Patriots dig huge hole with ugly first-half performance

February 6, 2017

HOUSTON — The Patriots needed a record-setting comeback to erase three quarters of ineptitude.

James White’s 2-yard touchdown run in overtime, his third score of the game, gave the Patriots an incredible 34-28 victory over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI last night. The game-winning score capped off a rally which saw the Patriots fight back from a 28-3 deficit in the third quarter to win their fifth Super Bowl.

Fumbles, interceptions, sacks, blown assignments and dropped passes — the Pats did a little of everything awful in the opening 30 minutes as they fell behind, 21-3.

The issues began on the second drive of the contest. The Patriots drove to the Atlanta 40 when Courtney Upshaw dropped Brady for an 8-yard sack on first down. Grady Jarrett had his moment two plays later, getting Brady behind the line of scrimmage for a short loss to end the drive.

Early in the second quarter, the Patriots appeared to have some momentum when Brady connected with Julian Edelman on a 27-yard completion down to the Atlanta 33-yard line. One play later, that surge was negated when LeGarrette Blount was stripped by Deion Jones and teammate Robert Alford recovered on the 29.

This time, the Falcons made it hurt. Matt Ryan completed passes of 19 and 23 yards to Julio Jones before running back Devonta Freeman got the call on three straight running plays — the final one 5 yards to paydirt.

Even the normally solid Pats special teams unit wasn’t immune. Shea McClellin was flagged for an illegal formation as Matt Bryant was lining up his extra-point attempt following the second Falcons’ score. He nailed the PAT to stretch the lead to 14-0.

Moving the ball in the first half wasn’t a problem for the Pats, who actually out-gained the Falcons, 210-189. Doing something productive proved to be far more difficult for an offense that ranked among the league leaders this season.

Thanks to three defensive holding penalties which kept the drive alive, the Patriots moved to the Falcons’ 23 where they faced a third-and-6. Brady tried to hit Danny Amendola to his left, but Alford jumped the route, picked off the pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown — giving the Falcons a commanding 21-0 lead with 2:21 left in the half.

As bad as the first 28 minutes went, the Patriots still had a chance to put a dent in the 21-point deficit. Completions to Martellus Bennett (15 yards) and James White (28 yards) helped move the ball into the red zone with 23 seconds left in the half.

It appeared as through the Patriots picked up a first down when White took a short pass and ran it down to the 3-yard line, but Bennett was flagged for holding, moving the ball back to the 20 with 12 seconds left.

Rather than take a shot at the end zone, the Patriots opted for a tight-end screen to Bennett. The speedy Falcons weren’t fooled as Deji Olatoye and Jarrett dropped Bennett for a 3-yard loss, forcing the Patriots to settle for a 41-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and a 21-3 halftime deficit.

Atlanta stretched the lead to 28-3 when Tevin Coleman caught a 6-yard TD pass from Ryan with 8:31 left in the third quarter. Even when the Patriots finally scored, on White’s first TD of the game, Gostkowski clanged the upright on the extra point attempt.

That was the last thing to go wrong for the Patriots. The rest was history.