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An oral history of the ‘unreal’ ending to the final drive of Super Bowl XLIX

It’s been over a year since cornerback Malcolm Butler stepped in front of Russell Wilson’s pass to clinch a thrilling Super Bowl XLIX win for the Patriots, but the final moments—and the plays leading up to those moments—have gone largely untold by many of the principal characters. 

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It’s been over a year since cornerback Malcolm Butler jumped in front of a pass at the goal line to clinch Super Bowl XLIX for the Patriots, but the story of the final moments—and the plays leading up to those moments—has gone largely untold by many of the game’s principal characters. With the benefit of a season’s worth of perspective, the players, announcers and oddsmakers who found themselves at the center of one of the greatest finishes in Super Bowl history relive the Seahawks’ final drive, play by play. Super Bowl 50 has a lot to live up to. [SI’s Greg Bishop and Emily Kaplan contributed reporting.]

Thanks to touchdown passes by Tom Brady on consecutive drives, the Patriots had come back from a 10-point deficit to take a 28–24 lead with 2:02 left in the game. After a touchback, the Seahawks took the field with all three timeouts and the two-minute warning at their disposal, needing a touchdown to win the game.

Al Michaels (NBC play-by-play announcer): You go into a game, and you just want it to be dramatic and exciting and just come down to the end, so it had the makings of that. We were setting up for a really exciting finish, and we were excited about it in the booth.

Shane Vereen (Patriots running back, now with the Giants): I was 110% confident in the defense.

Jay Kornegay (vice president of race and sports operations, Westgate Las Vegas Superbook): The book stayed on Seattle [most of the money was bet on the favored Patriots], so I was feeling pretty comfortable at that time that Seattle would be able to move the ball down the field. I figured it was a matter of time before they scored a touchdown.

Vince Wilfork (Patriots nose tackle and defensive captain, now with the Texans): I told my wife, it’s impossible that we will lose this ball game. This was two weeks before we played it. I don’t think we had one bad day of practice the whole season.

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Michaels on the broadcast: “We go back to Brady telling us yesterday, ‘There would not be a game I would want to win more than this one.’ ” Seattle came out of the huddle in a shotgun formation with an empty backfield, with running back Marshawn Lynch split wide to the left sideline opposite Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Lynch ran a slant-and-go, and Wilson lofted a perfect ball over Collins for a 31-yard completion down the sideline. With one play, the Seahawks were already in New England territory at the 49-yard line as the whistle blew for the two-minute warning.

Wilfork: He caught that pass, but they get paid like we get paid. Things are going to happen. My confidence was still high.

First-and-10, 1:55 remaining: Wilson tried to squeeze a throw to the right seam to Jermaine Kearse, but undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler, who replaced a struggling Kyle Arrington earlier in the game, broke up the pass. Kearse looked around for a flag, but none came.

Second-and-10, 1:50 remaining: The Seahawks broke the huddle with 15 seconds left on the play clock. Wilson lifted his leg with four seconds remaining, but left guard James Carpenter and center Max Unger appeared to still be straightening out the blocking assignments after noting the Patriots had seven men in the box. Carpenter finally tapped Unger to snap the ball as the play clock expired, and Wilson called the Seahawks’ first timeout as Wilfork raised his fist.

Wilfork: Anytime you have to force them to call timeout, that’s a plus. For us, for them to waste their timeouts like that, a game of magnitude, you have to be clicking on all cylinders. Obviously, they weren’t prepared for it. We knew exactly what we wanted to do, what we wanted to be in. We knew exactly the matchups we wanted, we were in sync. They were kind of shocked what they were seeing. We know how valuable timeouts are.

After the timeout, the Seahawks sent in Chris Matthews, an unheralded receiver who had caught four of the five passes thrown to him for 109 yards and a touchdown to that point, and took the field with the same formation they had shown before the timeout: trips to the right, Lynch and a tight end to Wilson’s left. Wilson had all day—4.3 seconds—to throw against a three-man rush, and he heaved the ball 57 yards in the air to Matthews, but it was knocked away by Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner at the one-yard line. Matthews had a step on Browner if the ball was more to the outside.

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Matthews: It was all me. Didn’t have anything to do with Russell; Russell put it where the ball was supposed to be. I just misjudged it. That’s what it was. I allowed him to get in front of me thinking that I was just going to be able to jump behind him and catch the ball. That was not on Russell, that was on me. But [Browner] didn’t do nothing either. … He got lucky. He definitely got lucky. I’m actually gunning for him. ... I heard he was saying he shut me down. No, you didn’t shut me down. I just wasn’t in those right plays for me to get the ball.

Third-and-10, 1:41 remaining: The Seahawks converted after Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan gave receiver Ricardo Lockette a big cushion to catch the ball one yard short of the first down and turn and pick up two more yards to the New England 38-yard line. The Seahawks went without a huddle, snapping the ball with 1:14 remaining on the clock. Wilson took a short drop and threw a fade down the right sideline to Kearse, who was covered underneath by Butler and over the top by safety Duron Harmon. Michaels’s call on the telecast: “Russell for Kearse and it’s broken up again … Is it? … But somehow, did he wind up with the football? Wow!” He did, indeed, a 33-yard completion. Collinsworth summed up the play: “Unbelievable!”

I don’t know how he caught it. I felt so bad. But I knew that if we had another opportunity, if I could go out there one more time, I could make a play. —MALCOLM BUTLER

Michaels: Nobody knows that he’s completed except for Malcolm Butler, who is standing right there. I remember thinking to myself, I thought it was incomplete because all of the body language had it as being incomplete and then I thought to myself, I’ve seen this play before in 2000 with Antonio Freeman in a Monday night game where Favre throws it up in the air and only Freeman knows he’s caught it—even Brett didn't know he had caught it. He goes into the end zone, and I remember blurting out, “He did what?!” I thought to myself, I could have done it again, but I never like to repeat anything. But it was the full “He did what?!” moment.

Kearse: Honestly, I really don’t know [how I caught the ball]. I just tried to keep my eye on it throughout the whole play. It was just one of those things that happens so fast, you don’t have time to think. I tried to get up and score [Butler tackled him], but even after it didn’t really hit me what had just happened.

Butler: I felt like if we lost the game, it was my fault. I really felt that way. I don’t know how he caught it. I felt so bad. But I knew that if we had another opportunity, if I could go out there one more time, I could make a play.

Dan Connolly (Patriots captain and guard): I thought, “Here we go again, a crazy catch to lose a Super Bowl like with [David] Tyree and [Mario] Manningham.” I definitely thought in that moment that was it, it’s over. They were like five yards away at that point. That thought was definitely in my head.

Vereen: My heart sank. Pit in my stomach. I just put my head between my hands and couldn’t believe what was happening. My head stayed there.

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Darrelle Revis (Patriots cornerback, now with the Jets): I’m thinking, “This is another Super Bowl crazy catch. And I just hope it doesn’t end this way.” Because he caught the ball. You’ve gotta give credit to Malcolm Butler. He tipped the ball. He made a great play on the ball. What I commend him on is him staying with the play. He fell. They end up flipping. He gets up, and he sees him trying to run. So he pushes him out of bounds. Those types of plays right there, players can forget or it might not be on their mind. Kearse could have walked in the end zone. Malcolm did a great job of just staying with the play.

Kornegay: I thought that at that time, we had won even though they were still five yards away. I just thought it was going to be our day at that time.

In the chaotic aftermath of the reception, the Seahawks had to burn their second timeout with three seconds left on the play clock and 1:06 remaining in the game. They had a first-and-goal at the Patriots’ five-yard line. Collinsworth, as the replays of Kearse’s catch are shown: “But they’re not in yet.”

Bizarre things happen when you get down to a year’s worth of work coming down to a snap or two.​ —CRIS COLLINSWORTH

Collinsworth: It’s a long way to go. There’s no way to practice making a three-foot putt to win the Masters. You cannot practice that moment and that pressure. That situation in the Super Bowl, you can practice the plays, but you can’t practice emotions of what’s going on down there on the field in that moment. Bizarre things happen when you get down to a year’s worth of work coming down to a snap or two.

Wilfork: When they made that catch and I went on the field, I looked at all my guys and we were still in sync, and right then and there I said, “We’re not losing this game.” I had the confidence before I took the field, but when I took the field and was with my guys on that field, I knew we were not losing the game.

The Seahawks take the field with their regular lineup: Lynch, fullback Will Tukuafu, tight end Luke Willson and two receivers stacked to the right. The Patriots have a 3–4 look with safety Patrick Chung a yard off the line of scrimmage on Wilson.

Akeem Ayers (Patriots outside linebacker, now with the Rams): They called our base packages, I run in. I’m pretty sure everyone on defense knew they were handing the ball off.

The Seahawks had a perfect play call: a fullback lead to the weak side, with every defender accounted for: Left guard James Carpenter reach-blocked end Chandler Jones to Carpenter’s left and turned him; Willson kicked out Ayers; Tukuafu had Chung; left tackle Russell Okung had inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Lynch was set up to walk into the end zone. But all of the Patriots except for Jones defeated their blocks, especially Hightower (6' 3", 265 pounds) against Okung (6' 5", 310). Hightower got enough of Lynch, with an assist from Chung and a finish from Ayers at the one-yard line.

Wilfork: Okung is a really good left tackle, and Hightower made a career play. I’ve seen that guy grow over his career, and I didn’t expect anything other than what he did. He won his battle, and he kept it alive for us. That was one of those things where we lived to play another down.

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Ayers: At the time, after the play ended, he was on top of me trying to stretch the ball out and I really didn’t have a clue where I was on the field. As I get up, I see that my back was literally lying on the goal line. I’m like, “Damn, that was close.”

The clock ran under one minute as the Seahawks faced a second-and-goal at the Patriots’ one-yard line. The Seahawks had one timeout remaining; the Patriots had two. Neither team called one as the Seahawks swapped their fullback for another receiver and the Patriots sent in their goal line defense with three cornerbacks—Revis, Browner and Butler—and no safeties.

I didn’t pay attention to what we had, how many timeouts they had left or anything. I probably had my head in my hands at that point. —DAN CONNOLLY

Michaels: I thought to myself that Belichick was not going to look very good if they ran the clock out here because they have to save some time on the other end for Brady if they score.

Connolly: [Someone taking a timeout] didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t pay attention to what we had, how many timeouts they had left or anything. I probably had my head in my hands at that point.

Collinsworth: Why didn’t Belichick take the timeout? I don’t think Belichick wanted to take a timeout to give them the opportunity to sub back in with their jumbo package and run Lynch again. I think whatever chance he thought he had in that moment was them throwing the ball. You could write a book on the last 40 seconds of that Super Bowl. What was he really thinking? I’ve heard all kinds of rumors about the argument and debate going on between [coach] Pete Carroll, [offensive coordinator] Darrell Bevell and [offensive line coach] Tom Cable. Is that true? I don’t know.

Wilfork: We didn’t want to call a timeout because we thought they were fidgety and really didn’t understand what was going on, so we wanted to let it play out, let them make the correction. Let them adjust to us. Looking at their film, when they get down there they do certain things, they don’t really have an open playbook. That’s why we let it play. They didn’t have a lot of options down there, and we were O.K. with that.

Vereen: Yeah, I was trying to figure out what the next move was going to be.

The Seahawks broke the huddle with 38 seconds left. Eventually, they wind up with Willson, receiver Doug Baldwin and Lynch to Wilson’s left in shotgun. Kearse was on the line to the right with Browner in his face. Lockette was stacked behind, with Butler four yards off in the end zone.

Of course everyone thought they were going to run it, they were on the one-yard line. But if somehow they pass it, I’m going to be on it.​ —MALCOLM BUTLER

Revis: I thought they were going to run the ball. The play before, Marshawn almost scored.

Ayers: I was thinking they were just bringing in a package to get our smaller guys on the field to run the ball. I’m pretty sure everybody thought they were going to run the ball.

Connolly: At that point I had kind of told myself, they’re going to score, we have to go back out. I don’t think I was even waiting for anything. I think I just expected them to score, and we were going to have to go out and score quickly.

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Butler: Of course everyone thought they were going to run it, they were on the one-yard line. But if somehow they pass it, I’m going to be on it. It was two receivers stacked, and I remember knowing that they were going to throw a pick route.

Wilson took the snap but didn’t hand the ball off to Lynch, who released left. Instead, he dropped straight back.

Collinsworth: When he took the shotgun snap and dropped back, I immediately said to myself, “I didn’t even think about a quarterback draw.” During the play, it never occurred to me that they were going to throw the ball over the middle. It just didn’t.

Wilson immediately looked right and released the ball. Kearse was trying to run a rub route to shield Butler from reaching Lockette, who was slanting underneath. But Browner didn’t budge. That gave Butler room to beat Lockette to the goal line and intercept the pass. On television, Michaels flawlessly pointed out that the little-known Butler had made the play.

When we caught the ball, I didn’t see it, I just knew we had won the ball game. I heard nothing but Patriots fans.​ —VINCE WILFORK

Michaels: For me, as a broadcaster, I got very lucky that Butler was involved in the Kearse catch because he came into the picture, I mentioned his name, so now he’s kind of in my mind.

Wilfork: That play wasn’t made in walkthroughs. We ran the same play where we flipped the formation, and we got beat on it. A lot of people say Butler intercepted the ball, but the guy who made that play for us was Browner when he jammed that guy at the line of scrimmage and gave us a little millisecond to get over the top of it. When we caught the ball, I didn’t see it, I just knew we had won the ball game. I heard nothing but Patriots fans.

Revis: It wasn’t really the rub. But he kind of went under, I think Kearse, or whoever was lined up over there. They didn’t get the rub, and Malcolm broke on it and made a great play.

Kearse: Just didn’t execute it well. It was tough.

Kornegay: I was in the back room with our guys when he threw the pick, and it was disbelief. Really thought they were going hand the ball off, and when he went back to pass, it went so fast it was just a matter of, Did that just happen? It was very quiet and just looking at each other like, I can’t believe that just happened. It certainly cost us a lot of money and changed it from a very good day to about a break-even day. I can’t give out specific numbers, but it’s a healthy six figures. Nevada sports books lost $115 million. That play was ... unfavorable.

Wilfork ripped off his helmet, ran to midfield and collapsed to his knees.


Wilfork: I waited for 11 years to feel that feeling again. It was everything that we work for. The commitment we have to one another, the hard work that we put in, the ups and downs, and the most beautiful moment for me was everybody who counted us out. It was a mix of emotions. I wanted it for me, but I wanted it more for the guys that were on that team, [Jerod] Mayo, Devin [McCourty], Hightower, Jamie [Collins], my teammates. Me, I had one. For those guys to play this game and be able to feel what it feels like to be a Super Bowl champion, I wanted it for them.

Connolly: I was standing looking at the jumbotron, and I know as soon as he caught it, I fell to my knees. I fell right down and I just couldn’t believe it. Unbelievable. The roller coaster of emotions that whole drive, that was the best way to end it. That was unbelievable.

Vereen: All I could think about was, My lord, we won the [expletive] Super Bowl. Couldn’t really believe it. Once I realized it was Malcolm, I said to myself, “It couldn’t happen to a better person.” He worked hard all season. Undrafted rookie. Just did what he does well, starting in OTAs. He worked hard for it, he earned it.

On television, Michaels and Collinsworth were in disbelief that the Seahawks threw a slant instead of handing it to Lynch.

There are a lot of synonyms for unreal, but that’s what came into my heart and mind at that time. I was as shocked as anybody. It’s an unbelievable way for a Super Bowl to end.​ —AL MICHAELS

Collinsworth: A pick play is one of those things that can go backwards, it can get tipped at the line of scrimmage, [Wilson’s] only 5’10”, the pick could be called a penalty. It just never, ever, ever, ever crossed my mind. That was the only time, the whole year, where I couldn’t wrap my head around it. You know what’s really, really bizarre is that I don’t know what I said. I really don’t.

Michaels: The end of the drive, it was so astonishing. I think the word I used was “unreal” because that’s what it was. There are a lot of synonyms for unreal, but that’s what came into my heart and mind at that time. I was as shocked as anybody. It’s an unbelievable way for a Super Bowl to end. You’re working in such an intense state of concentration, especially in the Super Bowl, it’s coming down to the end, there’s nothing in the world that go on ... they could detonate a bomb at my feet and I wouldn’t have even known it at that point because my brain was just a million percent into calling the play, trying to get it right, because you want to get it right because if you get it wrong it’s going to live forever.

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​​​Connolly: Days later I remembered that Bill [Belichick] mentioned how a lesser known guy can make the biggest play. He mentioned that days before, and it wasn’t until later that night or the next day that it all kind of came to me.

Butler: Afterward there was a ton of noise. The celebration—there was so much going on. And I just remember hearing LaGarrette Blount’s voice. Somehow I could hear his voice. And he kept saying, “You have no idea what you just did. You don’t realize how your life just changed.”

Collinsworth: I’ve been on teams that lost two Super Bowls that weren’t as close as that one. I can tell you, no matter what anybody says, they will think about those last 60 seconds almost every day for the rest of their lives.