Never in six decades of playing, watching and writing about sports have I seen anything like the dramatic comeback the New England Patriots mounted in Super Bowl LI Sunday night.
Not when John Havlicek stole the ball to beat the 76ers in the 1965 NBA Eastern Conference Final. Not when the Impossible Dream Red Sox won the 1967 American League pennant on the last day of the season. Not when Carlton Fisk won Game 6 of the 1975 World Series with his 12th inning home run. Not when Mike Eruzione scored for a 4-3 lead and Jim Craig saved every Soviet shot in the last 10 minutes of the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980. Not when Adam Vinatieri kicked the field goal that gave the Patriots their first Super Bowl victory in 2002. Not when David Ortiz led the Red Sox out of their 0-3 abyss against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
Each of those stands on a pedestal in my pantheon of memorable sports moments, but what the Patriots did Sunday night outshines them all. To come back from a 25-point deficit and tie the score with 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter and then win in overtime, 34-28, against the Atlanta Falcons was unbelievable, incredible, outrageous, miraculous, mind-boggling, improbable, stunning, insane, and then some. Twelve hours later I’m still searching for the exact word or phrase to describe the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Thirty-one unanswered points? Ridiculous!
Let’s admit it. Trailing 21-3 at the half, the Patriots looked like a team on the brink of embarrassment, right? LeGarrette Blount’s fumble in the second quarter led to Atlanta’s first touchdown. Regular-season MVP Matt Ryan threw a 19-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead, and Robert Alford’s interception and 82-yard return for a touchdown with 2:36 remaining in the half put the Falcons ahead 21-0.
21-0, Atlanta! Who would have been so brash as to predict that start? Nobody, not even the Falcons.
Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal with five seconds left in the half did nothing to instill any confidence in Patriots Nation. And when Taylor Gabriel ripped off a pair of runs for 52 yards to start the second half and Ryan tossed a six-yard touchdown pass for a 28-3 lead, the game was over, right? A 25-point lead is at least a four-possession game, right? The Falcons, younger, faster, stronger, were the superior team, right? Gostkowski proved as much when he drove his extra-point attempt off the right goal post after James White’s first touchdown. The Patriots trailed, 28-9, with 2:12 left in the third. This game was O-V-E-R! So what if Gostkowski kicked a 33-yard field goal with 9:44 to play in the fourth. It was still 28-12, Super Bowl LI over except for the Lombardi Trophy presentation to the Falcons.
But, praise the Lord, the Patriots never got the message. The ultimate fourth-quarter football team going all the way back to 2002, when Brady, the unknown second-year quarterback, took them close enough for Vinatieri to beat the favored St. Louis Rams, went to work. Dont’a Hightower sacked Ryan, forcing a fumble recovered by Alan Branch. Five plays later, Brady connected with Danny Amendola for a six-yard TD. White took a direct snap and went up the middle for the two-point conversion, making it 28-20 with 5:56 to play. Uh-oh, maybe this game was not over after all.
All the Falcons needed were two or three first downs to waste the clock and a field goal to waste the Patriots. Instead, after a perfect throw by Ryan and a spectacular catch by Julio Jones put the ball on the New England 22, Trey Flowers sacked Ryan, a holding penalty pushed them out of field goal range and they punted to the Pats 9-yard line.
Ninety-one yards to go and 3:30 in which to cover the distance? Patriots perfect! This game was far from over. Brady, now playing like a youngster and not a 39-year-old veteran, completed passes. Julian Edelman, tangled among three defenders, somehow made a sensational catch with the ball an inch from the turf after it had caromed off safety Ricardo Allen’s leg. White scored from the 1-yard line with 57 seconds left. Amendola caught the two-point conversion pass. 28-28!
The Falcons went nowhere, and suddenly the game that was O-V-E-R was heading to O-V-E-R-T-I-M-E! The Patriots won the toss, and New England fans knew for sure the game was almost over. Brady drove his team down the field, and White nudged his way across the goal line for the clinching touchdown, his third of the game.
Unbelievable? Absolutely! The greatest comeback in Super Bowl history ended in the first overtime in Super Bowl history.
Record-breaking? Absolutely! Brady completed 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards, records, in his seventh Super Bowl, a record. White caught 14 passes and scored 20 points, records. Brady and Bill Belichick won their fifth Super Bowl, records for a quarterback and head coach. Brady won his fourth Super Bowl MVP, a record. According to multiple sources, 24 records were set and seven tied in Super Bowl LI, an unforgettable performance that overshadowed Super Bowl commercials and Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show.
This Super Bowl cemented the Belichick-Brady-Patriots legacy and set the standard for all future Super Bowls. It also proved, once again, that the game is not over until the clock shows zeroes.