Seven writers for MMQB, SI.com’s pro football offshoot, made their Super Bowl picks this week. Five picked New England to return to the Super Bowl. Two picked the Patriots to repeat as champs. Two, it should be noted, tapped the Falcons to win a second consecutive NFC title, and only Jacob Feldman picked them to win this time. (Jenny Vrentas has them missing the playoffs; Peter King has them making it as a No. 6 seed.)
The point here isn’t to tut-tut about picks. (I’m the guy who picked Florida State to win the national championship. I’m also the guy who picked Georgia Tech over Tennessee.) The point is that the Patriots weren’t just seen as the NFL’s best team coming into the season — they were seen as the best by some distance. There was some talk, mostly on ESPN, that they might go undefeated. They won’t. They’re 0-1.
As much as we’ve hammed on the Falcons for blowing the Super Bowl, what many seem to have missed was that the Patriots were one play from being not just beaten but embarrassed. Had the Falcons stopped a fourth-and-2 when it was 28-3, they’d have won 42-10. The Falcons’ sin wasn’t just to blow the biggest lead in Super Bowl history but to lost a game they had, for 42-plus minutes, absolutely dominated.
The Patriots opened their title defense against Kansas City and yielded, er, 42 points. Yes, they’re without Julian Edelman, but Gronk is back, and Gronk has long been Tom Brady’s go-to guy. Brady himself completed 16 of 36 passes in his first start after turning 40. Bill Belichick blamed the loss on “bad defense, bad coaching, bad playing, bad football.”
Not to make too fine a point of it, but those Four Bads had been on display on Feb. 5 in NRG Stadium. The Falcons had overwhelmed Belichick’s men, scoring on offense (with disdain) and even on defense (Robert Alford). The Patriots, as we know, have immortalized the epic comeback by engraving “28-3” in their championship rings and even flashed that partial score on the message board in Gillette Stadium on Thursday, but they wouldn’t have come back from anything had the Falcons not let them.
The trouble with sports — and sports writing, I concede — is that we ascribe retroactive inevitability to something that wasn’t anywhere near inevitable. The Patriots were not destined to win that Super Bowl. The Falcons had nearly run them out of town. When it was 28-3, Belichick and Brady weren’t composing victory speeches. They were just trying to get a first down. They were not unbeatable that day. On the contrary, they were one play from being routed.
They weren’t unbeatable then, and they’re once-beaten already. Give them credit for completing that Super comeback once it got going, but it should never have gotten going. Any Falcons fan — or player, or coach — who took glee from seeing the Pats lose to K.C. should have a rethink. Seven months ago, the Falcons could have and should have done the exact same thing.