And then something amazing happened, something that transcends the good or evil you see in the Patriots, something that replaced petty grievances with a powerful statement about a team amid one of the most dominant eras the NFL has witnessed.
Down 25 points to the young and speedy Atlanta Falcons, the Patriots — older, slower and floundering for much of this night — came back. All the way back. They completed the Super Bowl's finest rally and triumphed, 34-28, in the Super Bowl's first overtime.
"What's going through my mind is when I was 11 years old, practicing every day with my father, crying, bleeding, sweating, dreaming for this moment," said Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who caught five passes for 87 yards.
Consider it the greatest comeback and greatest choke in 51 years of this game. It ended with Tom Brady orchestrating a brilliant 91-yard, 2½ -minute drive to tie the score before finishing with a marvelous 75-yard, four-minute drive in overtime to summon the confetti. And the comeback required a crazy circus catch from Edelman, off a cornerback's shoe, that nearly slipped through his hands. But like most games that shift dramatically, it was a combination of Patriots greatness and Falcons mistakes and perplexing decisions that contributed to the drama.
In the end, though, you will most remember the Patriots' extraordinary resolve. You will remember Brady completing a preposterous 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards and two touchdowns. You will remember him leaping into the air and pumping his fist after James White scored from the 2-yard line in overtime. You will remember the Patriots, complimented often for their brains and ingenuity and ruthlessness, showcasing another trait: guts.
"He was the same as he always is: cool, calm and collected," wide receiver Danny Amendola said of Brady. "He's the leader, the general, the best ever. And that is the end of the story."
To start the game, Brady and the Patriots couldn't have played any worse. The lowest moment came late in the second quarter, when Brady threw an interception to Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford, who returned it 82 yards for a touchdown. For the last 60 yards, Brady watched his mistake turn disastrous, first from his stomach, then his knees and finally with his hands on his hips. Alford dashed toward the end zone, and Brady had an unobstructed view of the only interception he has had returned for a touchdown during a sterling postseason career of seven Super Bowl appearances and five triumphs.
As Alford ran, every stride seemed like sand trickling from the hourglass of New England’s revenge mission. Have Brady and the Patriots ever wanted something so badly? And have they ever faced a team as intent on denying them as the Falcons? As Alford moved from the 40, to the 50, to the 40, to the 30 and then sauntered to the 20 . . . the 10 . . . the 5 . . . the 2 . . . an agonizing reality set in: Super Bowl LI wasn’t New England vs. Goodell. In the way stood the Falcons, fast and formidable, impervious to their inexperience on this stage, ready to honor their “Rise Up” mantra.
The score was 21-0. Atlanta had come to NRG Stadium prepared to crush its “Loserville” reputation. It wanted to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl and give the city its second championship in 179 seasons of housing major professional sports teams.
When Atlanta won a bid last spring to host the Super Bowl at its new stadium in 2019, owner Arthur Blank sent Coach Dan Quinn a text message about wanting to play in that game. Quinn wrote back: “I plan on getting there sooner.”
This season, the Falcons backed up the bold aspiration, getting better as the season progressed and rolling their way to this game with convincing victories over Seattle and Green Bay. The dominance continued into the fourth quarter of this game. The Falcons led 28-9 entering the final 15 minutes.
But the Patriots weren't rattled. After two first-half turnovers, the offense took care of the ball and continued to mount drives. Dont'a Hightower made a key defensive play, sacking Atlanta MVP Matt Ryan and forcing a fumble that defensive lineman Alan Branch recovered. It led to Brady's touchdown pass to Amendola and a two-point conversion that cut the deficit to 28-20.
The Falcons’ potent offense crumbled in the fourth quarter. Ryan’s fumble came on a third-and-one play, on which he took a five-step drop after a shotgun snap. For a team so good at running the ball and making quick throws, it was a regrettably complicated play-call by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who had some outstanding work all season. On Atlanta’s next possession, Ryan drove the offense to the New England 22-yard line, but the Falcons fell out of field goal range after losing 12 yards on a sack and getting called for a 10-yard holding penalty.
Atlanta had spent 51 meandering seasons trying to build a franchise worthy of acclaim. Finally, it did. And then it watched the championship slip away.
“No doubt, that was a tough one for us,” Quinn said. “That’s a hard one in the locker room. No place to put that one mentally for us.”
In the other locker room, Brady said giddily, “We’re all going to remember this for the rest of our lives.”
During the trophy presentation, the Patriots exhaled and enjoyed the moment of revenge against Goodell. As the crowd booed the commissioner so loudly that you couldn’t hear him, New England owner Robert Kraft accepted the Lombardi Trophy, shook Goodell’s hand without really acknowledging him and then gloated with the microphone.
“Two years ago, we won our fourth Super Bowl down in Arizona, and I told our fans that was the sweetest one of all,” Kraft said. “But a lot has transpired over the last two years, and I don’t think that needs any explanation.”
Later, Kraft declared, “This is unequivocally the sweetest.”
But after 64 defining minutes of extraordinary football drama, there were multiple sources of that sweetness.
It was sweet to strike back at Goodell.
It was sweeter to watch a champion reinvent its limits, overcome its most daunting challenge and reign, unequivocally, as the most relentless team in an era that refuses to end.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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Couch Slouch: Patriots’ comeback darkens a nation’s already dark hour