One could argue that the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl comeback was the best in football history. Considering the stakes, time and score, it’s a reasonable stance.
The Patriots took possession of the football down 28-3 with 8:31 left in the third quarter. A 13-play touchdown drive made it 28-9. They got the ball back with 14:51 in the fourth and, once again, didn’t exactly go uptempo during a 5:07 march that ended in a field goal. At that point, the deficit was 16 point with less than 10 minutes left in regulation.
Here are three other enormous comebacks for comparison.
Buffalo Bills 41, Houston Oilers 38 in 1993
Frank Reich led the Bills back from a 35-3 hole in a frigid AFC Wild Card Game. Houston’s Bubba McDowell took an interception back for a touchdown to open up the 32-point lead with 13:19 left in the third quarter. Buffalo’s first of four third-quarter touchdowns came with 8:52 to play. By the beginning of the fourth, it was a 35-31 game. Much of the heavy lifting was done during a feverish stretch well before crunch time.
Maryland Terrapins 42, Miami Hurricanes 40 in 1984
Reich also led a miraculous comeback in college. He was inserted after Maryland, facing a 31-0 hole, intercepted a Miami pass on the opening possession of the second half. He responded by leading two touchdown drives to narrow things to 31-14 with 6:53 to play in the third quarter. A Miami field goal was answered with another Terrapins touchdown before the fourth quarter began with a 34-21 score. It was 34-28 with 9:20 left to play. Two more Maryland TDs led to a 42-34 lead at the 4:42 mark — an advantage defended by thwarting a late Hurricanes’ two-point attempt.
Michigan State 41, Northwestern 38 in 2006
Northwestern took a 38-3 lead with 9:34 left in the third quarter. Drew Stanton’s Spartans answered with a score at the 7:03 mark to make it a four-touchdown game, assumed possession with 4:41 on the clock and scored again two minutes later. The Wildcats’ lead stayed at 21 until Michigan State returned a blocked punt with 11:22 to play. The Spartans scored offensive touchdowns with 7:49 and 3:43 remaining to tie things at 38-38 before Brett Swenson’s game-winning field goal with five ticks left.
Reflexively, the Patriots rally is being compared to that of the Buffalo Bills perhaps because the pro game presents a tougher obstacle for trailing teams due to reduced time stoppages. In reality, though, New England’s march back most mirrored that of Michigan State’s in Evanston. Although some work was done in the third quarter, there was still a significant hill to climb down the stretch.
The Spartans’ comeback started one minute earlier and necessitated ten more points. It was greatly aided by Northwestern’s inability to run clock and inopportune turnovers in addition to the blocked punt (CJ Bachr threw two interceptions during the comeback). Of course, the stakes were nowhere near as high in an October Big Ten game featuring 3-4 and 2-5 teams as they were in Houston Sunday night.
It’s important to also weight the quality of opponent. This Atlanta Falcons team is clearly superior to 2006 Northwestern (4-8) and 1984 Miami (8-5). The 1992-93 Oilers (10-6) are anecdotally remembered as a scoring juggernaut but in reality only reached the 30-point mark once in the regular season.
You won’t hear any argument from me if you call New England’s the best ever, even if it wasn’t the empirical biggest. Perhaps the most impressive thing was the defensive effort required to shut out a Matt Ryan-led offense over the final 23-plus minutes when a single point would have won it.
New England had to be perfect. They were. Atlanta had to be woefully inept. They were. The Patriots took their sweet time in delivering a counterpunch. It’s hard to imagine they could have waited any longer and emerged victorious.