PHOENIX — A classic comeback, a miracle catch, an epic blunder, a goal-line stand in the final seconds. Any one of those things by itself would have been the defining moment in a Super Bowl, but this game had all of them, and toss in a couple of Cinderellas, too.
On the morning after the New England Patriots’ 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, the hoarse and sleepless combatants picked through the remainders of it, still trying to explain their various acts and decisions. Never has a football game been so eventful, so packed with unforgettable plays and brilliant characters, only to amount to such a stunningly small measurement.
“A yard separated the two teams,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said at an early Monday morning news conference.
The Seahawks had a second and goal at the New England 1-yard line with 26 seconds to go. That’s the unalterable fact that will haunt them. “We were going to win the game,” Coach Pete Carroll said. If they do it differently, the whole narrative changes. Tom Brady is a broken-hearted victim of ill fortune, beaten again by a freak catch. The replay we watch over and over is Jermaine Kearse juggling that catch on the 5-yard line, first tipping it with his knee, and then hand. The most valuable player of the game is not Brady but the Seahawks’ wondrous Russell Wilson, whose record against Super Bowl quarterbacks moves to 11-0, unless it is the Seahawks’ undrafted wide receiver Chris Mathews, who spent much of the last year working at Foot Locker and moonlighting as a security guard before bursting into Super Bowl stardom.
That’s what the record-setting Super Bowl audience would have been talking about in their offices Monday morning, if it weren’t for another undrafted player: the Patriots’ cornerback Malcolm Butler, the rookie free agent from West Alabama. It was a remarkable footnote that two of the biggest-impact players in the game were undrafted free agents, former junior college players who worked their hearts out for their chances, as a short order cook and a clerk. There was a lot of dancing shark and floating rock star nonsense at this Super Bowl, but Mathews and Butler were true dreams.
As the Seahawks stood on that 1-yard line with 26 seconds left, Butler was dying inside. Two plays earlier, he had been the defender on Wilson’s deep pass to Kearse and had desperately tried to bat the ball away only to see it settle into Kearse’s lap at the 5-yard line with 1 minute 6 seconds to go in the game.
“I felt like if we had lost it would have been my fault,” a bleary-eyed Butler told CBS on Monday morning.
Brady, still croaking from exhaustion and a week-long head cold, also relived the moment Monday morning. He had brought the Patriots back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter — and now he was about to get beat.
“I mean, I kind of turned away,” he said. “I saw Malcolm make a great play, and he tipped it and I turned my head. And then the guy got up and started running, and I said, ‘What happened?’ I saw the [replay] and couldn’t believe it. I felt like we were going to win the whole game, and then they made that catch and I had a little bit of doubt.”
Instead, fault will lie heavy on the Seahawks’ coaching staff for that confounding play-call on second and one with 26 seconds remaining. The most muscular team in the NFL, with a choice between the demolishing Marshawn Lynch and the dodging Wilson in the backfield, chose to throw. It was a play-call that came from a basic mind-set of headlong aggression that has been the Seahawks’ signature under Carroll — and which has served them well, taking them to the brink of back-to-back Super Bowl victories. It was a mind-set that simply couldn’t envision failure, much less catastrophe.
“It’s either going to be incomplete or it’s going to be a touchdown,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. The worst-case scenario in their heads was a stopped clock.
But afterward, Carroll and Bevell literally stammered as they tried explain how they could have been so blind.
“There’s nobody to blame but me,” Carroll said.
“We were conscious of how much time was on the clock and we wanted to use all of it,” Bevell said.
“It’s really down to one sequence . . . no second thoughts, no hesitation,” Carroll said.
“Of course, I can say now I wish we had done something different,” Bevell said. “There are 20 different things going through my mind that we can do.”
“The guy makes a great play, an incredible play that nobody would ever think he could do,” Carroll said.
“Things do happen fast here in a condensed space,” Bevell said.
“All of the things that happened before are meaningless to you now,” Carroll said.
It all comes down to that 1-yard line, and that one moment. Brady is standing on his own sideline, waiting to be guillotined, faintly shaking his head.
Wilson steps to the line, gives a telltale glance to his right at a little-used wide receiver named Ricardo Lockette. And that’s when Butler quits dying inside and starts thinking about redemption. He recognizes the play that’s about to happen. “I got beat on it in practice,” Butler said. Belichick had halted the workout and told him, “You’ve got to be on that.”
The ball snaps, and Lockette runs a slant route. Wilson reels a shoulder back and throws. And Butler is on it.
Watch the replay again. Critics of the call are undoubtedly correct: It was a fatally stupid decision. But Carroll is also right: It’s an incredible play. Lockette is not a small man. He’s 6 feet 2 of NFL muscle. Watch Butler as he never takes his eyes off Wilson and dead sprints on a straight line to the inside. He slams his shoulder into Lockette. The force of it sends Lockette fully airborne; he sails a yard in the air and lands flat on his stomach, and can only crawl to his knees, as Butler hugs the ball and surges forward and the exultant Patriots fall in a heap around him. Over on the sideline, Brady screams and begins pogo-sticking.
A single mental mistake by a couple of coaches who weren’t even in uniform will be considered the defining point of the game. In a way, that’s a shame because this was quite simply the finest Super Bowl ever played. Both teams were splendid; neither was truly beaten. Both left every last bit of themselves on the field for 60 minutes and 100 yards. Or at least, 99.
“It never broke our will,” Brady said. “We were down 10 in the fourth quarter, and on the 1-yard line with 20 seconds left, but the guys never gave up. You fight until the end, great things happen.”