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After 30 minutes of play, Super Bowl LI looked like it was history. At halftime, the Atlanta Falcons had a 21-3 lead and owned the game on both sides of the ball. Then, after halftime, when the New England Patriots could have turned the game back around, the Falcons continued their push, adding another touchdown to go up 25 points.
The final 18 minutes of regulation and overtime were a completely different story, as the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points, staging the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history and winning 34-28.
For the country—and world—Sunday’s championship game was one of the greatest in Super Bowl history, if not the greatest. However, for the 30 NFL franchises that weren’t playing in the final game of the season, the Super Bowl was the ultimate teaching moment. In a copycat league, there isn’t a better game for coaches and executives from around the league to watch and learn from as the best teams from each conference went head to head.
While individual plays from the big game will likely be used by various teams throughout next season, the more impactful takeaways from the game are the bigger picture ideas. Although teams won’t likely be able to get their hands on Tom Brady or Bill Belichick next season, there were three major components of the game that were key in deciding a champion.
Those three components not only led New England to a championship, but can, and most likely will, be building blocks for franchises, like the Denver Broncos, in the coming years. These are the three foundational takeaways from Super Bowl LI.
The quarterback position does matter
Although this seems like an obvious statement at first, just one year ago this was much in question after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 with below average quarterback play in not only the Super Bowl but the regular season as well. The main question throughout the league, specifically in Denver, during last offseason was just how important is it to have an elite quarterback.
For this year at least, that question was answered before the Super Bowl LI even started. The two quarterbacks in this year’s big game finished in the top two for the league’s MVP race, with Atlanta’s Matt Ryan beating New England’s Brady. If that wasn’t enough convincing, the game itself added more reasoning to this point.
Outside of a Robert Alford pick-six, Ryan and Brady practically controlled the game. On just 23 attempts, Ryan threw for 284 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions posting a close-to-perfect 144.1 passer rating. While Brady wasn’t as efficient as his counterpart, he threw for a SuperBowl-record 466 yards to go along with two touchdowns and one interception and a 95.2 passer rating.
If either the Patriots or Falcons didn’t have an elite quarterback, the game most likely wouldn’t have been close. One year ago, Denver won a Super Bowl on the defensive side of the ball. Just one year later, Super Bowl LI made a strong case that an elite quarterback is needed to not only win the game but to even make the game.
An abundance of playmakers is necessary
In a game featuring 62 total points, there was no shortage of offensive playmakers. However, it wasn’t necessarily the team that had the better weapons that won; it was the team that had more.
Featuring Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons arguably had the three best offensive playmakers in the game. Yet New England—featuring LeGarrette Blount, James White, Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan—proved to be too deep with playmakers to slow down, especially when it mattered the most.
While Brady was named the Super Bowl MVP, a backup running back made an equally strong case for the award as well. White finished with six carries for 29 yards on the ground to go along with 14 receptions for 110 yards and three touchdowns, one of those being the game winner in overtime.
As the Broncos currently stand, they are built more like the Falcons than the Patriots, in terms of playmakers. Denver has two of the game’s best wide receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, however, after that the picking is slim. While both of those receivers made the Pro Bowl this year, the Broncos were the only team in the league not to have three receivers eclipse 300-yards receiving.
Although C.J. Anderson could have been another big playmaker for Denver this season, no one clearly stepped up in his absence after he was hurt during Week 7, proving a lack of depth of playmakers on the team. Even though much of Broncos Country is begging general manager John Elway to draft Christian McCaffrey, the Super Bowl proved that even the addition of another top playmaker may not be enough.
Coaching and play calling can’t be overlooked
While the Super Bowl featured the top two finishers in the MVP race, it also featured two of the best coaching staff’s, specifically Kyle Shanahan on the Falcons and Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels on the Patriots. To no surprise, all three delivered, well at least at some point in the game.
Before the Brady led Patriots got in the end zone for their first time, Shanahan’s offense had already found their way into it four times. With a limited 46 offensive plays, Shanahan’s unit was extremely effective, averaging 7.5 yards per play. To put that in perspective, during the regular season, the Falcons lead the league in yards per play, averaging 6.7.
However, Belichick, who will go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, coaches of all time, showed his brilliance when it mattered the most. Not only did Belichick keep his team in the game mentally, even down 25 points in the third and 19 points in the fourth quarter, he, and offensive coordinator McDaniels, called the right shots at the right time.
With six minutes left in the game, New England needed the improbable to happen: two touchdowns and two two-point conversions without letting Atlanta score. Not only were they able to do this and write their own storybook ending, their two two-point conversions were masterful. After converting on a direct snap to the running back on their first attempt, the Patriots ran a wide receiver motion screen pass to convert the second one—both risky and gutsy plays.
While the Broncos overturned most of their offensive staff before the Super Bowl took place, the creative and unconventional play calling during the Super Bowl is something that is expected of the new staff in Denver. Whether or not they do this, and to what degree, may be the deciding factor in how Denver’s offense evolves from 2016 to 2017.