HOUSTON • Down 25 points, revenge barely mattered any more. Down 25 points, the New England Patriots, whose every day is steak and wine, needed to channel something greater. This was no longer merely their night to shove the Deflategate scandal in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's face and yank another Lombardi Trophy from his hands. Down 25 points, the Patriots were struggling just to cling to their self-respect.
Down 25 points to the young and speedy Atlanta Falcons, the Patriots - older, slower and floundering for much of this night - came back. All the way back. They completed the Super Bowl's finest rally and triumphed, 34-28, in the championship game's first overtime.
"What's going through my mind is when I was 11 years old, practising every day with my father, crying, bleeding, sweating, dreaming for this moment," said Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who caught five passes for 87 yards.
Consider it the greatest comeback and greatest choke in 51 years of this game. The comeback required a crazy circus catch from Edelman, off a cornerback's shoe, that nearly slipped through his hands. But like most games that shift dramatically, it was a combination of the Patriots' greatness and the Falcons' mistakes and perplexing decisions that contributed to the drama.
In the end, though, you'll most remember the Patriots' extraordinary resolve. You'll remember Tom Brady completing a preposterous 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards and two touchdowns. You'll remember him leaping into the air and pumping his fist after James White scored from the two-yard line in overtime. You'll remember the Patriots, complimented often for their brains and ingenuity and ruthlessness, showcasing another trait - guts.
"He was the same as he always is: Cool, calm and collected," wide receiver Danny Amendola said of Brady. "He's the leader, the general, the best ever. And that is the end of the story."
To start the game, the Patriots couldn't have played any worse. The lowest moment came late in the second quarter, when Brady threw an interception to Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford, who returned it 82 yards for a touchdown. For the last 60 yards, the quarterback watched his mistake turn disastrous, first from his stomach, then his knees and finally with his hands on his hips.
The score was 21-0. Atlanta had come to NRG Stadium prepared to crush its "Loserville" reputation. It wanted to win the franchise's first Super Bowl and give the city its second championship in 179 seasons of housing major professional sports teams.
When Atlanta won a bid last year to host the Super Bowl at its new stadium in 2019, owner Arthur Blank sent Falcons coach Dan Quinn a text message about wanting to play in that game. Quinn wrote back: "I plan on getting there sooner."
This season, the Falcons backed up the bold aspiration, getting better as the season progressed and rolling their way to this game with convincing victories over Seattle and Green Bay. The dominance continued into the fourth quarter of this game. The Falcons led 28-9 entering the final 15 minutes.
FIGURING OUT THE CRAZIEST SUPER BOWL OF THEM ALL
The Falcons' win probability, according to ESPN, after Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit a 33-yard field goal with 9min 44sec left in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 16 points. According to Neil Paine of ESPN, no team has ever overcome a lower win probability in the second half of the Super Bowl than New England did on Sunday.
The longest game-winning drive ever by Brady in the play-offs, one yard more than his previous best, a 74-yard drive against the Baltimore Ravens in the 2015 divisional game. The Patriots' previous longest game-winning drive in the Super Bowl was against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX (64 yards).
Tom Brady's new Super Bowl record for yardage, set on 43 completed passes, which breaks St Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner's mark (414 yards) against the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Total number run by New England, breaking the NFL record (regular season and play-offs) set by the Pittsburgh Steelers (84) in Super Bowl XXX. Atlanta ran 46 plays.
Receptions by James White, breaking the Super Bowl record held by Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (13 catches) during Super Bowl XLVIII. If not for Brady's out-of-this-world heroics, White would be the game's most valuable player. He had 110 yards and a touchdown in the passing game and added two more scores on the ground.
But the Patriots weren't rattled. After two first-half turnovers, the offence took care of the ball and continued to mount drives. Dont'a Hightower made a key defensive play, sacking Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and forcing a fumble that defensive lineman Alan Branch recovered. It led to Brady's touchdown pass to Amendola and a two-point conversion that cut the deficit to 28-20.
The Falcons' potent offence crumbled in the fourth quarter. Ryan's fumble came on a third-and-one play, in which he took a five-step drop after a shotgun snap. For a team so good at running the ball and making quick throws, it was a complicated play-call by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Atlanta had spent 51 meandering seasons trying to build a franchise worthy of acclaim. Finally, it did. And then it watched the championship slip away.
"No doubt, that was a tough one for us," Quinn said. "That's a hard one in the locker room. No place to put that one mentally for us."
In the other locker room, Brady said, "We're all going to remember this for the rest of our lives."
During the trophy presentation, New England owner Robert Kraft accepted the Lombardi Trophy, shook Goodell's hand without really acknowledging him and then gloated with the microphone: "This is unequivocally the sweetest."
WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES