When the Patriots ran:
Despite racking up some very important plays on the ground, the Patriots running game was never a threat all night long. LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis were particularly ineffective, especially Blount. His first half was nothing short of disastrous. He failed to pick up a third-and-one on the game's opening drive, getting caught in the backfield while trying to bounce it outside off right tackle. Then he short-circuited a promising drive by fumbling inside the Atlanta 30 in the second quarter. He finished with 31 yards on 11 carries, yet another game where he averaged less than 3 yards a pop. Lewis wasn't any better as he failed to find the right holes and often spun right into oncoming tacklers rather than avoiding them. His numbers looked a little better thanks to a meaningless 13-yard run on the final play of regulation but he too was stymied to the tune of five carries for 14 yards otherwise. James White generated then only positive plays on the ground, scoring a pair of touchdowns – including the game-winner – as well as a two-point conversion off a direct snap. His contributions were enormous, but still he picked up only 29 yards on six carries.
When the Patriots passed:
For most of the night this edge went to Atlanta, mostly thanks to the work of the guys up front. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett absolutely owned Shaq Mason throughout, finishing with three sacks and a hurry that nearly resulted in an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone on the final drive of regulation. Dwight Freeney also gave Nate Solder fits. He added a sack and a boatload of pressures as well. When the Falcons weren't getting home their young secondary performed well. Robert Alford's 82-yard pick-six in the second quarter put his team in command up 21-0, and C.J. Goodwin turned in a number of quality plays in coverage as well. But Tom Brady didn't become the GOAT by accident. Slowly but surely he found his rhythm in the fourth quarter – and it took a record-setting performance to get it done. He completed and attempted more passes (38 of 62) for more yards (466) than anyone in Super Bowl history and completed the 25-point comeback. He used White effectively throughout. The running back finished with 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown in a scintillating performance.
When the Falcons ran:
Atlanta's efficiency on the ground was staggering most of the night as the Falcons generating big plays in the running game that New England hadn't allowed all season. Devonta Freeman's first carry went for 37 yards and he finished with 75 on just 11 carries (6.8-yard average) including an easy 5-yard touchdown that opened the scoring. His tag team partner Tevin Coleman was solid as well, finishing with 29 yards on seven carries (4.1-yard average) before leaving late in the game with a knee injury. The pair combined for 104 yards on 18 carries for a healthy 5.8-yard average. The problem for Atlanta was they couldn't get the ball back from Brady in the final quarter. That led to the Falcons lack of possession time that ultimately did them in, and prevented Freeman from salting the game away. A big part of that quite frankly falls on the shoulders of Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who seemed unwilling to run the ball with a huge lead. First he chose to go from the shotgun with an empty backfield on a third-and-one with a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter and failed, then he went away from the run again with his team already in field goal range while protecting an 8-point lead. That led to a sack that pushed the Falcons back when two runs would have all but ended things.
When the Falcons passed:
Much like Atlanta's front, the Patriots pass rush quietly stole this game for New England. They hounded Matt Ryan early and often, coming up with five sacks, including two huge plays that spearheaded the victory. The first came on the aforementioned third-and-one when Dont'a Hightower came free on the blitz and strip-sacked Ryan deep in Atlanta territory. The next came on a second down play with Atlanta threatening to close out the game with a field goal when Trey Flowers took down Ryan for a 12-yard loss. Flowers was dominant up front all night, and Alan Branch also pushed the pocket consistently. When Ryan had time, though, he carved up the Patriots secondary. He found big chunks all night long and finished with a near-perfect passing rating (144.1) as he completed 17 of 23 for 284 yards and two touchdowns. One incompletion was a spike and two others were dropped. Otherwise, he was just about perfect and the Patriots secondary was on its heels all night.
There weren't many game-altering plays on special teams but there almost was, and it came when Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another PAT. He clanked the right upright following the Patriots first touchdown, and that forced the Patriots to convert a pair of two-point conversions. A failure on either would have cost the Patriots the Super Bowl, so it's hard to ignore the impact of the miss. Gostkowski also failed to execute an onside kick, getting called for illegally touching the ball before it had gone 10 yards. Julian Edelman did have a 26-yard punt return early in the third quarter, but the Patriots offense followed with a three-and-out. Punter Matt Bosher was excellent for the Falcons, pinning the Patriots deep all game long, including on the final drive when he forced a fair catch at the 9. Ryan Allen had three of his four punts downed inside the 20 but also shanked one that went just 38 yards. Neither team mustered anything in the kick return game, although Justin Hardy's decision to return the final kickoff of regulation cost the Falcons a chance to tie as he was tackled at the 10. A touchback would have given Atlanta decent field position to start but he opted to take the kick out and paid for it.