Now that we're officially done with the 2015 season, following last night's lackluster Super Bowl 50 conclusion, here are one writer's observations about the game, the events surrounding it, and what role the Patriots might have played in it:
New England would have won
Going into last night's game, I was among many who believed that Carolina was going to dominate Denver, much like the Seattle Seahawks did two Super Bowls ago to the Broncos in New York. What I should have considered more closely was that the Panthers were due to have a bad game, and boy, did they ever pick the wrong time to have one.
Carolina's game plan against Denver was one that, had New England been the opponent, I don't think would have been all that different. The Panthers relied less on QB Cam Newton's scrambling ability than I expected – an asset I thought he would be able to use to exploit an aggressive Denver front that got after him all night long. Instead, the Panthers chose to run a lot of delayed handoffs to their running backs, most of which weren't effective. The Patriots' rush defense, down the stretch, was coming into its own and would have been able to handle Carolina's runs as effectively as Denver did.
Through the air, meanwhile, Newton had an off night. And when he did make on-target throws, his receivers were generally unreliable. TE Greg Olsen, Newton's most dangerous weapon, was a virtual non-factor all night. Perhaps the Patriots wouldn't have gotten to Newton as much as Denver did, but I believe Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard were more than capable of making life difficult for him. New England's defense would have been able to survive this weakened, mistake-prone Panthers offense, I have no doubt.
Offensively, the Patriots, despite all their injuries, would have been more than capable of putting up 24 or more points against the Carolina D. Denver's offense wasn't all that impressive, just like it wasn't in the AFC title game two weeks ago. Watching Super Bowl 50, I couldn't help but imagine what Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman might have been able to do against the Panthers' defense.
Patriots should have been there
The NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell certainly got what they wanted – a storybook ending to a milestone Super Bowl, with Peyton Manning earning his second Lombardi and, in all likelihood, riding off into the retirement sunset. And good for him. Manning seems like a nice-enough guy, and certainly deserves a pair of titles more than his less-talented younger brother.
Yet, again, I couldn't help thinking how great a story it would have been for the Patriots had Tom Brady been the QB hoisting the trophy. Brady, playing for the first time as a pro in his hometown, the last NFL city in which he's never played, earning back-to-back Super Bowl wins for the second time in his career, earning his and the team's fifth championship, as a culmination of all that frustration accrued during last offseason… As a writer, it would have been far more compelling a plot than the Manning one.
And to think how close New England came to making this happen is astonishing. Yes, the team was beset by an inordinate number of injuries to key players down the stretch, but they still had chances to secure the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC and, thanks in part to some questionable coaching decisions, failed to get it done in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Watching how boring a Super Bowl the 50th was last night, I'm convinced that had New England been the AFC representative, the game would have been a lot more thrilling, on and off the field.
Brady's Bay-Area return
It was nice to see a pair of Patriots representing the team in Santa Clara Sunday night. QB Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, and former wide receiver Deion Branch, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, joined all the other living Super Bowl MVPs in an on-field celebration of the players who gave us some of the greatest individual performances in the previous half-century. Brady made the absolute right decision to attend, in spite of his ongoing legal feud with Goodell and the league.
I was troubled, though, by how many boos I heard from (I'm assuming) the mostly Bronco-biased crowd in attendance when Brady was introduced. On our radio show, PFW in Progress, last week, we wondered what kind of reception Brady might get at Levi's Stadium, and I was of the opinion that, like him or not as a player, Brady is undoubtedly one of the best, perhaps the best of all time at the QB position. Fans who attend Super Bowls, I reasoned, would be fans of their particular team, but also of the game itself, and in that regard, would pay each MVP the respect he deserves for what he accomplished on the field.
Brady proved he was the bigger man for putting his differences with Goodell aside. I just wish the vociferous fans who booed him had been big enough to put their dislike of him aside, at least for this one night.
Going gaga for Gaga
Give the league credit – every 25 years, it chooses the right person for the national anthem. Before last night, the late Whitney Houston's stirring performance at Super Bowl XXV was the gold standard by which all others have been judged. Now, however, she has some serious competition. At the golden Super Bowl in the golden state, Lady Gaga gave us an anthem worth its weight in gold.
I'm a traditionalist when it comes to my anthem renditions, and Houston's was as close to by-the-book as they come. While I often cringe at "creative interpretations" of The Star-Spangled Banner, Gaga's poignant rendition, accompanied by piano, included only a few deviations from the score, and those well-placed improvisations and flourishes were respectful of the music and its lyrics. Her voice was strong, she hit all the notes, and she seemed, like Houston, truly honored to have been given this wonderful opportunity.
Now, I just can't wait to see and hear who gets to sing the anthem at Super Bowl LXXV 25 years from now.
TV ads flopped
Super Bowl Sunday has become that one day of the year when television viewers actually want to watch commercials. It's great fun, each Monday after, to talk about which spots made us laugh, think, and sometimes tear up. By and large this year, however, I was less than impressed with the overall offering. My favorite of the night was by far the Doritos ultrasound baby, which aired in the first quarter (or thereabouts). I laughed out loud, as did everyone else in the room at the Super Bowl party I attended.
On to 2016
The 2015 NFL season is now officially in the history books. While Patriots fans might be weathering this latest New England snowstorm by dreaming about what might have been for their favorite football team, they can warm their hearts by looking forward to next season, which will get underway before too long. The Patriots appear to be in solid shape, roster-wise, with no significant players scheduled to become free agents (DT Akiem Hicks might be the biggest name of this year's bunch). New England remains an odds-on favorite to be back in the title race in 2016, and with only a few areas to address this offseason (No. 2 cornerback, o-line stability, and outside wide receiver), there's reason to be optimistic about this team's short-term outlook.