GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This time, there was no late-game heartbreak in the desert. This time, the little-known receiver on the opposing sideline couldn’t steal the stage and the victory. This time, the improbable and the impossible fell their way when they absolutely needed it most, bringing the New England Patriots’ decade-long quest for a fourth Super Bowl ring to an end.
Who needs a perfect season when the perfectly implausible ending will do just fine?
Returning to the same University of Phoenix Stadium field where their 19-0 dreams died such a cruel and unlikely death seven years ago against the underdog New York Giants, it was the Patriots this time with karma on their side. Down 10 points in the fourth quarter and facing the NFL’s most dominant defense, Tom Brady and Co. exorcised a few demons Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX, earning a near-miraculous 28-24 comeback victory over the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, who were one measly yard away from going back-to-back when fate intervened in the form of Malcolm Butler.
The rookie cornerback came up with the biggest interception in Super Bowl history, stepping in front of Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette to pick off Russell Wilson a yard deep in the end zone with just 20 seconds remaining, sending all of New England into hysterics.
Take that, David Tyree. In a finish both fitting and fantastic, New England finally put to rest the pain of that stunning 2008 Super Bowl loss to the Giants here, winning that elusive fourth Super Bowl, the one that the Patriots have been chasing for the past 10 years. The aura of New England's early-aughts dynasty, so long deferred, is back.
"It’s been a long journey. I’ve been at it for 15 years and we’ve had a couple tough losses in this game," said Brady, referencing New England’s Super Bowl losses to the Giants, which came four years apart in 2008 and '12. "This one came down to the end, and this time we made the plays."
None of which will be remembered longer than the mind-boggling interception that Butler made, just two plays after being victimized on a ridiculous 33-yard reception by Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse, who caught the ball on his back after touching or deflecting it four different times. That stupefying play set Butler up to be the game’s goat and gave Seattle a 1st-and-goal at the Patriots 5 with 1:06 remaining.
But then came Butler’s redemption, as well as the Patriots’. If ever there was cosmic payback for Tyree’s helmet catch, it was Butler’s decision to jump Lockette's inside route and go for the ball. What are the odds Wilson is going to throw a crushing interception in that situation, with the league's best power back Marshawn Lynch having just gained four yards to get Seattle to 1st-and-goal and ready to plunge into the end zone for the game-winning points?
"Malcolm, what a play," Brady said. "I mean, for a rookie to make a play like that in a Super Bowl and win us the game, it was unbelievable."
Unbelievable, indeed. And unforgivable on Seattle’s part. Butler's game-saving moment was only made possible by the worst play call in NFL history, bar none. Not just Super Bowl history. League history. Maybe even football history. Three feet from another Super Bowl championship, the Seahawks elected to call a play that mandated they throw the ball into heavy traffic, rather than giving Lynch another carry behind the strong left side of Seattle's offensive line.
"It just wasn’t a great football thought at the time," said stunned Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, in the understatement of the still-young century. "Great football is let’s make sure we match up properly so we can have our best chance to run it in and score. In retrospect, we could have easily run it and we wouldn’t be talking about this. We might have got stuffed on third and fourth down, I don’t know. This is what happened."
What happened is that New England made the play that decided one of the best Super Bowls ever, and the Seahawks were the team denied in the desert this time. Pressed by the team that seemingly had the inside track on team of the decade honors with another Super Bowl win, it was the Patriots -- the last team to repeat, in 2003-04 -- who instead signaled that late-game magic can cut both ways in Glendale.
"I just had a vision that I was going to make a big play, and it came true," Butler said. "I’m just blessed. I can’t explain it right now. I just knew they were stacked in a two-receiver stunt, and I just knew they were doing a pick route. I knew it was on the line and we needed it, so I just beat him to the route and just made the play."
The New England victory kept obscure Seattle receiver Chris Matthews from joining the likes of Tyree and Mario Manningham in the Patriots’ Hall of Tormentors. Matthews entered the game without a catch in his brief NFL career but wound up burning New England with four receptions for 109 yards, including gains of 44 and 45 yards, plus an 11-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14 two seconds before halftime.
This time, the Patriots weren’t going to be beaten by a defense-first team and some unexpected heroics by a reserve receiver. When Brady marched the Patriots to a pair of long and dramatic fourth-quarter touchdown drives, after trailing 24-14 as the final 15 minutes began, New England's determination to not see history repeat itself was on vivid display.
"We were down 10 and we just said, 'Look, we’ve got to put one good drive together to get us back in the game,'" said Brady, who went 8-of-8 on the game-winning drive and won his record-tying third Super Bowl MVP award with his 37-of-50 passing for 328 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. "We made the plays. We overcame a couple of penalties, then got the ball back and scored again. These games, they’re tough. They go down to the end. I’m glad we finally pulled it out."
When the Patriots lost here to the Giants in such devastating fashion in February 2008, it cost them the Greatest Team of All Time designation that would have come with the first 19-0 season in NFL history. And when New York repeated the feat four years later in Indianapolis, Patriots fans started wondering if the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era would never again reach the heights of those three Super Bowl wins in the four-year span of 2001-04.
But now there’s this memorable 2014 season to put beside those accomplishments. And if it’s the late-career capper for Brady and Belichick, it secures their legacy and their place in the game’s history. The two now join Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll as just the second quarterback-coach tandem to win four Super Bowl rings together. The only other four-time Super Bowl winning quarterback is San Francisco’s Joe Montana, Brady’s boyhood idol.
The current Deflategate controversy aside, the Patriots made their strongest possible case Sunday night that reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated. A third Super Bowl loss in eight years would have made it 10 long seasons without a big confetti shower in Foxboro.
"I never thought another trophy could feel as special [as 2001], but this one absolutely does," New England owner Robert Kraft said in the giddy post-game celebration. "And every true Patriots fans understands [why]."
This time, the Patriots finished the job. And they did it when their hopes looked the bleakest. Back in this familiar house of horrors, New England made up for a perfect season lost by ending a challenging season in perfect fashion.