It was the same feeling of disbelief I had during the third and fourth quarters of last year’s Super Bowl: “This can’t be happening. They can’t be doing this. There is no way they can actually come all the way back. This is insane.”
Of course, I’m referring to the New England Patriots historic comeback win against the Atlanta Falcons. At their most dire point, the Pats were down by 25 points (28-3) with 8:36 left in the third quarter. At that time, I remember not only thinking they were going to lose, but that this particular Super Bowl really stunk. I mean, when you don’t have a horse in the race (I’m a NY Giants fan), all you want is a close game, and instead we were being treated to a historic blowout.
But then, the Pats began their comeback. Rather than the force of nature they’d been earlier in the game, the Falcons defense seemed exhausted, spent, finished. And that’s no way to stand up to the greatest quarterback in the history of the game. Having shown their hand (by revealing all the defensive schemes up their sleeves) and shot their bolt, energy wise, Tom Brady picked them apart play after play after play. You almost felt sorry for the Falcons.
And last week, when I had my déjà vu moment cited above, the Jacksonville Jaguars went through almost the same experience at the hands of the same masters (Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick). In the AFC Championship game, the Pats were down to the Jags 20-10 early in the fourth quarter. Again, the Jags defense had let up very little against the Pats formidable offence, impressing with the pressure they were getting on Brady. And again, just like in the Super Bowl, they ran out of gas too early. The ferocious defense all of a sudden appeared ineffectual, as Brady began a well-established performance of picking them apart for a wild comeback. The Jags had left nothing in the tank when there was still plenty left of the ride, and they paid the price.
Two games, two similar scenarios, two similar and amazing outcomes. It’s enough to make a guy wonder why? What is it about this Patriots team that puts them in a position to win these types of games? What’s going on here? And the closest I’ve come to an answer is alluded to above, and was mentioned by former Dallas Cowboys Quarterback and current CBS Sports Announcer Tony Romo during the Jacksonville game: the Pats are simply better than anyone else at withstanding an opponent’s initial adrenaline-fueled onslaught, keeping their heads, regrouping, making adjustments, and then taking advantage of the fact that you (as the opponent) have no more tricks up your sleeve and no more energy. They are simply better than anyone else at keeping cool when things are going bad, not panicking (which makes things worse) and continuing to perform. They are the tortoise that always beats the hare. They are the opponent who won’t quit. They are the prey that, if you don’t force out its last breath, will rise to kill you.
And an opponent like that is very hard to beat, and just about impossible to vanquish if you are fundamentally weaker (which is the case with most other teams in the NFL). In the history of warfare there are many cases where a refusal to quit by one entity meant eventually defeat for the other. For example, there was simply no way Napoleon’s France was going to defeat Russia unless Russia quit, and it didn’t. There was no way the South was going to beat the North in the US Civil War if the North didn’t quit, and it didn’t. And there was no way Japan was going to defeat the US in World War II if the US didn’t quit, and it didn’t. In all these cases, the loser misread the will to win of the winner, and that is a very dangerous thing to do.
In football, as in all sports, you don’t get to pick your opponent, but you can at least have a good idea what you are in for, and therefore what victory is going to take. To defeat the likes of New England, you need amazing conditioning (so you don’t run out of gas), you must manage your personnel to keep fresh legs in for a pass rush, and you need to never, ever take your foot off the gas or, figuratively, your hand off the Pats throats.
If the Philadelphia Eagles can manage this approach in the Super Bowl on Sunday, they have a chance of winning, but it won’t be easy — history tells us beating an opponent like the Pats never is.