HOUSTON — The ball hung in the air for a moment, just inches off the ground, lost in a mess of arms and legs. Tom Brady had just thrown a pass into triple coverage, and Falcons cornerback Robert Alford tipped it into the air. Now three players were diving over him, scrambling after it. Two of them were Falcons defensive backs, and the other was Julian Edelman, the intended receiver who was just trying to salvage a broken play.
As the ball came down, it ricocheted off Alford’s leg and hung there for that extra beat—just long enough for Edelman to bat the ball to himself and get his hands around it. At first glance, it looked as if the tip of the ball might have touched the ground. But replay review confirmed the 23-yard catch. First down, Patriots.
An hour earlier, the Patriots had trailed by 25 points midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl 51. Now, Edelman’s catch pushed them into Falcons’ territory, trailing by eight with about two minutes remaining. Before Atlanta could comprehend what was happening, the Patriots scored four plays later and added the two-point conversion to force overtime. Then the Patriots won the coin toss, marched 75 yards in eight plays and James White scored on a two-yard run. Over the second half and overtime, the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points and took their first lead at the very end. The final score: New England 34, Atlanta 28.
Adjust the record books accordingly: this was the first Super Bowl to go to into overtime, and the Patriots overcame the largest deficit in Super Bowl history. Brady now has five rings, the most of any quarterback in NFL history; and four Super Bowl MVP awards as well, also the most. Bill Belichick also won his fifth ring with the Patriots, the most of any head coach; and Julian Edelman forever banished the ghosts of David Tyree and Mario Manningham in New England.
“It was one of the greatest catches I’ve ever seen,” Brady said at his postgame press conference, after he had cried and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. “I don’t know how the hell he caught it.”
In the next room over, Falcons wideout Julio Jones sat at a podium answering questions in a hushed tone. He had made his own spectacular catch on the drive before Edelman’s. Matt Ryan had been flushed from the pocket and fired a pass high and outside. Running toward the sideline, Jones caught the ball at its highest point, planted his left foot, and tapped his right just in bounds by a matter of inches. The catch went for 27 yards and put the Falcons in field goal range. It looked as if they would go ahead by two scores to ice the game, but then…
“Julio,” a reporter asked, “what slowed down for you guys in the second half? In the first half, I thought you had your foot on their necks. And then, what happened?”
“I mean,” Jones said, “I don’t know.”
* * *
The Falcons got off to the best start imaginable. Their young defense, unfazed by Brady, played fast and physical. On the first play, rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell popped Edelman as he went over the middle. Then Deion Jones, another rookie linebacker, hit Edelman a little late out of bounds; Courtney Upshaw bullied his blocker into Brady for a sack; and Grady Jarrett body slammed Brady from behind.
Just when Brady finally found Edelman for a long completion and created some momentum, the Falcons ripped it back—literally. LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots’ bulldozer of a running back, took a handoff only to have Deion Jones rip the ball from his hands.
Matt Ryan, the newly minted league MVP, then led the Falcons on two consecutive touchdown drives, feeding the ball to Julio Jones and handing it off to his two dynamic running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Falcons had scored 540 points in the regular season—tied for the seventh most in NFL history—using this formula. Jones caught three passes for 60 yards, Freeman walked into the end zone, and Ryan threw another touchdown as the Patriots double-teamed Jones, taking a 14-0 lead.
The next drive, Brady came back determined. He had the Patriots deep in Falcons’ territory, but the defense’s speed caught him off guard again. Brady tried sticking a pass inside to Danny Amendola, and Robert Alford jumped the route. Brady, at 39 years old, chased Alford for a few yards, dived for Alford’s foot, and fell flat on his face.
The pick-six put the Falcons up by three touchdowns, and Arthur Blank, the Falcons’ owner, high-fived friends and danced in his luxury box. The Patriots entered halftime trailing, 21-3, and Belichick and his assistants spent that half-hour making adjustments, changing their schemes, and critiquing players.
“We committed the cardinal sin,” Edelman said. “We turned the ball over.”
* * *
Another Matt Ryan touchdown pass gave the Falcons a 28-3 lead in the third quarter, but then Brady took over. Essentially neutralizing the Falcons’ speed and pass rush, he started getting the ball out quicker, especially to James White, his pass-catching running back who arguably could have been the game’s MVP. White caught 14 passes for 110 yards and a TD; he also rushed for 29 yards and two touchdowns.
White scored from five yards out late in the third. Then Stephen Gostkowski, who missed the extra-point on White’s touchdown, added another field goal in the fourth. Asked what he was thinking around that time, Brady said, “I wasn’t thinking much, you know? I was thinking that we just got to score … There was a lot of s--- that happened tonight. And I got hit pretty hard, so yeah.”
Then Ryan, sitting on a 28-12 lead, made his first mistake of the night.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower came free off the left side on a blitz, grabbed the quarterback’s arm and forced a fumble—the Falcons’ first turnover of the postseason. “I see Matt Ryan with the ball in his hands and I want to hit him, so I hit him and took it from him,” Hightower said.
Five plays later, Brady threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola and White ran up the middle for the two-point conversion, making it 28-20 with about six minutes remaining.
Six minutes is an eternity for Brady, who had orchestrated three game-winning fourth quarter drives in previous Super Bowls. Winning this Super Bowl meant more, though. After the NFL had suspended him for the first four games of the season due to Deflategate, some had termed this Brady’s Revenge Tour.
The Falcons nearly denied him a fairytale ending. Jones made that ridiculous catch on the sideline, moving the Falcons to the Patriots’ 22. But then Trey Flowers sacked Ryan for 10 yards, and left tackle Jake Matthews was flagged for a holding penalty that forced Atlanta to punt. The next series, Edelman made his own ridiculous catch that overshadowed Jones’s toe-tap and set up the game-tying score.
* * *
In the madness of the celebration, Roger Goodell found Tom Brady, shook his hand and offered congratulations. Brady nodded and seemed to take it in stride. He later cried on the podium during the trophy presentation, thinking about his mother, who had attended the game despite a serious illness.
Though he was sacked five times and uncharacteristically inaccurate on some throws, Brady completed 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards and was his vintage self when it mattered most. In the fourth quarter he hit on 21 of 27 attempts for 246 yards and one of his two touchdowns.
This win left no doubt: Brady would be considered the best quarterback of all time, Belichick the best coach, and the Patriots perhaps the NFL’s greatest dynasty.
“A lot has transpired during the last two years, and I don’t think that needs any explanation,” Robert Kraft, the team owner, said on the podium. Of their five championships, he said, “This is unequivocally the sweetest.”
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