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First-and-10: Falcons choked because Patriots made them choke

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) fumbles as he is hit by Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower (obscured at rear) in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI on Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston. The Patriots rallied from a 28-3 deficit to win 34-28 in overtime. (Eric Gay/AP)

Did the Patriots take it or did the Falcons give it away?

A little bit of both, obviously, as the Patriots rallied from a 28-3 deficit in the second half to win Super Bowl LI 34-28 in overtime. But if this game is to be remembered for one or the other, it is a credit to the indomitable will of the New England Patriots most of all. Yeah, the Falcons choked. But the Patriots made them choke.

The biggest comeback in Super Bowl history was not a fluke. We’ve seen it too many times before with the Patriots to consider it happenstance. No team can reverse the momentum, make you play stupid and force fate to move its huge hands in their favor like the Patriots. They’re the ultimate championship team, able to will their way to victory at the most critical times. When the Patriots benefitted from the tuck rule, they had a horseshoe stuck up their butt. But after five Super Bowl victories in seven appearances, it’s tough to argue against the notion that they make their luck. The best bet of the night was a literal coin flip: the overtime coin toss. At that point of the game the Patriots could have called “it will land on its edge” and they would have won it.

It’s too abstract to prove it, but I’ve seen it happen too often with the Blackhawks to not believe that teams like the Patriots will their way to victory. The Hawks had an uncanny knack for having things go their way and having their opponents set them up in their three Stanley Cup runs — Martin Erat’s ill-advised blind pass in Game 5 of the opening round in 2010; Pavel Datsyuk losing his stick on a penalty kill in 2013; Ryan Kesler’s ill-advised “no human can withstand that many hits” mantra in 2015; Ben Bishop colliding with Victor Hedman to hand Patrick Sharp the opening goal in a pivotal Game 5 of the Cup final that year.

Why do these things happen? Why do opponents seemingly play into their hands when they need it the most? That’s what championship teams do. And the Patriots are even better at it than the Hawks, with Super Bowl LI another classic example. So while this Super Bowl will be remembered by many as the year the Falcons choked. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Patriots made them do it.

2. Most teams lose games like this by being too conservative and worrying too much about the worst-case scenario. The Falcons lost by being too aggressive and ignoring the worst-case scenario.

After Julio Jones’ magnificent 27-yard catch, the Falcons had a first down at the Patriots’ 22 with 4:40 to play. At that point, you just run three times — and either use up clock or force the Patriots to use their time outs — and kick the field goal for a 31-20 lead. Instead, Matt Ryan was sacked on a pass attempt and Jake Matthews was called for holding to put the Falcons out of field-goal range.

If you’re up three and you want to avoid giving Tom Brady a chance to beat you with a touchdown, burning more clock and going for a touchdown is a good, aggressive strategy. But up eight points already, a field goal was nearly as good as a touchdown — forcing the Patriots to score twice to tie the game. Aggression, on both sides of the ball, usually is a good strategy against the Patriots. But it wasn’t here.

2a. Criticizing the Falcons’ decision to pass on third-and-one with a 16-point lead with 8:31 to play in regulation — Matt Ryan was sacked and lost a fumble — is more of a second-guess, though the Falcons had to know the risk. Matt Ryan was 4-for-4 on third-and-one passes in the regular season, but also was sacked against the Dolphins. That was a great play by the Patriots more than a bonehead decision by the Falcons — though not by much.

3. The Patriots also escaped paying a price for one of their own bonehead decisions — a time-consuming screen pass on a second-and-15 from the Falcons 20 with 12 seconds left in the first half. The Falcons had a chance to box tight end Martellus Bennett in the field of play and run out the clock — a little bit of a risky move, but something the Patriots defense would have the presence-of-mind to do. Instead, Bennett went out of bounds with three seconds left, the Patriots called time out and kicked a field goal to cut the Falcons lead to 21-3 at halftime.

4. Bennett owes Bears general manager Ryan Pace a big thank-you note after winning a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. Bennett forced Pace’s hand by whining about a contract with two years to go on his Bears deal, then boycotting the offseason program last year. A more vindictive GM would have sentenced Bennett to a year of NFL purgatory before free agency by trading him to the Browns or some other woebegone team. But with few offers at all for Bennett, he took what he could get from the Patriots — probably the only team in the NFL that could absorb all of Bennett’s Marty-ness and still win.

The Bears traded Bennett and a sixth-round pick (No. 204) for a fourth-round pick (No. 127) and took Northern Iowa cornerback Deiondre Hall.

4a. Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season but was actually less productive after Rob Gronkowski suffered a back injury — 17 receptions for 197 yards and three touchdowns in seven games. Bears third-stringer Daniel Brown had 16 receptions for 124 yards and one touchdown in the same span — with Matt Barkley at quarterback.

4b. It was amusing to see the Martellus Bennett Show celebrated at the Super Bowl — he always makes a great first impression. Kudos to Bennett for acknowledging mistakes he made that led to his departure from Chicago, but if he thinks his divorce from the Bears was anyone else’s fault but his how, he’s deluding himself.

As it is, Bennett is a Pro Bowl caliber tight end playing for his fourth team in six seasons — the Cowboys (2011), Giants (2012), Bears (2013-15) and Patriots (2016). After winning a Super Bowl ring, he can stay with the Patriots at their price or go elsewhere at his price. Too bad there is not a line on which way he’ll go.

5. Prying Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots looked like it would be a little more difficult than expected after Tom Brady’s difficult first half against the Falcons. Even after Brady’s recovery, the first-half scare might make the Patriots think twice about trading Garoppolo.

Still, the Bears are expected to be first in line if the Patriots entertain offers for the 2014 second-round draft pick. The Patriots likely will be looking for a first-round pick, and the Bears aren’t likely to part with the No. 3 overall pick. Pace might have to get creative to make it work — and don’t put it past him.

5a. The pursuit of Garoppolo, the former Arlington Cowboys, Rolling Meadows and Eastern Illinois star, could be a huge test of Pace’s intuition about quarterbacks. Garoppolo has started just two games in the NFL. Can he be as effective in a less-established offense? And can he stay healthy? He was injured in just his second NFL start — that could be a red flag for a team like the Bears with their injury history in Pace’s two seasons as general manager.

6. You can’t discount the importance of finding a quarterback who not only is elite, but durable. With the Patriots’ victory over the Falcons, the last 14 quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl have started 95.4 percent of their games in their career — missing just 78 games over 98 seasons.

Tom Brady has started every game he’s been eligible for in 15 of his 16 seasons in the NFL — including the last 141 straight. Eli Manning has never missed a game in 13 seasons — 211 consecutive starts. Russell Wilson has played in 92-of-92 starts since entering the league. Drew Brees has missed eight games in 15 seasons. Aaron Rodgers has missed nine games in nine seasons. Peyton Manning started every game in 16 of his 18 seasons.

6a. If the Falcons had won, the quarterback-durability quotient would actually have gone up. Matt Ryan has started and finished 148-of-151 games (98.0 percent) in his nine-year career, including the last 122 in a row.

6b. In his eight seasons with the Bears, Jay Cutler was tough, but not durable. He suffered at least one injury in six of his seasons. He started and finished 97-of-129 games as the starter (75.2 percent).

After the Cutler experience, Pace has his eye out for a quarterback who can stay healthy.

“John always says the best ability is availability, so it’s something we touch on,” Pace said at the Senior Bowl. “But you definitely can feel toughness in a quarterback, not just when you look at their durability overall, but you can see toughness in the pocket — the guys who are willing to stay in there and deliver an accurate football and take a hit.

“It definitely shows up. Guys who will play with some nicks and bruises throughout the game and not flinch when the rush is coming — it’s definitely something we measure.”

7. The Bears’ demise since playing in the Super Bowl after the 2006 season is well-documented, but relative to the rest of the league, their downfall — one playoff berth in 10 seasons since losing Super Bowl XLI is even more disappointing.

Since the advent of the current 12-team playoff system in 1990, only one team has made fewer playoff appearances in 10 seasons following a Super Bowl berth — the 2002 Raiders had none.

Teams that have played in the Super Bowl from 1989-2006 have averaged 5.0 playoff berths in the succeeding 10 seasons. Only six of the 36 Super Bowl teams have made the playoffs fewer than three times in the Ten Years After:

  1. 2002 Raiders (0)
  2. 2006 Bears (1)
  3. 2002 Buccaneers (2)
  4. 2001 Rams (2)
  5. 1994 Chargers (2)
  6. 1991 Redskins (2)

8. It took 51 Super Bowls for one to go into overtime — pretty remarkable, actually — but all i took was one to expose the inequity of the format. Though the Falcons don’t really have a gripe after blowing a 28-3 lead in the second half, they still deserved to at least have a possession in overtime and respond to the Patriots’ touchdown. The NFL usually moves pretty slowly on issues like this, but changing the OT rules in the Super Bowl to give both teams a possession seems like a logical move after Super Bowl LI.

9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Martellus Bennett had an early holding penalty, but caught five passes for 62 yards against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. He nearly scored the winning touchdown, but could not corral Tom Brady’s pass near the goal line in overtime. Still, he drew a pass interference penalty, which set up running back James White’s two-yard touchdown run that gave the Patriots their fifth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick/Brady era.

9b. Runner-up: Patriots linebacker Shea McClellin won a well-deserved Super Bowl ring after four difficult seasons with the Bears. McClellin played only eight snaps on defense in the Super Bowl (credited with one quarterback-hurry), but was in on 24 special teams plays. McClellin forced an aborted PAT after the Falcons’ second touchdown, but was called for an illegal formation — a call that was absolutely wrong because replays showed that McClellin legally lined up outside of the long-snapper and leaped over the guard.

10. Up next:

Franchise/transition tags can be applied Feb. 15-March 1.

The NFL scouting combine is Feb. 28-March 6

Free agency negotiations begin March 7; free agency signings begin March 9.

Trading period begins March 9.

Off-season programs begin on April 17.

The NFL draft is April 27-29.

10a. Bears top needs: Quarterback, safety, tight end, cornerback, defensive end, offensive tackle.