In the days following Super Bowl LI, my mind was racing with reflections, observations, and questions. I was in shock and still trying to grasp the gravity of what had happened. That moment almost forced me back to writing after my hiatus, but I decided to catch my breath and reflect on the game during the following weeks. Now, one month later, I can finally take a step back and work through my emotions during the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time.
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Leading up to the game, it felt like destiny and redemption were on the Patriots side. Deflategate had been the top Boston news story for a year and a half and the Pats began the season without their superstar QB Tom Brady thanks to a questionable (I’m being kind) 4-game suspension. The team played well without him (3-1) and when he returned in week 5, he was on a mission. He lit up the league and appeared to have an extra level of motivation (if that’s actually possible). In 12 regular season games, Brady finished with over 3,500 passing yards, 28 TDs (7th best in the NFL), and just 2 interceptions. He had the 5th best completion percentage in football (67.4%) and finished 2nd in the NFL MVP voting (just 4 votes behind his Super Bowl foe, Matt Ryan). Brady led the Pats through the playoffs with relative ease and into the biggest game of the season poised for success.
With Brady at the helm and excitement growing as the game grew near, I felt pretty confident as the ball was teed up for kickoff. I was ready to finally have deflategate put to bed and watch Roger Goodell painfully smile as Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. All those happy feelings began to drift away when the game started and the dream of a 5th ring appeared to be slipping away in embarrassing blowout fashion.
Because I am a nauseatingly annoyingly optimist, I held a belief (although not strong) that this team could comeback, until the 8:36 mark in the 3rd quarter. After a weak drive to start the 2nd half resulting in a punt, Matt Ryan marched the Falcons down the field and threw a short 6-yard pass to RB Tevin Coleman for a TD, expanding their lead to 28-3. It was over. A 25-point deficit with 23 minutes left in the game is insurmountable. I could see the headlines in the papers the next day “Patriots Hopes Deflated”, “Patriots Embarrassed on the Biggest Stage”, “Patriots Redemption Tour Stopped Short”, and “Falcons Rip Patriots to Shreds” (yes, I know I’m a terrible headline writer…so sue me). Even the obnoxious pain-in-the-ass homer sports fan in me couldn’t see a way to victory and was giving up.
What followed next can only be described as the largest emotional roller coaster a sports fan can ever experience.
From the depths of despair, a tiny glimmer of hope began to emerge later in the 3rd quarter when RB James White caught a 5-yard TD pass from Brady. Some life. A heartbeat. Maybe they can at least make this game competitive. Then, just as quickly as the glimmer arrived, it left when Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point. Was that not the perfect example of how the game had gone for the Pats? If they couldn’t even do the little things right, then there was certainly no chance of a huge comeback. The missed extra point error was compounded by the next play; a botched onside kick that Gostkowski himself ran into before it went 10 yards. No one knew it at the time, but the sequence of events following that botched kick would turn the game around for the Pats.
The Falcons began the drive essentially in field goal range, especially with their kicker, Matt Bryant‘s incredible leg. So naturally, you would expect Atlanta to shorten the game by running and taking some time off the clock. Right? Wrong. They pass on first down to TE Austin Hooper for a 9-yard gain. Ok, I’ll give them that one; a nice pass to pick up a solid chunk of yards while catching the defense off balance. Now they could stick to the ground game, waste some clock, and go to Mr. Automatic for a field goal to increase the lead to 22. Thankfully for the Pats, after a 2nd down run that resulted in a holding penalty on T Jake Matthews, the Falcons decided the passing game was the bees knees. After the penalty, 2nd down and long, the Falcons decide to try another pass to Hooper, but this time the result was basically no gain, bringing up 3rd down. Still in long field goal range, offensive coordinate Mike Shanahan dialed up another passing play that ended with Pats LB Kyle Van Noy and DE Trey Flowers planting Matty Ice into the turf for a massive sack that pushed Atlanta out of field goal range.
After that disaster of a possession from the Falcons, the slivers of hope began to grow and gain momentum. With 9:48 left, Gostkowski hit a short field goal to bring the deficit to 16 points (just 2 scores). Despite being frustrated with just a field goal, the optimist in me began to return. “This is just a 2 score game…How the hell is this just a 2 score game?” Just a little over a minute of game time later, my mood shifted from optimistic to legitimate excitement and anxiety. With Matt Ryan once again back to pass, LB Dont’a Hightower came around the edge and got a clean shot on him knocking the ball out, a fumble recovered by DT Alan Branch. All of a sudden, it seemed like this comeback was a real possibility. All of the stars were beginning to align. Could this really be happening?
I don’t need to narrate the entire game, we all know what happened. The Pats went on to grab 2 scores and 2 2-pt conversions in the final 6 minutes of regulation to force OT in dramatic fashion. Once the game got to OT and the Pats won the coin toss, the game was over. Just like the 2004 Red Sox after they finished the incredible comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS, no one was going to stop them from winning the championship at that point. I saw no way the Pats defense was getting back on the field. There has been no greater QB in football history with the game on the line than Tom Brady. As the Pats drove down field, my anxiety level was sky-high, despite feeling like the game was under control. When Super Bowl hero James White crossed the goal line to win the game, the emotional roller coaster was at it’s peak. From confidence, to sinking feelings of embarrassment, to hope re-emerging, to high-wire anxiety, to child-like joy, this game had it all. Heart attack city. It was so emotional and I was in such shock that it took until this past week, nearly a month later, to fully grasp what I witnessed on February 5th. That was the definition of a game to remember.
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In the days following the game, a lot was made of where this sports moment ranks in the landscape of Boston sports lore. Boston fans have no shortage of amazing teams, memories, and comebacks to draw from, but for me, it was an easy choice: #2 behind the 2004 Red Sox. The 2004 Red Sox will likely never be surpassed in my mind. Breaking an 86-year curse and coming back from the brink of elimination in the ALCS against your most bitter rival is sports perfection and invoked an emotional reaction that sticks with me to this day. Besides the 2004 Red Sox, Super Bowl LI is without a doubt #2. As a game, most of it was not a particularly well-played game or entertaining to watch, but from midway in the 3rd quarter to the TD in OT, the mounting comeback is as an intriguing a story as there is in sports. The twists, turns, and big moments were almost too many to count. Add in a little deflategate redemption and the moment gains even more weight.
For some reason, the Patriots and Super Bowl dramatics go together like frosting and a cup cake. You can’t have one without the other.