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Bizarro World: If Patriots Had Lost Super Bowl LI To Falcons

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots won the Super Bowl. You have likely been informed of this news by now.

And yet, with a week having passed since the football nestled in James White's right arm just tickled the goal line in Houston, it remains difficult to believe.

Did that really happen?

As we know, of course, it did indeed happen. And while we know what they did -- Dont'a Hightower's strip-sack, Tom Brady's deadly accuracy, Danny Amendola's touchdown and two-point conversion, James White's touchdown and two-point conversion, Trey Flowers' game-saving sack, Chris Long's game-saving drawing of a holding penalty, Martellus Bennett drawing a pass interference penalty on the goal line, the Super Bowl-winning touchdown -- to win the game, what's been washed over is just what the Patriots did to bury themselves in a hole to begin with.

And so, in the interest of remembering that half of the game, I've decided to share with you the story I had written during the game, when the Falcons led 28-3 and the outlook was not entirely good for the Patriots.

I did not write this story with a particular level of glee. It's just that sports writers are in a time crunch, and while internet writers don't have the strict deadlines of newspaper writers, it's still a simple fact that every minute spent writing one story after a game is a minute spent not writing another story after the game. And after the Super Bowl, there are a lot of stories to write. So, given all the downtime and the long commercial breaks, this was put together somewhere during that long Patriots field-goal drive.

Now I share this story not to harp on the negatives or provide a bullet point list of talking points for anyone who wants to take away credit from the championship. Quite the opposite, in fact. I share this story to provide some perspective on just how dire the situation was for the Patriots, and just how much they overcame -- both their own mistakes and the punishment inflicted by the Falcons -- to win that fifth Super Bowl.

I've said this a few times now over the past week, but it bears repeating: Tom Brady has led every possible type of comeback in his career. He has built his reputation on being a quarterback who can never be counted out of any game. I have watched and witness every single one of those comebacks and game-winning drives -- the Snow Bowl, Super Bowl XXXVI, the '02 win in Chicago, the '03 Monday Nighter in Denver, Super Bowl XXXVIII, the '06 divisional round in San Diego, the '07 win in New Jersey to cap off the perfect regular season, the '09 season opener vs. Buffalo, the incredible rally in Buffalo in 2012, the unicorns and show ponies win over New Orleans in 2013, Super Bowl XLIX, to name a few.

Brady has given every possible reason since 2001 to never believe he's out of a game. Yet despite that history, the Patriots' prospects of somehow rallying looked grim on Sunday night.

Here's what I was thinking somewhere during the early fourth quarter of Sunday night's Super Bowl. The story would have been spruced up with some postgame quotes, but here's the gist of where the Patriots were with very little time left in their season.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady and the offense walk off the field after LeGarrette Blount's fumble. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

HOUSTON (CBS) -- People who don't watch every single play and don't follow the day-to-day operations of the New England Patriots often wonder how in the world they've stayed so successful for so long. Where other good teams have down years and still other bad teams never seem to have good years, the Patriots just keep chugging along, winning 12 or 13 games and making the AFC Championship Game damn near every single year.

While it remains a mystery to many, the answer is quite simple: they have the smartest head coach, they have the smartest quarterback, and they don't often make mistakes.

And if anyone wonders how the Patriots got shellacked [final score] in Super Bowl LI by the Atlanta Falcons, the answer is likewise elementary: their coaching staff didn't look particularly wise, the quarterback made an uncharacteristic mistake, and the team followed suit.

Passes were dropped. Footballs hit the ground. Penalties were committed.A pick-six was thrown. Assignments were missed.

Nothing went right.

For the Patriots, the most painful part of the litany of mistakes made by the Patriots is the fact that they fought back with the resolve of a team that deserved to win a championship. But you can only make up for so much, and ultimately the hole the Patriots dug was just too deep.

The exact ranking of which mistakes were most to blame could be debated, but here's what you've got to work with:

--Legarrette Blount's fumble

--Tom Brady's pick-six

--Malcolm Butler's pass interference on a third-down stop, setting up an Atlanta TD

--Dion Lewis taking kick out of end zone and getting swarmed at the 16-yard line

--Ryan Allen's short 37-yard punt to give Falcons possession on their own 38-yard line

--Missed PAT

--Penalty on onside kick

--Chris Hogan drop on first play of second half

--Chris Hogan offensive pass interefernece on second play of second half

--Julian Edelman drop on third play in second half

--Offensive line getting manhandled, allowing three Grady Jarrett sacks

--Questionable clock management, burning 26 seconds between plays in final minute of first half when they had two timeouts

--Nate Solder allowing Dwight Freeney sack on first play after Hightower forced turnover

--Elandon Roberts leaving Devonta Freeman uncovered for 39 yards immediately after cutting lead to eight points

That's a lot of mistakes -- more than any team, even the Patriots, can overcome. Much like they did last year in Denver, they fought back and showed guts to make it a close game on Sunday night. But ultimately, it was just too much.

Essentially, on Sunday night in the Super Bowl, in the game that mattered most, the Patriots looked like the teams they so often dispose of with relative ease on a weekly basis.

Of course, one team does not an entire game make. And in this game, the Falcons played outstanding. The defense played like a unit that got no respect heading into the game, running back Devonta Freeman ran like a man possessed, and the wideouts caught everything that flew into their zip codes. Julio Jones made two of the more incredible catches ever made in Super Bowls, and the slightly overlooked Taylor Gabriel was a thorn in the Patriots' side all night as he worked himself open for chunk gains up and down the field.

In terms of the overall legacy conversation with Brady, Belichick and the Patriots franchise, there really is not a tremendous amount lost in a game like this, except for opportunity. A fifth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era would have put this run in rarefied air. Instead, they're 4-3, which in the grand picture is still better than everybody else since the turn of the century.

But stepping back into the present, into the here and now, the sting of this loss will linger, as will the regret of missed opportunity.

And now, back to reality.

Obviously, the unbelievable sequence of events on Sunday night dictated that this story never needed to be written. Yet, with a week of retrospect, it does serve to show just how improbable that comeback really was.

Patriots Super Bowl
The Patriots celebrate Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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