HOUSTON – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Let’s get this out of the way first, so there is no misunderstanding. The New England Patriots are the greatest NFL dynasty of the Super Bowl era, the best since the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, and they are doing it in an era where the rules are specifically tailored to prevent a dynasty. No one can question that, not the ’70s Steelers, the ’80s 49ers or the ’90s Cowboys.
But achieving that level, much as baseball’s New York Yankees used to use the Kansas City A’s almost as a farm team when they needed to obtain another player, involves something more than a team’s own greatness.
It frequently involves the acquiescence of an opponent that, in the face of greatness, does just enough dumb things to help the dynasty continue along.
Surely, you have to think the Atlanta Falcons, not the Patriots, would have won Super Bowl LI if they had played smarter once they got a big lead. If, with a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter, they were satisfied to run for a first down on third-and-1 instead of having Matt Ryan drop way back, exposing him to a sack and a fumble that led to an easy New England touchdown.
Or, if the Falcons, still ahead by eight points, had played for a field goal later in the fourth quarter after reaching the Patriots’ 22-yard line, instead of having Ryan again drop way back, exposing him to another sack that took Atlanta out of field-goal range.
You have to wonder how long it will take Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, to get those play calls out of his mind as he begins his new gig with the San Francisco 49ers, who are about to name him as their head coach.
Maybe somebody in San Francisco can tell him what happens when you go up against a dynastic team. That dynasty does not have superhuman powers, but it sometimes seems to acquire them in the way an opponent goes about its business. The 49ers’ dynasty that won five Super Bowls between 1981 and 1994 surely benefitted from what, for better or worse, could be termed brain lock by an opponent.
Matt Ryan (2)
Atlanta, of course, was not the first team to suffer that problem. In Seattle, they will never forget the interception Russell Wilson threw from the 1-yard line in the final minute of the Super Bowl two years ago, when logic dictated a run by Marshawn Lynch that likely would have won the game. That play handed the Patriots their fourth Super Bowl trophy.
In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl LI, in which the Patriots won their fifth Super Bowl trophy, Dan Quinn, the Falcons’ head coach (and, coincidentally, formerly an assistant coach with the 49ers), defended the way his team attacked New England. He didn’t seem to have a problem with the play calls that exposed
Ryan to the critical sacks at a time when the Falcons should have been protecting a comfortable lead.
Neither did Ryan, who said, “We played the way that we play. We always play aggressive and play to win.”
Of course, there is a difference between being aggressive and being smart.
Although there is probably no one left in the 49ers’ building who remembers the great days that franchise used to enjoy, the fact is the San Francisco mystique was built in part by the same kind of brain lock that helped the Patriots beat the Falcons.
For example, there was the time the New Orleans Saints could have just about run out the clock to beat the 49ers, but rather than going with the ground game, but they called for quarterback Bobby Hebert to pass. The ball fell incomplete, leaving Joe Montana 15 seconds deep in his own territory. Although the 49ers were out of timeouts, the clock stoppage left San Francisco enough time to work downfield and kick a winning field goal.
Or there was the time in Green Bay, before the Packers’ revival began, that the Packers decided a short kickoff was in order late in the second quarter. The result was that the 49ers had such good field position, they scored that time, too.
The explanation, of course, was simply that opponents did not want to give Montana the ball. Instead, they not only gave him the ball but gave it to him in position where he could do some damage.
In fact, the mystique was so strong that after the Saints beat the 49ers once at Candlestick Park in a game Montana did not play due to injury, the late Jim Finks, then the Saints’ general manager, said San Francisco would have won if it simply had Montana stand on the sideline during the game.
Yes, the mystique of a great team and great player is that strong.
And the Patriots and Brady are, without question, really great.
Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
HOUSTON – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Tom Brady added another chapter to his storybook legend Sunday night, leading the New England Patriots to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, a 34-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, decided on James White’s 2-yard touchdown run after 3:52 of overtime.
It was the first overtime game in Super Bowl history, and the Patriots’ comeback from a 25-point deficit, 28-3, was more than double the largest previous comeback (10 points) in the game’s 51-year history.
Brady, who struggled early under a surprisingly strong Atlanta pass rush, completed 43 of 62 passes for a Super Bowl-record 466 yards. He threw two touchdown passes and one interception, which was returned for a second-quarter touchdown.
He captured a record fourth Super Bowl MVP honor, breaking a tie with Joe Montana. Brady and New England’s Bill Belichick became the first quarterback and head coach, respectively, to win five Super Bowls.
White caught a Super Bowl-record 14 passes (for 110 yards), and he added 29 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
Brady, suspended for the first four games of the season for his involvement in Deflategate, wound up on top of the pro football world again. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose handling of the case against Brady sparked controversy, was loudly booed as he handed the Lombardi Trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
“Two years ago we won our fourth Super Bowl down in Arizona and I told our fans that was the sweetest one of all,” Kraft said. “But a lot has transpired over the last two years, and I don’t think that needs any explanation. I want to say to our fans, brilliant coaching staff and players who are so spectacular, this is unequivocally the sweetest. I’m proud to say for the fifth time, we are all Patriots.”
Goodell approached Brady on the field immediately after the game and initiated a handshake.
In overtime, the Patriots got the ball first and Brady completed five consecutive passes for 50 yards. A 10-yard run by White and a pass-interference penalty moved the ball to the 2-yard line before White’s winning run.
New England, still behind 28-9 when the fourth quarter began, started its late surge on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 9:44 remaining.
Shortly after the kickoff, Dont’a Hightower sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, forcing a fumble that Alan Branch recovered at the Atlanta 25-yard line. Five plays later, Brady threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola. When White ran in a two-point conversion, the score was 28-20 with 5:56 remaining.
Atlanta got a chance to put the game away when it drove to the New England 22 after the kickoff, but the Falcons inexplicably had Ryan take a deep dropback to pass, and he was sacked. A holding penalty followed, knocking Atlanta out of range for a game-clinching field goal and forcing a punt.
The Patriots then drive 91 yards in 10 plays, the key play a circus catch by Julian Edelman, who was on the ground to grab a pass that had been tipped by Falcons cornerback Robert Alford. Edelman cradled the ball against a defender’s leg and gained 23 yards.
“That’s one of the greatest catches I’ve ever seen,” Brady said. “I don’t know how the hell he caught it.”
A 20-yarder to Amendola followed. White scored the touchdown on a 1-yard run with 57 seconds to go, and Brady then threw a two-point PAT to Amendola.
Until Brady’s late heroics, Atlanta had surprisingly controlled the game with its defense, which ultimately ran out of gas as it was on the field for most of the game. New England ran 93 plays on offense to Atlanta’s 46, and the Patriots had more than 40 minutes of possession time.
Brady was under early pressure from an Atlanta defense, which was ranked near the bottom of the NFL during the regular season but nonetheless easily handled the New England offensive line, and the veteran quarterback made several uncharacteristic poor passes.
One of them, thrown into double coverage, was returned 82 yards for a touchdown by Alford, Atlanta’s third TD of the second quarter.
Brady also badly overthrew a wide open Edelman later in the second quarter and underthrew another receiver before the Patriots finally scored on a 41-yard field goal by Gostkowski with two seconds remaining in the first half.
Atlanta’s three offensive touchdown drives were 71 yards in five plays, 62 yards in five plays and 85 yards in eight plays. Devonta Freeman scored the first TD on a 5-yard run, and Ryan completed touchdown passes of 19 yards to Austin Hooper and 6 yards to Tevin Coleman.
Ryan wound up 17 of 23 for 284 yards. Atlanta’s Julio Jones caught four passes for 87 yards.
NOTES: The Patriots failed to score a first-quarter point in any of their seven Super Bowls with the combination of coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady. … Pro Bowl C Alex Mack was active and in the starting lineup for the Falcons. Mack did not practice this week because of a left fibula injury, reportedly a chip fracture, which could have limited a player considered vital to Atlanta’s zone-running scheme. … WR Michael Floyd was inactive for the Patriots, who listed the same players who did not play in the AFC Championship Game on their pregame inactive list: third QB Jacoby Brissett, DB Cyrus Jones, OL LaAdrian Waddle, RB D.J. Foster and DB Justin Coleman and S Jordan Richards … WR Nick Williams. RB Terron Ward, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, LB Josh Keyes, S Dashon Goldson, OL Wes Schwetzer and TE D.J. Tialavea were inactive for the Falcons.
Boston 107, L.A. Clippers 102
When: 2:00 PM ET, Sunday, February 5, 2017
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Mass
BOSTON – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) The Boston Celtics won their seventh straight game Sunday. But the biggest basket of the afternoon was scored by someone on the Los Angeles Clippers.
The TD Garden crowd loved both.
“I’m happy to be able to get one last shot,” Paul Pierce said after coming off the Clippers bench in the closing seconds and draining a 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining in Boston’s 107-102 victory. “I’m thankful to step on the court, get one last shot, bury it, give the fans some wave to the crowd, kiss Lucky (the leprechaun logo at midcourt), I’m happy, I’m satisfied. I feel I can put it all to rest now.”
Isaiah Thomas scored 28 points and the Celtics attempted a club-record 52 3-pointers (making 16) en route to the win.
The Celtics were the second team in NBA history to attempt 30 3-pointers in a half, according to STATS, Inc., as they went 9 of 30 in the first half. The Houston Rockets attempted 30-plus 3-pointers in both halves of the same game on Dec. 16, 2016, against New Orleans.
But the day belonged to Pierce.
The former Celtic great, whose next appearance on the home court could be when his No. 34 is raised to the rafters, started and played the first 4:57. He took and rimmed the first shot of the game. His coach, former Celtics head man Doc Rivers, planned to put him back in at the end, but the Clippers turned a rout into a close game.
He re-entered the game with 19.8 seconds left to another major ovation — and then avoided what would have been his first scoreless game ever in the building (630 games).
Asked why he put Pierce back in the game, Rivers laughed and said, “Because the fans made me. I’m no dummy.”
The 3-pointer was the 2,138th of Pierce’s career, fourth on the all-time list.
“Tough situation — sitting for like the last two hours,” he said of the shot. “I’m glad I ended it that way. You want to come in and get a win, but it was a tough day not only for me but for my teammates — there was a lot of emotions running through my teammates.”
Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens: “I’ve been told how smart our fans are and I couldn’t agree more, but with two minutes to go chanting his name in a close game, I was like ‘not yet.’ He hits all the big ones.”
Thomas delivered his 35th straight 20-point game (the club record is 40) and added eight assists and his team hit 30.8 percent from behind the arc. He also played just token defense when he picked Pierce up off a switch on the final play.
“Nah, I wanted him to shoot and make it,” Thomas said. “It is the perfect way to go out, and he did it the right way.”
Al Horford scored 13 points and grabbed a season-high 15 rebounds while dishing out six assists. Amir Johnson, Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk all had 13 points and Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown added 11 points apiece in the win.
Said Horford: “It (the reaction to Pierce) was overwhelming. I guess it shows the class of the fans here and their appreciation for Paul, you know, a lot of great moments here.”
The Clippers (31-20 and losers of four of five) never led and were down by as many as 18. They made a late run and shaved a 12-point lead with 2:48 remaining down to four but got no closer.
Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford led the Clippers, still without the injured Chris Paul, with 23 points apiece, Griffin adding eight rebounds and four assists. Crawford hit three 3-pointers, giving him 1,999 for his career, sixth all-time. Raymond Felton added 16 points off the Los Angeles bench and DeAndre Jordan grabbed 16 rebounds.
Boston’s Jonas Jerebko left the game late in the third quarter after a collision with teammate Jaylen Brown. Jerebko, who seemed to hit Brown’s shoulder, left with a bloody nose and was taken for tests after the game.
The Celtics reached 100 points for the 25th straight game, most for the franchise since a 32-game run in 1986-87.
NOTES: Boston G Avery Bradley missed his 10th straight game with an Achilles tendon strain but is closer. “From what I’ve been told he’s going to see (a doctor) again today, but the plan was for him to travel,” said Stevens, whose team opens a four-game trip at Sacramento Wednesday. … The Clippers continue their road trip at Toronto on Monday night. … Clippers coach Doc Rivers on Tom Brady: “I wish him the best of luck. In my eyes, he’s the greatest quarterback that ever played.”
Top Game Performances
SCOTTSDALE – (Wire Service Report by The Sports Xchange) – Byeoen Hun An opened the door, and Hideki Matsuyama walked through.
Matsuyama came from four strokes back Sunday to edge Webb Simpson in a playoff and win his second straight Phoenix Open.
Matsuyama sunk a 12-foot birdie on the short par 4 17th hole, the fourth playoff hole, to win. He did so after Simpson’s 20-foot birdie putt to win on No. 10, the third playoff hole, stopped a roll short. He also was short on a putt at 18 on the first playoff hole.
Matsuyama, who has won five events in the past 3 1/2 months to climb to No. 5 in the world rankings, now takes over the lead in the FedExCup standings over Justin Thomas.
“It’s been a great run,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “I’m going to ride this as long as I can.”
Matsuyama shot 66 while Simpson shot 64, including birdies at 17 and 18, in regulation.
“To shoot 7 under on Sunday…is a great feeling,” Simpson said. “I wish I could have a couple of those putts (in the playoff) back and hit them a little harder.”
The pair took advantage of the struggles of An, a 25-year-old Korean who was seeking his first PGA Tour win. An had hoped for a bogey-free round to protect his one-shot lead over Martin Laird heading into the final round. Instead, An put up five bogies and three birdies for a 73. He finished sixth at 14 under.
“Just didn’t work out today…just had a poor finish.”
“I still got to work on my game. A bit sloppy with drivers and irons and putting. But it’s not like it’s the last event of the year or the last event for the rest of my life.
“I just can’t wait to come back next year. It will be great.”
Matsuyama started at 12 under, four shots back of An, while Simpson started at 10 under, six shots behind An.
Louis Oosthuizen shot 65 and finished at 16-under, good for third place.
Rickie Fowler, who lost in a playoff to Matsuyama last year, shot a 65 to finish at 15 under for the tournament, tied for fourth with J.J. Spaun.
Fowler has played more rounds at the Phoenix Open than any other tournament; this is his ninth appearance at the TPC Scottsdale.
“We will keep knocking at the door,” he said. “We will get this one at some point.”
Martin Laird, who started Sunday one stroke behind An, never got going Sunday. He shot 73 and finished tied for seventh with Daniel Berger at 13 under.
Jordan Spieth shot 67 and finished 12 under, as did first-round leader Matt Kuchar, who shot 70.
Jon Rahm, last week’s winner in San Diego, shot 70 and finished 10 under.
Brooks Koepka, the winner in Phoenix two years ago, finished 7 under.
Phil Mickelson emerged briefly as a contender, shooting a 4-under 31 on the front nine, capped by a spectacular approach shot at No. 9. From 165 yards out, he put the ball within two feet for an easy birdie and 14 under on the scoreboard.
Then, he bogeyed No. 10 and 11, effectively derailing his chances.
“That just killed my momentum,” Mickelson said.
He finished at even par 71 and 10 under for the tournament.
The week-long attendance for the tournament was estimated at 655,434, by far the most in golf history. The previous record was 618,365 set last year. Sunday drew 56,654, well off the Sunday record of 93,475 set in 2007.
“The golf fans came out today,” Simpson said. “The partiers came out Saturday.”
In regulation, An had a two-stroke lead through 10 holes when he hit an approach shot in the water on the right side of the 11th green. He saved bogey with a 7-foot putt, while dropping to even par for the round — 16 under for the tournament — and putting a host of players in contention.
And when Matsuyama birdied the par 5 13th, the two were tied for the lead.
Oosthuizen and Simpson joined them by hitting birdie putts at the short par 4 17th.
Matsuyama briefly took the lead with an easy birdie at the par 5 15th to go 17 under. An was in position to tie him, but he missed a three-footer at 15 to stay at 16 under. He also missed a birdie putt at 16 and bogeyed the final two holes.
Simpson hit a great approach shot at 18 to set up an easy birdie to tie Matsuyama at 17 under.
Then Matsuyama chipped from 43 yards out to within nine feet at 17. But his birdie putt missed badly.
Then he hit a rocket off the tee at 18; the 357-yard drive carried to within 74 yards of the hole. But he could only get his approach to 19 feet from the pin.
His putt headed for the center of the cup, but was one roll short. He and Simpson headed for a playoff.
“I don’t know how that stayed out,” Matsuyama said of his barely short putt. “You can’t be short on a putt like that.”
NOTES: With four wins, Matsuyama has the most PGA Tour wins of any Japanese player…Simpson was seeking his fifth win…According to The Arizona Republic, a skybox at the raucous 16th hole costs $50,000 and includes 34 badges per day, food and an open bar…Jon Rahm, who finished fifth at this tournament as an amateur two years ago, senses the crowd at 16 has gotten more demanding: “They’re starting to boo you if you miss a 20-foooter for birdie.