The ball bounced off Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford’s hands and bounded high into the air, with two other Falcons closing in fast.
With a little more than 2 minutes left in Super Bowl LI, an interception would effectively end the New England Patriots’ slim comeback hopes. They trailed by eight points, after trailing by 25 nearly two quarters earlier, and even at that point, finishing off the largest comeback in Super Bowl history seemed like a tough task for a Pats team that had started the game so poorly.
But while the Patriots would eventually do just that in a 34-28 overtime victory delivered in large part by star quarterback Tom Brady’s 466-yard MVP performance, legendary accomplishments — and yes, the Patriots winning their fifth Super Bowl of the 2000s in iconic, comeback fashion passes that bar — also require great individual efforts, and not always by the players with the biggest paychecks.
“We all brought each other back,” Brady said. “We never felt out of it.”
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The Patriots learned that lesson nearly nine years to the day Sunday, when little-used New York Giants receiver David Tyree ripped their hearts out and ruined their undefeated season with an improbable, blind grab that became known as “The Helmet Catch.”
But on this night, the Patriots would reclaim that lost Super Bowl title, thanks in large part to what Patriots receiver Julian Edelman did with that ball in the air in front of a stunned capacity crowd of 70,807 at NRG Stadium.
On first and 10 from the Patriots’ 36, Brady uncorked a deep throw over the middle that Alford — who mocked the Patriots two quarters earlier by strutting into the end zone at the tail end of Brady’s first-ever Super Bowl pick-six — deflected, only to see Brady and Edelman get the last laugh.
As the ball fell, Edelman — who was lying on a mass of bodies with his hands outstretched — somehow saved it from hitting the ground, hauling it in roughly an inch from the turf for a 23-yard gain that made Patriots fans roar with approval once it was shown on the replay board.
It was one of those rare moments where everyone who saw it seemed to realize it was an iconic moment the instant it happened.
That includes the Falcons, who were noticeably deflated afterward as New England proceeded to finish off the drive on a 1-yard run by running back James White. Brady, who completed 43 of 62 passes with two touchdowns and an interception, completed a short throw to Danny Amendola for a two-point conversion that tied the score at at 28-28 with 38 seconds left.
That sent the game into overtime for the first time in Super Bowl history. ThePatriots, buoyed by the chance to complete a comeback for the ages, won the toss and drove down the field as White scored from 2 yards out to clinch the Patriots’ second Super Bowl title in three years.
“It tells you how mentally tough this team is, you know,” Edelman said. “I saw microcosm of our life right there.”
The win will go down as the greatest comeback, points-wise, in Super Bowl history. The Patriots trailed the Falcons by as many as 25 during the course of the game and by 19 entering the fourth quarter.
Considering no team in Super Bowl history had come back from a deficit greater than 10, the Patriots produced a historic win, one that started off as dreadful for New England as the ending was glorious.
The game was still scoreless after the first quarter, and it took a fumble in Falcons territory by New England running back LeGarrette Blount to ramp up the action.
Blount’s turnover, one of two by the Patriots, wiped out a scoring chance and set up Atlanta’s next score. Running back Devonta Freeman reached paydirt on a 5-yard touchdown scamper.
After a New England three-and-out — the Patriots’ fourth-ranked offense was extremely unbalanced, managing only 93 rushing yards compared to 466 passing yards — the Falcons scored again, this time courtesy of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw a 19-yard touchdown strike to tight end Austin Hooper.
It was at that point that the Patriots, who found themselves trailing 14-0 with 8 minutes, 48 seconds left in the second quarter, finally woke up.
With the help of three Atlanta defensive holding penalties, New England moved all the way to the Falcons’ 23, only to see all of those gains wiped out when Alford stepped in front of a Brady pass and strutted into the end zone for a pick-six that put Atlanta ahead by 21.
Just like that, the Patriots found themselves in deep, deep trouble, though there was plenty of time to mount a comeback.
The Patriots finally got on the board before halftime on a 41-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, but the Falcons refused to let the 30-minute halftime rob them of the momentum. They pushed their lead even further on their second drive of the half on a 6-yard touchdown throw from Ryan — who finished the game 17 of 23 for 284 yards and two touchdowns — to running back Tevin Coleman.
The Falcons led by 25 at that point, meaning the Patriots would not only need a historic Super Bowl comeback to win, they’d also need a historic Brady comeback, since his biggest to date was a 24-point deficit he cleared against Denver in 2013.
The Patriots finally scored a touchdown on their next drive on a 5-yard pass from Brady to White, but it still looked like it simply was not meant to be, as they couldn’t even convert the ensuing extra point when Gostkowski knocked it off the right upright.
Like any true champion, however, the Patriots would not go down quietly. After a Patriots field goal to start the fourth quarter cut their deficit to 16, a sack by Dont’a Hightower – and a fumble by Ryan – set up the Patriots’ next touchdown, a 6-yard Brady touchdown throw to Amendola, and a two-point conversion sliced the Falcons’ lead to 28-20 with 5 minutes, 56 seconds left.
All of a sudden, the game was in striking distance, and the Falcons’ offense — which caused this mess in the first place with an ill-timed turnover— failed to deliver, as a holding call on Jake Matthews essentially eliminated the possibility of a score-padding field goal.
That gave Brady the ball back, down eight points with 3 minutes and 30 seconds left, and it was exactly the type of situation you dream of as a kid, one you don’t want to give a dangerous competitor like Brady.
“He’s a great leader,” said White, who finished with three touchdowns. “He was motivating us the whole game, even when we were down. He just willed us to victory.”
And Brady – who has now won more Super Bowls than any quarterback in NFL history – promptly took care of business, tying the score by marching his team 91 yards down the field on a drive spurred by Edelman’s catch.
The Patriots, of course, finished the job in overtime, solidifying the Edelman catch as a sweet, soul-clearing, memory-sweeping salve to the Tyree grab for millions of Patriots’ fans, as a dynasty for the ages completed fittingly completed a comeback for the ages … and healed some old wounds, to boot.
“It was a hell of a football game,” Brady said.