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Tom Brady Tells the Story of the Super Bowl 51 Comeback

From his hideaway in Montana, the Patriots QB recounts the plays that led to New England’s fifth title and explains why it wasn’t his best game ever. Plus more on the Falcons, Terrell Owens, John Lynch and 10 Things

SOMEWHERE IN MONTANA — This was the most amazing thing about the two hours I spent with 39-year-old Tom Brady on Sunday afternoon in a cabin (well, it’s called a cabin, but the getaway area for the Brady clan is pretty darned well-appointed) in the shadow of one of the most beautiful mountains in the world:

“I have zero pain,” Brady said, almost one week to the hour after he took the field for Super Bowl 51. “I feel great. I feel 100 percent.”

Brady had a zen look to him on a brilliant afternoon in Big Sky country. Clear eyes, zero bloodshot. Placid. No limping, no wincing, which took me by surprise after Atlanta’s five sacks and nine significant hits of Brady in the game. And there’s this: Brady has played 261 NFL games, and never has he taken as many (99) snaps as he did against Atlanta. But when we talked, he looked like he’d been relaxing for a month—not just having arrived here Saturday from a hectic post-Super Bowl week in Boston. He went skiing Sunday on a pristine trail with fresh powder. (He asked that I not name the exact location for privacy’s sake.)

Brady does a good job handling being Brady. But who can take being in the eye of the public storm all the time? When I first saw him Sunday afternoon, Brady had a wide grin. That grin was repeated six or eight times on the afternoon, including when he was urging his wife, supermodel Gisele Bü​ndchen, to play photographer for The MMQB with the shot you see below this paragraph. It’s break time, and other than some solemn, emotional minutes talking about his mother, Brady is determined to get away for a while, after the strangest yet most rewarding year of his professional life.

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After the game, I’d asked Brady for some time to dissect the key plays in one of the great pieces of football theater the NFL has ever put on, New England’s comeback from a 28-3 deficit to the 34-28 victory. We did this after his last Super Bowl victory two years ago, on the phone. This time he invited me here. One thing led to another, and we put 90 minutes on tape—much about the game, but much, too, about his future, his family, his season, and the way he lives. So I’ll divide my time with him thusly: Today I’ll put the great comeback under his microscope; Wednesday, I’ll write Part II about all other things Brady—including how long he plans to play. And in conjunction with The MMQB’s podcast partner, DGital media, I’ll put the conversation in a Brady-centric two-part podcast: Tuesday morning and Thursday morning. You’ll have a seat with us for the entire conversation. And for those who’ve had their fill of perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, we’ll have plenty more to interest you this week at The MMQB.

Brady disagreed with my first premise of the afternoon, about this Super Bowl being one of the great games of his life.

“I don’t really think that is necessarily the case,” he said, relaxing in ski pants and sneakers. “I think it was one of the greatest games I have ever played in, but when I think of an interception return for a touchdown, some other missed opportunities in the first 37, 38 minutes of the game, I don’t really consider playing a good quarter-and-a-half plus overtime as one of the ‘best games ever.’ But it was certainly one of the most thrilling for me, just because so much was on the line, and it ended up being an incredible game. There are so many things that played into that game—a high-scoring offense, a top-ranked defense, the long Super Bowl, four-and-a-half-hour game, the way that the game unfolded in the first half versus what happened in the second half … so it was just a great game.”

Well, I’ll quibble with him on that one. I get the angst over the crappy interception that Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford returned for a touchdown, and a few other bad throws. But any quarterback who, on his team’s five biggest drives of the season, goes touchdown-field-goal-touchdown-touchdown-touchdown, and brings his team back from 25 down to win the Super Bowl … that constitutes one of the great games of one’s life.

We’ll start with 8:31 left in the third quarter. Atlanta had just gone up 28-3.

“That’s a good place [to start],” Brady said.

• THE PATRIOTS’ PLACE IN HISTORY: Peter King evaluates how the Brady/Belichick era stacks up against other NFL dynasties

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Atlanta 28, New England 3 (third quarter, 8:31 left)

Missed opportunities in the first half left the Patriots feeling like they still had a chance at halftime.

Missed opportunities in the first half left the Patriots feeling like they still had a chance at halftime.

NFL Films captured Brady going up and down the sideline, exhorting his teammates: “Let’s go! Let’s show some fight! Let’s play harder! Harder! Tougher! Everything!”

“It was similar to what I had felt at halftime,” Brady said. “We came out of halftime saying, ‘Look, we’ve had 20 minutes time of possession, we’ve run 45 or 46 plays, we’ve done a good job moving the ball up and down the field, we just have nothing to show for it because of a missed third-and-one, a fumble in their territory, an interception return for a touchdown in their territory, because of poor execution in the red area … We had over 200 yards passing in the first half [actually 184], so it wasn’t like we were in there at halftime saying, ‘Hey, how are we going to move the ball?’

“So we come out for the second half, defense does a great job getting a stop, which was exactly what we needed, we’re down 21-3. And we come out there on offense and throw an incompletion on the first pass of the second half, which was close to being caught but we didn’t come up with it, then a third down to Julian [Edelman], I hit him running across the middle and who knows if we would have gotten the first down, but we didn’t come up with it and it was just more of the same. … So we come off again, and I’m like, ‘Guys, at some point we all gotta just start making the plays.’ [Atlanta] went down the field and scored to put us down 28-3. And at that point, you can say a lot of things, but ultimately it comes down to what we do.”

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the game that Atlanta played more man coverage than he expected. That meant the Patriots didn’t have as many easy short throws as usual. Combined with the fact that Atlanta’s run defense throttled the Patriots’ ground game in the first half (14 carries, 35 yards), the Patriots had to fight for things that often were easy in their previous 18 games. On this drive, Brady converted a fourth-and-three from his 46 on a quick out to Danny Amendola for 17, victimizing Falcons corner Brian Poole. James White took a Brady flip five yards for the touchdown that gave New England’s sidelines some hope, even if Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point.

“We just needed to execute one drive, and after that drive we’ll come to the sidelines and we’ll talk about the next drive,” Brady said.

“We had an entire quarter left,” McDaniels said a week ago. “We knew we’d get three possessions at least.”

That was all they’d get.

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Atlanta 28, New England 9 (fourth quarter, 14:51 left)

When the Patriots needed first downs, they frequently found rookie wideout Malcolm Mitchell.

When the Patriots needed first downs, they frequently found rookie wideout Malcolm Mitchell.

Great stat from the Elias Sports Bureau that I shocked Brady with on Sunday: In the Patriots’ first six Super Bowls in the Brady/Belichick era, New England never completed a pass to a rookie. In this game, rookie fourth-round pick Malcolm Mitchell was huge—six catches, 70 yards, in big spots—and especially big on this drive. He had catches of 15, seven and 18 yards, and Brady said the reason McDaniels had him in the game, and Brady picked him on routes with multiple options, came down to one word: trust.

“I think he had earned that trust of everybody,” Brady said. “If it was Julian, Julian was going to get it. If it was Malcolm, Malcolm was going to get it. Malcolm happened to be in those spots. And everybody had confidence to have Malcolm in those spots if he got it. He proved everybody right because he came up with the plays.”

Two big Grady Jarrett sacks forced the Patriots to kick a field goal. With 9:48 left, it was a two-score game. When Fox came back from its break, Brady and McDaniels were deep into play-diagrams for the next series. “There were still a lot of calls on the call sheet that we liked, based on the style that they were playing,” Brady said. “The Super Bowl is a strange game. I’ve been in a lot of them, and it may go one way and then it may go the other way, and I know at the end of all those games that I’ve played in the Super Bowls, the defenses have a hard time stopping the offense at the end, in every game.”

Here, Brady said, “I felt like, man, we’re back in the game.”

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Atlanta 28, New England 12 (fourth quarter, 8:24 left)

The Patriots caught Falcons cornerback Jalen Collins out of position on Danny Amendola’s fourth-quarter touchdown catch.

The Patriots caught Falcons cornerback Jalen Collins out of position on Danny Amendola’s fourth-quarter touchdown catch.

The break New England needed, the sack/fumble of Matt Ryan by Dont’a Hightower, set up two of the most interesting plays of the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

One: the six-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola. Watch closely the Fox replay. Brady’s in the shotgun with 31 seconds left on the play clock, with his receivers fanning out and Amendola settling in the left slot. Cornerback Jalen Collins starts on Amendola’s outside shoulder. But then Collins walks, almost aimlessly, to the inside shoulder and stares a hole through Brady. With about 21 seconds left on the play clock, Brady changes the play. He gives Amendola a sort of stop sign, and Amendola moves out a couple of steps. Collins does nothing. Now, Brady can hear a coach talk to him until the 15-second point of the play clock, but he doesn’t recall exactly what McDaniels told him on this one.

“I think he said, ‘Don’t forget about Danny,’ or ‘Danny has a great shot on this.’ Something like that,” Brady said. “I wanted to give Danny a better chance to get open. So I pushed him out because I knew at that point I had changed the route and I wanted to make sure Danny would get the leverage or put him in a better position to get the leverage based on the route that he had. I wanted to move him out because I didn’t want him to get stuck inside of Jalen … [Collins] being inside told me it was probably man coverage, a perimeter corner on the inside of the field … When I pushed Danny out, Jalen didn’t really adjust, so I was really looking outside after that to see if the corner was going to try to get involved and maybe trapping that to the flat. But once I saw the corner go with the outside receiver, or it might have been James White, I just threw it to Danny.”

But, one of the benefits of running a tempo offense is you’ve got a trusted voice in your ear. Brady said he likes McDaniels’ reminders because they’re not oppressive or unrelenting; they’re notes based on what McDaniels is seeing from the sideline. “No question part of the advantage of going fast is the coach-to-quarterback communication,” Brady said. If you’re set at the line with 31 seconds left, there are two advantages: You limit defensive substitutions, and a second set of eyes can help you.

Two: the two-point conversion fakery, the successful run by White. As I wrote last Monday, McDaniels said the Patriots “took it out of mothballs.” It’s the same play they used in the Super Bowl 13 years ago against Carolina, with Kevin Faulk getting the ball and burrowing in for two points. But the difference here was what happened at practice on Friday.

On the play, White lines up next to Brady as a snug sidecar. The center, David Andrews, has to vary his shotgun snap slightly, sending it a hair to the left, and Brady has to fake like he’s getting it, and then White has to burst forward and try to make a hole where they may not be one.

Andrews is normally good at the snap. But on Friday … “He snapped it over, it was kind of at my head, so James couldn’t get his hand up there to get it,” Brady said. “So the ball is laying on the ground, rolling around on a two-point play, on a direct snap when it is supposed to be right in James’ breadbasket. We come to the sideline and it was like the last play of the whole week of practice. You always want to finish practice on a high note, and then to finish … I don’t know how a lot of teams practice, but at the end of the week we do what we call, ‘Move the field,’ and you’ll start at one end and work your way down, first down, second down, third down, and you’ll move your way down the field. Then you’ll score a touchdown and you say, okay, let’s go for two, and you run your first so-called two-point play. And that was it. We moved the field, we scored the touchdown, it was the last play of the whole day, and we ran the two-point conversion and we had a mistake, so who knows? I don’t think Josh lost confidence in that play, and certainly not losing confidence in David, because Dave has been a great player for us, and he has done it a hundred times right.”

I told Brady it reminds me of the Friday practice in 2007 when David Tyree dropped four of Eli Manning’s passes—only to redeem himself with the Velcro catch.

“Oh, don’t tell me that,” Brady said.

The one other point about White’s play: He gave nothing away—didn’t act jumpy or anticipatory. “It is a lot of concentration,” Brady said. “Don’t give it away, catch a snap when you really don’t know it’s coming, so you have to react to it. Then after you catch the snap, read the blocks and get in at the most critical point in your career. I’d say that is a pretty incredible play.”

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The Julio Jones catch interlude

Brady: “I saw Matt [Ryan] step up; it was right on our sideline … I kind of looked through a bunch of bodies and I saw him make the catch, and I saw both refs run in and signal catch and I said, ‘There’s no way!’ I looked up on those screens, and then they showed it once or twice, and I was like, ‘He frickin’ caught it!’ When you actually see the replay, I didn’t realize how close [Patriots cornerback] Eric Rowe was. Then I saw a picture in Sports Illustrated of the catch, in the early pages. It was insane. The height that he had to jump and the concentration to get two feet down … Fingertips. Sideline. Toe touch.”

Atlanta 28, New England 20 (fourth quarter, 3:30 left)

James White’s 1-yard plunge brought the Patriots within two in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

James White’s 1-yard plunge brought the Patriots within two in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

Everyone (and rightfully so) obsesses about the Edelman catch, which was sort of a reverse Tyree. I’m going to respectfully skip that, because it’s been so well covered, including by our Jenny Vrentas last week.

But the play before that, and the aborted play after, were huge.

The play before: Three times in the last 19 minutes the Patriots ran the exact same formation—a three-by-one set (three receivers to the right, one to the left). Three times they threw it to the “one” receiver. Twice that was Malcolm Mitchell, the most inexperienced receiver (by leaps and bounds) on the team. And with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter, with New England 75 yards away from the end zone, McDaniels called it again. The Patriots liked the man-to-man matchups against Collins. Why? Because he is, in the vernacular, “long,” and New England’s scouting theory entering the game was that “long” corners (Collins is 6'1") are slightly slower at stopping and starting. On this play, Mitchell sprinted out 12 yards and then slipped and fell to one knee. The bad part of this? Brady’s pass was already in the air. If Collins had been in a better position with Mitchell, there’s a good chance he could have darted in front of Mitchell for the game-ensuring 35-yard pick-six. And wouldn’t the story lines today be a lot different. Instead of Brady the hero, the stories would be about Brady the pick-six king. But somehow, Mitchell got up and snagged a throw that was on top of him in an instant.

When I mentioned this to Brady, about the pick-six part, he zinged me.

Brady: “It's actually a route Malcolm runs really well … He really sells that go route really hard, he gets the DB running. Every corner is different in the game because there's a scoreboard behind him. In practice you can be pretty brave with jumping routes because nobody cares if you get beat for a touchdown. In the game it's different. They always have to be fearful of you throwing the ball behind the defense … I thought I saw Malcolm start to slip. Then he went behind the left tackle or left guard so I really couldn't see the completion. I just heard the crowd go ohhhhhhh (dejected voice), then OHHHHHHHH (happy voice).”

The play after: During the game, I wondered—why are the Patriots rushing to the line with 2:03 and the ball at the Falcons’ 41 and two timeouts left? Why leave Atlanta with enough time to go down and win the game with a field goal? Two reasons: The Patriots called twin double-moves on corners who hadn’t seen many double-moves all day. And the Patriots, as McDaniels explained post-game, wanted to be in position to get another possession if they didn’t covert the two-point play after scoring a touchdown on this drive. “What are the chances of making two two-point conversions?” Brady said. “Josh was obviously thinking that.” The fact that Brady didn’t chance a throw for a touchdown here isn’t the point; it’s that New England was playing chess here—thinking two and three moves ahead. At 2:03, Brady hit Amendola crossing to the right for 20 yards, to the Falcons’ 21.

White made the last 21 yards himself, catching two quick passes and then scoring on a one-yard dive over right guard. Atlanta, 28-26.

The Patriots had three two-point plays on the play sheet for this game. The first one was the Andrews-to-White snap and run fakery. The second one depended on two receivers turning into snowplows at the goal line for Amendola. Edelman and Chris Hogan plowed two Atlanta defenders just far enough away that Amendola burrowed ahead, and the ball pierced the goal line. Barely.

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Overtime: Atlanta 28, New England 28

Chris Hogan helped set the table in overtime for the Patriots’ winning touchdown.

Chris Hogan helped set the table in overtime for the Patriots’ winning touchdown.

Matthew Slater called heads. The coin flip came up heads. Patriots ball. Ballgame. The Falcons were gassed. The Patriots were energized.

But when Brady looks back at this Super Bowl, he’ll think of more than the game. He’ll think of 111 practices.

The anticipation throws he made in this game were, collectively, his finest achievements and the biggest difference in winning and losing. The chemistry between Brady and his receivers is as good as it possibly can be.

Third play of the opening, and only, drive of OT: Hogan was singled left on Collins. (Poor Collins. He’s got to be having nightmares about this offense.) Follow this. Brady, standing on his 37-yard line, sees Hogan and Collins running stride for stride, almost Siamese twins, at the Atlanta 45. Brady throws to a spot about 23 yards downfield, on the left. Hogan digs his foot into the ground at the Atlanta 37 and boomerangs back, expecting the ball. Collins is a step behind him. The ball hits Hogan in the hands at the 40, and he efforts ahead to the 37. Just a beautiful play. This is the kind of unsung play that wins huge games, and it went a long way, Brady throwing those 11- and 15- and 23-yard comebacks to drive Atlanta crazy.

“It's such a Peyton Manning-type throw,” Brady said. “I watched him for so many years make those throws. I used to be in amazement. Marvin [Harrison] and Reggie [Wayne], they'd cut their route off, turn around, ball was in the air, in stride, 15-, 18-yard gain. How the heck did they do that? There's so much trust from the quarterback to the receiver. The DB can't get to the ball faster than the receiver can. You got to believe your receiver is going to get to the ball faster than their guy. That's what that play came down to.”