When Super Bowl Sunday began, we had no idea what sort of game we were going to get between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. In the end, it turns out what we got was arguably the greatest Super Bowl, and perhaps American sporting event, of all time. It didn’t get to that point in the expected way either. We were thinking we’d get a high-scoring shootout, and then after the first quarter we had a scoreless game. Then, it seemed like we weren’t going to get a competitive game. Tom Brady got picked off by Robert Alford, who returned it 82 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-3 when Lady Gaga took the stage at halftime.
Atlanta’s lead was then stretched to 28-3 in the third quarter. No team had ever overcome a deficit greater than 10 points in the Super Bowl. It was all but guaranteed the Falcons were going to win their first Super Bowl…until they didn’t. Tom Brady cemented his legacy as the greatest quarterback of all-time in leading the Patriots in an instant classic comeback. They tied the game at 28 all to send the contest into the first overtime in Super Bowl history. In an incredibly pivotal moment, the Pats won the overtime coin toss, they chose to get the ball, and they never gave it up. New England marched down the field for a touchdown and a final score of 34-28. Brady was named the MVP and he and coach Bill Belichick now have five Super Bowl rings. Truly, it was a night to remember.
With the game in the books, which players are going to be remembered as the most pivotal performers in Super Bowl LI? Here are our five choices for the most significant players of the bunch.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England – Who else can you start with? In the first half, it looked like the (facile, incorrect) takeaway from this game for a lot of talking heads was that Brady wasn’t the player he used to be. He had “lost a step” you could practically hear people saying. He had been picked off by Alford on that pick six. Then, the second half happened. He threw two touchdowns after halftime, and also completed a pass for a two-point conversion. While he wasn’t responsible for the game-winning touchdown (we’ll get to that guy later), he was key in that final drive. Brady threw a whopping 62 passes completing 43 of them for 466 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick. Those 466 yards are a Super Bowl record. Brady, as previously noted, was named MVP. Plus, he got to rub it in Roger Goodell’s face. Love or hate the Pats, you won't meet an NFL fan who didn't enjoy seeing Goodell get his comeuppance.
2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta – On Saturday, Ryan was named NFL MVP, and rightfully so. Until the fourth quarter of this game, it looked like he was going to follow that up with a Super Bowl MVP. Instead, he may start hearing people questioning whether or not he has “it” once again. For much of this game, Ryan had a perfect passer rating. He finished 17-for-23 for 284 yards and two touchdowns. However, people are probably going to focus on the negative. A sack by Dont’a Hightower resulted in a fumble that New England recovered. Then, he took a sack that took them out of field goal range. Folks will likely dwell on those moments. His team lost, so that sort of makes sense. Nevertheless, Ryan had a good game in his first Super Bowl. He just didn’t win.
3. Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta – Jarrett’s performance may end up forgotten by time, which is a shame. He had a great game for the Falcons defense. Prior to kickoff, people wondered if the Falcons would be able to put pressure on Brady. Would anybody except Vic Beasley get near the Patriots QB? Beasley didn’t record a single tackle, let alone a sack. Jarrett, on the other hand, managed to sack Brady three times, tying the record for most sacks in a Super Bowl. He dominated New England’s Shaw Mason. Alas, his team lost, so Jarrett's remarkable performance could be lost to history. Did you know Kony Ealy had three sacks for the Panthers in last year’s Super Bowl? Exactly. Oh, by the way, Jarrett had three sacks through the entire regular season. Talk about stepping up at the right time.
4. Trey Flowers, DE, New England -- Remember that sack that took the Falcons out of field goal range? Flowers picked up that sack. He had 1.5 more of them, plus two tackles for loss. He hit Ryan five times. Flowers was all over the MVP, which helped to keep the Patriots in this game. Since they ended up pulling off the upset of a lifetime, that was vital.
5. James White, RB, New England – If Brady hadn’t been named MVP, it would have been White. The Patriots had a three-headed running back monster, but it was White who rose to the challenge to have a great game, and to make NFL history. He scored two pretty important touchdowns. His first score tied the game with less than a minute left. Then White’s two-yard run in overtime ended the game. He’s the first player to score an overtime touchdown in Super Bowl history. Get ready to see that score over and over. Oh, White also caught a touchdown and rushed for a two-point conversion. While he only rushed six times for 29 yards he had 14 catches (another Super Bowl record) for 110 yards. Hmm…are we sure Brady should have been MVP?