Shock Jocks: Super Bowl LI delivered another magical finish to a sports championship

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Wednesday February 8th, 2017

This story appears in the Feb. 13, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

After that Super Bowl, every self-respecting sports fan will remember where they were on Feb. 5, just as they will remember where they were last year on June 19, the night the Cavaliers completed their climb out of a 3–1 deficit to beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals, or on Nov. 2, when the Cubs did the same to beat the Indians and win the World Series. No less indelible are the nights of Jan. 9, when Clemson toppled Alabama on a go-ahead touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow with one second left, or last April 4, when Villanova's Kris Jenkins answered a double-clutch, game-tying three-pointer by North Carolina's Marcus Paige with a deep three of his own as time expired to win the national championship. This is to say nothing of Denny Hamlin's photo-finish win at the Daytona 500 or Leicester City overcoming 5,000-to-1 odds to win the Premier League, or anything Katie Ledecky did last summer in a Rio pool. Indeed, if you need evidence that sports provide the greatest drama on the airwaves, by now you've got it. Outcomes this thrilling and unexpected would make even Herman Mankiewicz look like a hack.

At their respective 3–1 low points, the Cavs' title chances hovered around five percent while the Cubs' scraped bottom at 15%. Both were sitting pretty, though, compared with where the Patriots found themselves against Atlanta midway through the third quarter, down 28–3, stuck going for it on a fourth-and-three on the wrong side of midfield. The likelihood of a New England victory at that point, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, was 0.4%. Not four percent, or one in 25, but .4%, or one in 250.

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Games like these spawn books, movies, motivational-speaking careers, permanent social status. Will Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman or James White ever again be allowed to pay for anything at Cumberland Farms? In every town from Sturbridge to Saugus, Taunton to Tewksbury, they are legends now. They join Jenkins and Renfrow and a parade of others in possession of sudden and once unimaginable legacies.

Probabilities, stark though they might be, fail to articulate the collective system shock of the last year. The fan's traditional vocabulary—comeback, upset, stunner—fails too. We appear naïve if we deploy the same awe-connoting words to describe what keeps happening. By now we no longer can be stunned. This is the age of Brexit.

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I remember where I was on that night, too. On June 23, four nights after the city of Cleveland got its first title in 52 years, the people of the United Kingdom voted by a 52–48 margin to depart the European Union. Out to dinner with an uncle born in the former Yugoslavia who was anxiously checking the returns on his phone, I suggested without evidence beyond my own unjustified and retrospectively pompous certainty that no such thing could happen. Uncle Dusan was amused by my overconfidence.

Less than two months later, the man who would become president of the United States told his Twitter followers, "They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!" It sounded like superhero-movie dialogue, not prophecy. And yet. Donald Trump's shot at victory the morning of Nov. 8, per FiveThirtyEight, stood at 28.6%. Other outlets put his chances below 10%. Again my certainty kicked in; I wagered the (meager) entirety of an online gambling account on the, uh, inevitability of Trump's election loss. By midnight I was cursing myself, alternating four-letter words with "Mr. Brexit."

Liberals and conservatives alike fixed on the election night parallels in the Super Bowl. Trump is friendly with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft, so even before kickoff the Pats had a kinship with the President. On Sunday night, after New England cut its deficit to 28–9, Don Jr., the firstborn Trump, quoted a 20-minute-old tweet from The Wall Street Journal that put the Falcons' chances of victory at 91.6%. "Where have I seen stats like this before?" he wrote, appending three emoji of the American flag and one face laughing so hard it was crying. He knew then what the rest of us would soon learn. An hour-plus later, after the Patriots' 34–28 overtime win, many Americans outside of New England and Mar-a-Lago undoubtedly had the inverse reaction, crying so hard they couldn't help but laugh. On Twitter jokes about Wikileaks and James Comey abounded.

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Not unlike the electoral college, football's design has always seemed a little bit zany—from the oblate-spheroid ball to the annual rules changes to the jumble of numbers the game produces (four downs; 10 yards; possible scores of one, two, three or six points). Whether feature or bug, the game's construction can grease the skids for trailing teams: Their playbook opens up, while the leader's shrinks. The Falcons had little difficulty building a lead but tripped all over themselves when it came time to defend one. Might that one-in-250 win probability have been something of a blessing for the Patriots? Who knows?

To calm our uncertain minds, philosophy offers the Socratic Paradox, to which, after the past year, surely anyone can relate: "I know one thing; that I know nothing." Is there any fact in the sports world about which we can be certain anymore? Well, maybe one: This Patriots dynasty is the greatest in NFL history. You can call their quarterback the best clutch performer of our era. Or you can call him Tom Brexit.

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