Patriots Mount a Comeback for the Ages to Win a Fifth Super Bowl

(Cover Photo) Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrated with the Vince Lombardi trophy after beating the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

Tom Brady became the first quarterback to win five titles, rallying New England back from a 25-point deficit to defeat Atlanta, 34-28, in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.

HOUSTON — The chants rang out long and loud at NRG Stadium in South Texas — not merely from bars or living rooms across New England — until a wall of sound enveloped a team and a quarterback on a mission. “Brady, Brady,” the fans screamed, and it was in moments like this – the first overtime in Super Bowl history – that Tom Brady seemed most comfortable, as if lounging on his sofa in his beloved Uggs.

In his previous four Super Bowl victories, Brady led the Patriots to fourth-quarter comebacks. However sublime, those efforts — against the Rams and the Panthers, the Eagles and the Seahawks — all seemed quaint before Sunday night, when Brady stunned the Atlanta Falcons to author what is undoubtedly the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

The New England Patriots signaled touchdown after James White dove across the goal line in overtime. Credit A J Mast for The New York Times

When James White sneaked into the end zone from 2 yards away, completing a 34-28 victory that defied the bounds of credulity, the Patriots stormed onto the field and raised their helmets and hugged anyone that moved. The Falcons stood as if frozen for posterity, their grim looks reflecting a team in disbelief.

The Patriots trailed by 25 points with 2 minutes 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter. And they won. You need not ask how they did it, or what the Falcons failed to do, and ultimately the details will be lost to time. But the simple answer is that even though the Falcons boasted a quarterback who was the N.F.L.’s most valuable player, they did not have Tom Brady. And that, as always, made all the difference.

Brady completed 43 of 62 passes for a Super Bowl-record 466 yards as New England, Brady and Coach Bill Belichick all captured a fifth Super Bowl, further extending a dynasty born in an era designed to encourage parity. This has all been one grand tour of vindication for Brady, who seethed over being suspended for his role in the scandal known as Deflategate, the letting out of air from footballs to gain an advantage.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was hit by Falcons linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in the first half. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

His performance on Sunday ensured an awkward confrontation with Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had meted out a four-game suspension as punishment.

Atlanta had built a seemingly insurmountable lead of 28-3 with 8 minutes 31 seconds remaining, on a 6-yard toss from Matt Ryan to Tevin Coleman, and led by 28-9 five minutes into the fourth quarter before the Patriots unleashed 10 minutes of mayhem.

The first pivotal play came on a strip sack by Dont’a Hightower, giving New England the ball at the Atlanta 25-yard line. Brady converted the excellent field position into a 6-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola with 5:56 remaining.

Coach Bill Belichick watching the Patriots, who did not score until five seconds remained in the first half. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The Falcons drove deep into New England territory before a holding penalty knocked them out of field-goal range, forcing them to punt. Taking over at their own 9-yard line with two timeouts and 3:30 left, the Patriots marched 91 yards on a drive extended by a catch by Julian Edelman as absurd as the comeback: while falling, he caught a tipped pass, then dropped it, then cradled the ball just before it would have touched the ground.

Brady would hold his hands aloft after White rumbled into the end zone from a yard out with 57 seconds left, and Danny Amendola converted the 2-point conversion to tie the score, 28-28.

By then, it seemed the result would be merely a formality. The Patriots won the coin-toss — calling heads, as they always do — and opted to receive. Brady completed his first five passes of overtime as the Patriots steadily marched down the field. On first down at the Atlanta 15-yard line, he tried to hit Martellus Bennett near the goal line. The ball hit the ground, but so too did a flag. A pass interference call gave the Patriots the ball at the 2-yard line, and White capped the comeback on the next play.

eceiver Julian Edelman improbably kept the ball off the ground long enough to complete a catch that kept the Patriots’ game-tying drive alive. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Only with a cleareyed view of these last five months, after the completion of another N.F.L. season, can it now be said: the anxiety, anger and exasperation that pervaded New England for months, after a protracted saga that cost the Patriots their sainted quarterback for a spell and dented their reputation — none of it mattered. The Patriots reached the final game, just as they though they would. And they won, just as they thought they would all along.

For all of Belichick’s experience, his counterpart across the field, Dan Quinn, had coached in more Super Bowls recently, three in the last four seasons. Before taking over in Atlanta two seasons ago, Quinn oversaw a defense in Seattle that stifled the high-scoring Denver Broncos and that smothered Brady two years ago, at least until an injury to Cliff Avril dissolved the Seahawks’ pass rush.

The memory of that defeat still smolders for Quinn, who from that loss to New England remembers not the game-saving goal-line interception by Malcolm Butler, but how the Patriots went ahead to stay with about 2 minutes left. Quinn may never again coach a defense as fast and physical — words emblazoned on a bracelet he has worn — as the Seahawks’, but the Falcons, on this night, resembled Seattle at its mighty best for much of the game.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan fumbled the ball after being hit by Dont’a Hightower in the fourth quarter. Credit A J Mast for The New York Times

They harassed Brady, swarmed the ball and created turnovers, converting both of New England’s mistakes before halftime into 14 points. Most obvious was the Falcons’ speed advantage, and how, like Quinn’s Seahawks did against Denver, they parlayed it into momentum. Robert Alford’s 82-yard interception return for a touchdown, the second-longest return in Super Bowl history, had the same effect on the Patriots as Malcolm Smith’s for Seattle three years ago.

And that, to an extent, was part of the plan Quinn toted along with him to Atlanta, whose ascension under him began with an evolved way of thinking forged by his time in Seattle: He wanted his players to work as hard as they ever have — but have a great time doing it. The Super Bowl was a blast, until it wasn’t.

Belichick crafted his reputation as a defensive sorcerer by twice smothering prolific offenses in Super Bowls — the 1990 Bills, when he coordinated the Giants’ unit, and the 2001 Rams, in the championship that launched New England’s dynasty. As potent as that Rams team was, it actually averaged fewer points and fewer yards per play during the season, and committed 33 more turnovers, than these Falcons. Scoring 80 points across two playoff victories emboldened Falcons running back Devonta Freeman to call their offense “unstoppable.” It was, until it wasn’t.

Robert Alford returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown as the Falcons built a seemingly insurmountable lead. Credit A J Mast for The New York Times

The image of Brady flailing, helpless, as his team was about to trail by 21-0, encapsulated a modest first half in which he was sacked twice and missed open receivers with unaccustomed frequency. It also seemed disorienting to anyone had watched his previous 14 games, in which he destroyed the farcical perception that the Patriots, by going 3-1 with him suspended, no longer needed him — that quarterbacks in New England’s ruthless machinery are interchangeable, even him.

As merciless as he is exacting, Brady turbocharged the Patriots’ offense with 33 touchdowns to four interceptions heading into Sunday, when he began the game by toiling in a way not seen this season. It didn’t last.

Brady and the Patriots were down for much of Sunday night, but they reappeared in the fourth quarter. And now, after Sunday, after winning yet another Super Bowl, he struck a familiar pose: holding the Lombardi Trophy as confetti fell.

Covered by New York Times

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