Lawrence: The Exclamation Point On The NFL Season

By Amy Lawrence

History. NFL history. Championship history. Super Bowl history. The final chapter of the 2016 season was nothing short of epic.

Super Bowl LI smashed the record books and added to the legacy of the New England Patriots. It also shattered the hearts of Falcons fans into a million pieces. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — the old Wide World of Sports adage — applies so perfectly to the last game of the year. An unforgettable exclamation point to football’s biggest party, but it didn’t come without a hefty cost for a franchise and a fanbase that remain without a title.

What I can’t forget: When Julio Jones made another one of his typical acrobatic catches and dragged his toes out of bounds at the Patriots’ 22-yard line inside of five minutes to go, I thought it was over. Despite Tom Brady and his offense’s best attempts and the never-say-die experience on the New England sidelines, Matt Ryan had just delivered the insurance necessary to hold off a hard-charging opponent. The Falcons only needed to run some time off the clock and give the Atlanta defense a breather. They also needed the points — at least a field goal to boost the lead back to double digits. The Falcons had regained the upper hand. Fans inside NRG Stadium gasped and then erupted at Julio’s brilliance. Social media blew up. That was IT! The big play, the Super Bowl-winning play the Falcons had to have. But the euphoria was short-lived.

In less than a minute on the game clock, Atlanta went from field goal range to punt with a devastating sack and then a holding penalty. The lead remained at eight. In those moments, the Falcons handed the stage and the spotlight back to Tom Brady. The defense was exhausted, facing a freight train that barreled down the tracks at full speed. Ten plays and 91 yards later, the Patriots reached the end zone AGAIN and tied it up on a two-point conversion (thanks to another Atlanta penalty). Of course, the Falcons had multiple chances to stop the Pats from scoring on five straight drives and prevent the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. But they looked outmanned and overwhelmed after failing to take advantage of Julio’s masterful grab. It was the turning point of all unforgettable turning points.

What you didn’t see: The face of Kyle Shanahan as he passed me on the 6th level concourse moments after the Patriots’ overtime victory was nearly indescribable. It was a combination of shock, disbelief, confusion and sheer anguish. The Atlanta offensive coordinator walked through the crowd relatively unnoticed, even as New England fans whooped and hollered over a legendary triumph. Shanahan knew what we all knew. No matter how brilliant Tom Brady, no matter how many 4th quarter scoring drives the Pats strung together, they couldn’t make up a 25-point deficit without massive Atlanta mistakes.

Yes, New England did everything right late in the game. If it’s any other team without the experience and Brady’s clutch gene, the comeback probably doesn’t happen. But if the Falcons don’t go scoreless on a pair of critical possessions inside New England territory, if the offensive line holds up a little bit longer, if Matt Ryan’s unit stays on the field to allow the defense just a little more time to recover, if the Falcons don’t collapse, they win. If they hold the line, they win. If they get boring and slightly more conservative on offense, they win. If they use the clock as their friend, they win. Shanahan knew all this as he made his way through the concourse. Yes, it was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history; it was also the worst collapse in Super Bowl history.

Super Bowl side notes: Fans watching on TV didn’t see the introduction of astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The second man to walk on the moon walked onto the field and commanded one of the loudest ovations of the evening. The pilots of the Air Force Thunderbirds for the pregame flyover were also welcomed inside NRG Stadium during a timeout. Immediately after their introduction, all current and former members of the military were invited to stand. The roars from the crowd were deafening. And among the Hall of Fame Class of 2017, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones heard the most raucous cheers, which he received with a giant grin on his face.

What happens next: The Patriots are barely finished celebrating their fifth Super Bowl championship in franchise history, and Bill Belichick is on to preparations for next season. Tom Brady will NOT retire after earning his record fifth ring, much to the chagrin of his wife. The offseason will be full of free agent speculation and surprise signings, and Tony Romo’s future will be the most compelling question.

It’s also fun to wonder what the next championship might bring us as sports fans. We’re on a roll! Going back to last April inside the same Houston venue, Villanova nails a buzzer-beater to win the Men’s NCAA Basketball Championship. Cleveland rallies from a three-games-to-one deficit in the NBA Finals against Golden State. Coastal Carolina claims its first ever national title in the College World Series in a fantastic upset. The Cubs end a 108-year World Series drought with a dramatic extra-inning Game 7 victory over the Indians. The Clemson Tigers stun Alabama with a last-second touchdown in college football’s final game. And at the Australian Open, Roger Federer defeats longtime rival Rafael Nadal in a five-set classic for his 18th major crown and first in five years.

The New England Patriots extended the run of incredible endings to keep us spoiled as fans. Personally, it was a privilege to witness history in attending my first ever Super Bowl. I never need to go again! This NFL season was another awesome reminder that sports rarely go according to script. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @ALawRadio.

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