Published in the February 8, 2017 issue of The Bells
It was a game that left the football world Brady Gaga.
After a first half in which he played like that impostor in a Tom Brady mask, the New England Patriots’ 39-year-old quarterback put on a Super Bowl performance for the ages Sunday, leading his team back from a 25-point deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime, 34-28, in Super Bowl LI.
Half the crowd at NRG Stadium was delirious, and half was stunned. But Brady was wholly spectacular, surpassing Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw to win his fifth Lombardi Trophy _ a fifth, too, for Bill Belichick, the most of any head coach.
“We all brought each other back,” Brady said. “We never felt out of it.”
The knockout blow was not a pass, but a run, a two-yard carry around the right side by James White, who pushed his way barely across the plane of the goal line on the first possession of the extra period _ the first overtime game in the 51-year history of the Super Bowl.
That the Patriots were even in that position was stunning, considering midway through the third quarter they trailed, 28-3, and had barely registered a pulse. The Falcons looked as if they could coast through the second half and collect the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
Patriots safety Patrick Chung had some blunt criticism for anyone who questions Brady’s place in the pantheon of quarterbacks.
“Whoever says that he’s not the greatest,” he said, “you guys are stupid.”
Now, for more of the stupefying: The Patriots are the first team to win a postseason game after trailing by more than 16 points in the final quarter. It was also the largest comeback in New England history in any game, with Brady’s previous best being a 24-point comeback against Denver in 2013.
“We made history,” defensive end Chris Long said. “We absolutely, positively made history.”
With the win, New England became the fourth team with at least five Lombardi Trophies, joining San Francisco (five), Dallas (five) and Pittsburgh (six).
Even though the Patriots won by only six, it was their biggest margin of victory in any Super Bowl. Their previous four wins came by three, three, three and four points.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was loudly booed by New England fans when he presented the trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft on the podium, the reaction a byproduct of Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension.
“A lot has transpired over the last two years,” Kraft said as the boos turned to cheers. “And I don’t think that needs any explanation.”
New England defeated five different NFC teams to reach the NFL’s mountaintop: St. Louis, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle and Atlanta.
This was a Patriots team that had not trailed in a game since Week 12 of the regular season, and the Falcons _ led by quarterback Matt Ryan, the NFL’s most valuable player _ had the league’s No. 1 offense and a staggering collection of weapons on that side of the ball.
But the Patriots had Brady, which means they’re never really out of it.
“We were just worrying about beating them by one point,” New England receiver Danny Amendola said. “We knew we had to come out in the second half and play, no matter what. They were coming at us with a lot of things. We just wanted to be resilient, we wanted to be tough mentally, and we got it done.”
Getting it done meant digging out of a 16-point hole in the final 5 minutes 56 seconds. That was accomplished with a six-yard touchdown pass to Amendola, followed by a conversion run by White; then, a one-yard run by White with 57 seconds left, and a Brady-to-Amendola conversion pass to forge a tie at 28.
The final tally for White was three touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving.
“We went into the locker room at halftime and said the game wasn’t over,” said White, who called the comeback “an amazing feeling.”
The Falcons are left to ponder what might have been.
“There’s nothing you can really say,” Ryan said. “That’s a tough loss. Obviously very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done. But it’s hard to find the words tonight.”
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn was defensive coordinator in Seattle when the Patriots ripped out the Seahawks’ heart in the Super Bowl two years ago.
In that game, everyone questioned why Seattle coach Pete Carroll would opt to throw the ball _ leading to a Patriots interception _ rather than running Marshawn Lynch near the goal line with the game on the line.
This time, Quinn’s Falcons decided to throw at a pivotal point, when running the ball might have won them the game.
With less than five minutes remaining and the Falcons looking to protect their eight-point lead, they moved deep into New England territory and had a first down at the Patriots 22. A field goal would have made it a two-score game.
But Ryan dropped back to pass on second down and was sacked for a 12-yard loss. On third down, he completed a short pass to Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots 26, but the Falcons were moved back again _ and out of field-goal range _ by a holding call.
“I think at the end, when we go back and watch it tomorrow, there were things that we could have done different or played differently,” Quinn said. “That part I’ll look at for sure. I was impressed with how hard the guys fought and battled for it. That’s why we’re hurting so bad right now.”
They had to punt the ball back to the Patriots, who had a robust 3:30 to work with, an eternity for Brady.
What happened next will go down in New England lore. Brady moved his team into position, including a 16-yard completion to Chris Hogan on third and 10.
The signature play was a 23-yard pass to Julian Edelman, who somehow caught the ball as it fell through a tangle of three Falcons defenders. The catch was even more impressive through the lens of slow-motion replay cameras, Edelman double-clutching the ball mere inches from the turf.
Asked after the game what it meant to be Super Bowl champions again, Edelman said: “What goes through my mind is when I was 11 years old, practicing every day with my father _ crying, bleeding, sweating, dreaming for this moment.”
Then again, who could have dreamed it would happen the way it did?