Sunday night’s Super Bowl had all the makings of a boring championship game.
The Atlanta Falcons appeared to have Super Bowl LI won in the first half with a 14-0 lead over the New England Patriots—no team had ever come back from more than 10 points down to win pro football’s title game. Then the Falcons extended the lead to 21-0 late in the second quarter, and went into the locker room at Houston’s NRG Stadium up 21-3.
The second half started with more of the same, with the Falcons scoring another touchdown to lead 28-3. With eight and a half minutes to go in the third quarter, most Americans thought about heading to bed. No team, not even the New England Patriots, could make up a 25-point deficit in a little over a quarter and a half.
But the Patriots still had Tom Brady.
The 39-year-old quarterback led New England on five consecutive scoring drives, scoring 31 straight points, including two 2-point conversions, to blow past the Falcons 34-28 in overtime, the first extra period in Super Bowl history.
“Tom has had a lot of great ones. Tonight was one of them,” New England coach Bill Belichick said in an obvious understatement of his quarterback’s game.
It was New England’s fifth title, all with Belichick on the sidelines and Brady behind center.
The improbable and incredible comeback led to 24 new Super Bowl records, with most of them related to Brady’s performance: yard passing (446), pass attempts (62), completions (43), MVP awards (4), career wins (5, tying him with Dallas and San Francisco’s Charles Haley but ahead of quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw of Pittsburgh and Joe Montana of San Francisco).
“He’s laser-focused, and the entire time, there wasn’t a time where we looked at Tom like he knew this thing was over,” Patriots receiver Chris Hogan said. “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. We have one of the best quarterbacks that ever played the game.”
Brady wasn’t the only record-breaker for the Patriots offense. Running back James White scored three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion for a record-setting 20 points.
“When you fall behind by a lot in a game like this, you have to make a lot of great plays and have a lot of things go right,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
But not everything went right for New England in the second half Sunday night: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point after New England’s first touchdown, making the score 28-9. Then, after the Patriots had pulled within eight, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the league’s Most Valuable Player, hit Julio Jones for a tip-toe catch along the sideline that gave Atlanta the ball on the Patriots’ 22-yard-line with 4:40 left in the game.
A field goal likely would have sealed the Super Bowl for Atlanta. Instead, the next four plays resulted in losses totaling 23 yards, pushing the Falcons out of field goal range and forcing them to punt.
Brady got the ball at the 9 with 3:30 left. On the tenth play in a drive that included an acrobatic catch by Julian Edelman, White scored from a yard out and Brady threw a screen pass to Danny Amendola for New England’s second straight 2-point conversion.
That tied the score at 28, sending the game into overtime. The Patriots won the coin toss, and in less than 4 minutes, they marched the ball down the field, with White running it in from 2 yards out.
“That’s for you guys to decide,” said Belichick when asked if this victory was the sweetest of them all.
Team owner Robert Kraft had no doubt about the significance of Super Bowl win No. 5, after accepting the Vince Lombardi Trophy from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who had to shout into the microphone so he could be heard over the boos of Patriots fans who didn’t agree with Goodell’s suspension of Brady for four games at the beginning of this season because of “Deflategate.”
“A lot has transpired over the last two years, and I don’t think that needs any explanation,” Kraft said. “But I want to say to our fans, our brilliant coaching staff, our amazing players, who are so spectacular: This is unequivocally the sweetest.”