How the New England Offense Put Together Their Super Bowl Comeback

The Patriots shifted their offensive philosophy early enough to complete the comeback. What changed?

The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl.


At separate points in the game, the Patriots trailed the Atlanta Falcons by 25 points and had a 1.41 percent chance to win the game, according to numberFire Live.

What made the comeback in the game possible -- before the late-game peak effort of Tom Brady, the game-winning James White touchdown -- was Bill Belichick adopting the role of an underdog.

New England came into the game favored by three points over Atlanta, but that hypothetical advantage disappeared rather quickly. The Patriots were down 21-3 at halftime and down 28-3 three drives into the second half.

On that fourth drive, though, is where the coaching of Belichick started to shine through, even if the initial calls didn’t pay off.

Making Adjustments

With 6:12 remaining in the third quarter on 3rd-and-3 from New England’s own 46-yard-line, the Patriots ran a trick play.

Brady threw a pass behind the line of scrimmage to Julian Edelman, and the receiver proceeded to throw the ball downfield to Dion Lewis, but the pass fell incomplete.

As someone who spent part of last week hyping the potential of a non-quarterback pass impacting the game, the result was fairly disappointing -- a loss of 1.4 Net Expected Points (NEP). But what the play did show was the Pats were ready to try some unconventional things to get back in the game. The pre-game Goliath was ready to pull off David strategies during the game.

That would show on the next play when the Pats went for it on 4th-and-3. New England would not have called for the Edelman pass without knowing they’re going to go for it on fourth down, and in that situation, there are still a decent amount of NFL coaches who would have not considered it four-down territory.

New England converted on fourth down, and seven plays later, they scored their first touchdown of the game, a five-yard run from James White.

Down by 21 after a missed extra point and with just a 3.41 percent chance to win, the Patriots tried an onside kick. The Falcons recovered, but the kick itself was another example of the Patriots playing as underdogs. They knew they needed to force an extra possession or two in some way and started trying before many other teams would.

Atlanta’s other two postseason opponents, the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, never adjusted after falling behind early to the Falcons. They just kept playing their game, and by the time their strategy changed, it was too late.

While the two big gambles for New England didn’t pay off, the overall change in philosophy helped set the stage for how the comeback would come into play.

A Different Game

Once play got into the fourth quarter, the New England offense really found its groove. Still, the odds were against them. Entering the Super Bowl, teams had been 3-66 when entering the fourth quarter trailing by exactly 19 points.

To get back in it, the Pats were mixing in quick passes to neutralize the Atlanta pass rush and deep shots to pick up as many yards as possible. Brady was sacked three times in the fourth quarter, and one turned a likely fourth-down attempt for a touchdown into a field goal.

Deeper in the quarter, the Patriots were able to keep their quarterback away from pressure by throwing quick passes at a high volume.

New England ran more plays in the fourth quarter than during any other quarter of the game, and by the end of regulation, the Falcons' defense -- excelling with speed the entire game -- was worn down.

The Patriots' offense wasn’t just running more plays but also gaining more yards per play, as well.

Patriots SplitsPlaysPass/RunYardsYards per Play
1st Quarter1510-5815.4
2nd Quarter2617-91335.1
3rd Quarter1610-6734.6
4th Quarter2724-32168.0

And that’s when Brady started lighting up the field with his play.

Through three quarters, Brady had been bad. He was rushing throws, missing throws, and getting hit. He was one of the biggest reasons his team was down. But that all erased in the fourth quarter, and Brady was a different quarterback. He basically played a whole new game.

Here are Brady’s numbers from the first three quarters and the fourth quarter and overtime. The table below looks at his raw stats but also his total Passing NEP, Passing NEP per drop back, and Success Rate, which is the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP.

Brady SplitsComp/AttYardsTD/INTPassing
Drop Back
First 3 Quarters22/352201/1-2.21-0.0643.24%
4th Quarter and Overtime21/272461/013.920.4660.00%

For context, the league average Passing NEP per drop back this season was 0.12, and Brady's 0.46 would have been a league-leading mark. The average success rate was 47.02%.

Despite those elite marks, Brady wasn’t exactly perfect late in the game.

He had a throw that easily could have been intercepted -- and almost was -- on New England’s final drive of regulation.

On a first down, Brady underthrew a ball to Julian Edelman, which looked to be intercepted by Robert Alford. The interception would have been Alford’s second of the game -- the first was a pick-six -- and the turnover would have given the Falcons the ball back on the New England 45 if Alford had been touched down at the spot of the interception.

With a little over two minutes left, at the worst, Atlanta could have run out a decent amount of clock before giving the ball back to the Patriots. They also could have ended the game with a first down or two. But Alford didn’t catch the ball. Instead, this happened: (Video courtesy: NFL Game Pass)

The 23-yard catch paved the way for a 1-yard touchdown from James White and a two-point conversion from Danny Amendola to tie the game at 28.

White’s Night

As much credit as Brady got for the comeback, the New England offense ran through James White.

White was Brady’s safety valve and allowed for some of the quick, easy completions that kept the Patriots moving down the field. White was used as both a runner and receiver.

In the fourth quarter, he was Brady’s most frequent target, with six passes thrown his way. In overtime, he was the only player to have more than one target. Mixed between some of the shots down the field, White was there, not just on check downs out of the backfield but also split out wide. Wherever he was, he always gave Brady an easy target and usually an easy reception.

White was also the focal point of many of New England’s most important plays. His five-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter was New England’s first of the game. He was called on for the direct snap for the two-point conversion following Amendola’s touchdown in the fourth quarter.

He also ran in New England’s final two touchdowns -- from one-yard away with under a minute left in the fourth quarter and from two yards away in overtime.

On his six carries, White had an 83.3 percent Success Rate and was worth 0.64 Rushing NEP per attempt -- the only New England runner besides Brady to have positive Rushing NEP per attempt on the game. He was also the leading receiver with 16 targets, 14 receptions, 110 yards, and the touchdown. He was second on the team in Reception NEP, just 0.15 expected points behind Amendola.

White should have been named Super Bowl MVP, but at least he’ll have the first overtime touchdown in Super Bowl history to his name.