Malcolm Mitchell and Hogan, zone-beaters to James White short over the middle, a fourth-down completion to Amendola in the third, and a third-and-10 dime to Hogan to spark the game-tying drive -- were all right on the money. What also shouldn't be lost among all Brady's strikes was his 15-yard scramble on third-and-eight with just under five minutes remaining in the third. That drive ended with James White's first of three touchdowns. Brady got away with near picks -- another to Alford that led to Edelman's circus catch and one to Vic Beasley in coverage of Martellus Bennett in the end zone in overtime -- but everything seemed to go his way after getting through his early struggles.
RUNNING BACK: B+
James White deserves an 'A' and could have easily been named MVP had his quarterback not broken most Super Bowl passing records in the game. He was certainly the most consistent offensive player in the game for Bill Belichick's club. Not only did he set a record of his own with 14 catches for 110 yards, but he was effective in blitz pickup -- that aforementioned dime to Hogan doesn't happen without White's pickup of Brian Poole -- and he ran hard in short-yardage situations. White has long been critiqued for his inability to run through contact, but in overtime he was hit by Ricardo Allen at the two-yard line and plowed into the end zone for the game-winning score. LeGarrette Blount -- usually the short-yardage choice -- was phased out when it was clear that Atlanta's speed up front made it difficult for him to get into the second level with any momentum. Seven of his 11 carries went for two yards or less, and his fumble was very nearly a back-breaker. Dion Lewis averaged over four yards per carry. but had three carries for two yards or fewer and had one drop. His hamstring bothered him early in the game, which limited his usage and may have explained his array of slow spin moves near the line of scrimmage as opposed to the explosive jump-cuts he normally goes to when looking for space. The hamstring really grabbed on him when he took the fake kneel-down hand-off and ran toward the Patriots sideline. Had he remained healthy throughout, he may have seen some of the reps White got, including in short-yardage. Lucky for the Patriots, they had two backs who could handle similar duties.
Danny Amendola had just two targets in the first half but became a go-to option for Brady in the second half and overtime, finishing with eight catches on 11 targets for 78 yards and a score. He also reeled in the game-tying two-point conversion, which was executed well by fellow wideouts Hogan and Edelman. They blocked for Amendola before Amendola made the catch on the two-point play, but the blocks were legal since they were within one yard of the line of scrimmage, where contact is allowed. Amendola also came down with critical receptions in the third quarter on a fourth-and-three play, in the fourth on a 20-yard pickup during the game-tying drive, and on the second play of overtime when he caught Brady's ridiculously-accurate throw to the sideline for a gain of 14. In a game where the Patriots wanted to spread things out, speed up the Falcons and throw, throw, throw, four-receiver packages (and therefore Amendola) became key. Brady's trust in the veteran has been on display for much of the year in critical spots so Amendola's extensive usage, while rare (his previous high for targets this season was four), should come as little surprise. Edelman and Hogan both contributed drops, but both also had their chances to shine in a game that featured 62 attempts. Hogan, like Mitchell, consistently won on the outside against Falcons corners for big-time timing routes late, and Edelman made the catch of his life with good concentration and his standard all-out effort. Edelman also gets credit for his blocking in the run game, he made a devastating crack block on White's game-winning score, and a double-pass that was well-placed but fell incomplete to Lewis. The decision to throw across the field and into coverage may not have been his best, but the throw itself wasn't bad for a guy with a couple of career attempts.
TIGHT END: B-
Martellus Bennett's five catches for 62 yards on six targets helped him earn his first Super Bowl ring in what may be his only season with the Patriots. His 25-yard grab with Keanu Neal in coverage -- on a perfectly thrown touch-pass from Brady -- helped set the Patriots up for a fourth-quarter field goal to make the score 28-12. He was also the target on the pass-interference call that got the Patriots to the two-yard line in overtime, having beaten Devondre Campbell near the goal line. On the next play, however Bennett had trouble fighting back toward an underthrown fade and the pass was nearly picked by Beasley. Had that play gone differently, there'd be those wondering why the 6-foot-7 tight end was falling backwards as he attempted to make the catch, not exploding toward it like a rebound. Bennett's banged up knee and ankle may have had something to do with it... The impending free agent was also flagged twice for holding -- once on Blount's fumble, which was declined, and once at the end of the second quarter. The second was costly as it put the Patriots at the Atlanta 20 with 12 seconds left as opposed to the Atlanta three.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
Brady was hit so often early that this one very nearly got derailed. Shaq Mason gave up a pair of sacks, while Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder were also responsible for their quarterback hitting the turf. Solder in particular had a difficult time corralling Dwight Freeney off of the left edge. The 36-year-old Freeney has only three sacks in 15 games this season, but he still showed burst, consistently disrupting Brady in the pocket -- his highlight coming on a pressure that helped hurry Brady into his pick-six. Falcons stunts and games up front allowed them to create favorable matchups and communication issues for the Patriots that led to pressure. That they were able to do it without sacrificing bodies in coverage made their plan as effective as it was through three quarters. The line also had some trouble creating space in the running game, but it got plenty of push on White's up-the-gut goal-line score and his two-point conversion. Marcus Cannon also got out in space to throw a key block on White's game-winner. This unit's ability to stave off exhaustion and wear down Atlanta's front was its best asset as Brady threw from clean pockets for the majority of the fourth quarter and overtime as the comeback was in full swing. Once again, Dante Scarnecchia should get some credit for having the group well-conditioned. Having a cohesive, disciplined, physically fit group has been a focus of his since training camp.
USA Today snapped a picture of a dry-erase board inside the Patriots locker room at NRG Stadium, and it laid out the defensive plan for Matt Patricia's unit. Among the "musts" listed on the board: Stop the run; get after Matt Ryan; eliminate Julio Jones; win the turnover battle; tackle well. They weren't able to say that they consistently accomplished each as Devonta Freeman averaged nearly 7.0 yards per carry, Ryan finished the first half with a perfect quarterback rating, and Jones made four eye-opening grabs for 87 yards. They also caused just one turnover whereas the Falcons notched two. But when it was all said and done, the Patriots held the game's No. 1 offense to three scoring drives.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Stretch runs and crack tosses forced this group to move laterally and resulted in chunk gains early on, but in the second half this group figured out Atlanta's ground attack -- which may have led to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's decision to abandon that part of his playbook in critical situations. On the last 10 Falcons runs of the game, they picked up a total of eight yards, including a Jake Matthews holding penalty. Against the pass, Trey Flowers continued his surge, recording 2.5 sacks and two more quarterback hits. His fourth-quarter takedown of Ryan put the Falcons right at the edge of their field-goal range and another Matthews hold (drawn thanks to a good move by Chris Long) moved them out of it. Alan Branch recorded a sack and was stout against the run, as usual, and Jabaal Sheard had a strong game in what could have been his last as a member of the Patriots. He hurried the quarterback four times and helped Flowers pick up his fourth-quarter sack by running stride for stride in coverage with Freeman out of the backfield. Rob Ninkovich got caught in a bad matchup -- and got picked at the line of scrimmage -- covering running back Tevin Coleman out of the backfield which led to a touchdown.
There were most certainly down moments for this group. On Freeman's 37-yard run to start the game, both Shea McClellin and Dont'a Hightower got caught up in the wash. On Freeman's 39-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, Elandon Roberts bit on a play-fake then ran into a Falcons receiver, losing his footing and allowing Freeman to run free for an eternity. Kyle Van Noy played 30 snaps but made little impact outside of his half-sack with Flowers in the third quarter. The reason this grade is as high as it is can be traced back to Hightower's big second half. He stopped Freeman for a loss of three on the first play of the third quarter, he drew a hold, he blew up another run play for a loss of three despite not recording the tackle, and he made the game-changing strip-sack that teammates and coaches alike referenced as the play that gave them a chance. That's now two Super Bowls in which Hightower has played his best in the most critical moments. As an impending free agent, his value has seemingly never been higher.
The Patriots weren't exactly successful in shutting down Jones, but the catches that Jones made were otherworldly. His 27-yard grab in the fourth quarter came with Eric Rowe in perfect position. There wasn't anymore more Rowe could do. His 19-yard grab in the second quarter was nearly picked by Logan Ryan. His 23-yard grab on the following play was on a well-executed pitch and catch along the sideline. He had another toe-tapper later in the game for 18 yards, but for the most part, thanks to a variety of double-teams, the Patriots kept Jones in check. Taylor Gabriel gave the Patriots fits at times, particularly Malcolm Butler, who lost his footing on a double-move that led to a 35-yard gain in the third quarter. Still, all in all, it wasn't a poor game in coverage for the Patriots. Patrick Chung, who was beaten by Austin Hooper for a 19-yard touchdown in the second, was the victim of a great throw by Ryan on that play. He also had two pass breakups in the game and was one of the reasons why the Falcons offense sputtered in the second half. The entire unit did its job on the key fourth-quarter sacks by Flowers and Hightower, not allowing Ryan anywhere to go with the football until it was too late. Against the run, Ryan and McCourty combined to drop Freeman for a loss of one -- with Ryan taking on two blockers to free-up McCourty -- with 4:40 left in regulation.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
For the second consecutive year, a missed extra point in a playoff game forced the Patriots to go for two late. This time, thanks to good execution down by the goal line, it didn't come back to bite them. Stephen Gostkowski also illegally touched an onside attempt that gave the Falcons field position at the New England 41, though they could not capitalize and had to punt. The Patriots kicker drilled kicks from 41 and 33 yards away, but perhaps his most important boot came at the end of the game when his kickoff went to the goal line and was returned to the Patriots 11-yard line. That gave the Falcons a long field to drive in order to try to put together a game-winning score, and helped ensure overtime. Ryan Allen dropped three of his four punts inside the 20 and had most of the second half off.