HOUSTON – Coming into Sunday's Super Bowl showdown most felt the Patriots offense would be too much for Atlanta's young and porous defense. At least through the first half that wasn't the case.
The Patriots needed all but two seconds of the opening 30 minutes just to get on the board, as Atlanta's overall team speed seemed to knock the Patriots out of whack throughout.
Tom Brady and the offense had trouble getting out of its own way, suffering from difficult field position and when things did get rolling generally New England did something to stop itself.
After opening the game with a three-and-out thanks to LeGarrette Blount trying to bounce a third-and-one outside the right edge, the Patriots moved the ball on their next two possessions. The first came off their goal line and moved out past midfield before a pair of sacks forced them to punt.
On the next series the Patriots marched deeper into Atlanta territory, getting inside the 30 with the game still scoreless. That's when Blount coughed the ball up thanks to a hit from Deion Jonesand Robert Alford recovered at the Falcons 29.
The mistakes did not end there, and by that time Atlanta's offense overcame its sluggish start and had taken control. With a 14-0 lead, the Falcons appeared to get off the field on three separate occasions on the Patriots next drive, only to see defensive holding calls negate all three third-down stops and allow Brady to maintain possession.
It didn't matter.
On third-and-six from the Falcons 18, Brady tried to hit Danny Amendola near the left sideline only to watch Alford step in and pick it off before racing 82 yards for a touchdown. With that it was 21-0 with 2:21 to go and the Patriots were in a heap of trouble.
Even on the Patriots first scoring drive things didn't seem to be smooth. After a short run before the two-minute warning, Brady was hit as he threw on second down and his pass fluttered into the air like a punt. With Falcons all around the ball, the pass floated harmlessly to Martellus Bennett for a 15-yard gain that avoided disaster.
Even on the drive that resulted in a 41-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal to close the half Brady was erratic. He misfired in the direction of a pair of open receivers – first Julian Edelman and then Chris Hogan. And to close out the drive Bennett was called for his second holding penalty, which all but forced the Patriots to settle for 3 points that seemed to at least offer some hope for the second half.
If the pass protection and overall execution doesn't improve in the second half, it won't matter. The Patriots have 18 or more points at the half just once in the last 10 years and they managed to come back and win against Denver in 2013, and maybe Brady has yet another miracle to provide.