Super Bowl

From depressing to dynastic: The Super Bowl history of the New England Patriots

New England Patriots’ Tom Brady raises the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons after trailing 28-3 in the third quarter.
New England Patriots’ Tom Brady raises the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons after trailing 28-3 in the third quarter. AP

An entire generation enters the labor force knowing the New England Patriots as being nothing but the epitome of consistent greatness in North American professional team sports. That should be on one of the Beloit College Mindset Lists, that annual list of things showing how incoming freshmen view the world differently than their professors’ generations.

Super Sunday displays that transition most obviously. After appearing in only two of the first 35 Super Bowls (and losing those), the Patriots stroll into their ninth Super Bowl in the last 18 Sunday. Nine of the last 18! That’s exactly half the Super Bowls in a college freshman life, for those of you who suffered under Math’s tyranny the way the rest of the AFC has suffered under the tyranny of the Patriots’ Dynasty.

They do so with a chance to win three Super Bowls in five seasons. A previous incarnation, with only head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady in common with this one, started this dynastic run by going three for four from 2001-2004. They’re the most consistent winners on CBS outside of NCIS and Chuck Lorre sitcoms.

They’re now the NFL leaders in Super Bowl appearances (11) and have a shot at tying Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl title record (six). Contrast that with the franchise’s first 40 years, when the Patriots swung between laughably horrid or just good enough to shatter your heart, bad boyfriend-style. They were the Screw Up Franchise.

Who suffered the worst American Football League title game loss? The Patriots (51-10 to the Chargers, 1963). Who drafted quarterback Jim Plunkett No. 1 overall, then almost destroyed him before the Raiders’ resurrected him for two Super Bowl titles? The Patriots. Who built a new stadium that managed to combine 1970s cement grass artificial turf, a concrete color scheme, being an hour into nowhere and zero character or architectural imagination? The Patriots. (Seriously, Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium looked an NFL version of Arkansas State’s or Louisiana-Monroe’s stadium).

Off-field issues soiled their first two Super Bowls. Their original owner, Billy Sullivan, desperately sold the team after being buried by bad investments, including The Jacksons 1984 Victory Tour (tour promoter Don King, after realizing how badly he’d outmaneuvered Billy’s son, Chuck Sullivan, exclaimed, “He went to ------- Harvard?”).

And, then, in 2001’s second game, they lost franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe on a hard sideline hit. In came a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, who wasn’t even the most talented quarterback on his college roster. He wasn’t with the Patriots, either. But nobody brought more work ethic, icy cool, relentlessness and that intangible It.

Since then, no franchise owns It like the Patriots.

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SUPER BOWL XX

CHICAGO 46, PATRIOTS 10

Jan. 26, 1986

Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

MVP: DE Richard Dent, Chicago

The Patriots’ first Super Bowl came out of nowhere. Their only playoff appearance since 1978 had been a one-and-done in the strike-shortened 1982 season’s Super Bowl tournament. Plus, they entered the 1985 playoffs as the AFC’s lowest seed.

But the Patriots took out the Jets during Wild Card Weekend at Giants Stadium (the Giants beat San Francisco the next day in the NFC Wild Card game); upset the Raiders in Los Angeles; and muscled past defending AFC champion Miami in a dank Orange Bowl, where New England hadn’t won — ever. The first team to reach the Super Bowl via three road wins lived off turnovers by the bushel and a ground game that meant quarterback Tony Eason needed only to make timely completions.

Once at the Super Bowl, they found themselves facing the 1985 Chicago Bears. The 46 Defense smothered runs on the way to terrifying quarterbacks. Running back Walter Payton, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, reeled off 100-yard games. Quarterback Jim McMahon could fire deep shots to world class sprinter Willie Gault. Forcing turnovers? Running the ball? Hold my Old Style, sneered the Bears. The Patriots were Luke Cage facing Superman.

And that’s how it looked after the Patriots turned Payton’s fumble on the game’s first snap into a field goal. The Patriots nearly turned it into a touchdown, but tight end Lin Dawson’s knee suddenly gave out on a pass at the left pylon and linebacker Mike Singletary barely tipped a post pattern throw to Stanley Morgan. But after 3-0, New England, the avalanche of Chicago points and defenders came crashing down on the Patriots.

The Bears scored every which way — offense (30 points), defense (nine points), defensive players on offense (seven). Meanwhile, the stampeding pass rush destroyed Eason. He’d never be the same. New England clearly doubted their ability to run on the Bears and they should have. Among their 123 yards of offense, second lowest in Super Bowl history, only a record low 7 yards came on the ground.

Two days after the Super Bowl, The Boston Globe reported that six players definitely and perhaps as many as 12 Patriots had drug problems. The Super Bowl obliteration and Globe story dulled any afterglow. Patriots fans went into the offseason as sour as, well, as they usually did after Patriots seasons.

SUPER BOWL XXXI

GREEN BAY 35, NEW ENGLAND 21

Jan. 26, 1997

Superdome, New Orleans

MVP: KR-PR Desmond Howard, Green Bay

Maybe the Patriots finally figured out how to do things the right way. Longtime season ticket holder Robert Kraft owned the team. They had two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells, who hired his former Giants defensive coordinator, just-fired Cleveland head coach Bill Belichick, as assistant head coach/defensive backs coach. They had made the right call in the 1993 Draft between quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer.

And, then, maybe they were the same old Patriots. Parcells already was at odds with owner Robert Kraft over who should handle personnel selection. Kraft, for his part, felt Parcells didn’t treat him with respect.

But, after an 11-5 regular season, the Patriots swatted aside Pittsburgh and second-year surprise Jacksonville to make the Super Bowl against Green Bay. An NFL MVP, quarterback Brett Favre, led the Packers offense and an obvious Hall of Famer, defensive end Reggie White, led the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense.

Most of the pregame yak about the Patriots concerned not their chances of winning in their first Super Bowl trip since the Bears destruction in the same Superdome, but the chances of Parcells remaining with the team. As it turned out, better for the former than the latter.

Though the Pack hurled lightning when Favre whistled a 54-yard touchdown to Andre Rison on Green Bay’s second play, the Patriots led 14-10 at the quarter pole on two Drew Bledsoe touchdown passes. Just 56 seconds into the second, Favre to Antonio Freeman for 81 yards put The Pack back in front 17-14.

New England closed to 27-21 in the fourth when Desmond Howard ran the ensuing kickoff back 99 yards. The Packers took the Vince Lombardi Trophy “home.” Jersey boy Parcells went “home” to the New York Jets, taking Belichick with him.

The second Bill would be back.

SUPER BOWL XXXVI

NEW ENGLAND 20, ST. LOUIS 17

Feb. 3, 2002

Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

MVP: QB Tom Brady, New England

Who gave them a chance? Why would you give them a chance?

St. Louis’ Greatest Show on Turf offense scored with style and in historic volume for the third consecutive season. But the Rams got to their second Super Bowl in three seasons because their No. 1 offense was complemented by a No. 3-ranked defense. With wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, future Hall of Famers running back Marshall Faulk, quarterback Kurt Warner and safety Aeneas Williams, St. Louis brought the stars.

New England brought football’s version of potluck dinner. Despite losing starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the second game, the smart Patriots prospered on contributions from the entire roster, along with backup quarterback Tom Brady. And, the occasional break, such as what looked like a game-ending fumble by Brady in the Divisional Round against Oakland being ruled an incomplete pass on The Tuck Rule. Adam Vinatieri still had to hit a 45-yard field goal through a snowstorm to send the game into overtime, where he won it with a 23-yard field goal.

The Patriots also brought head coach Bill Belichick, the Giants’ defensive coordinator when New York held Buffalo’s point-streaming K-Gun to 19 points in Super Bowl XXV. And the Rams didn’t exactly blow the Patriots into Providence during a 24-17 November win at Foxboro Stadium.

To make sure all understood their devotion to the team concept, the Patriots refused to be introduced individually. Instead, they ran out as a team. As the game started, the Patriots pass rushers hit running back Faulk on their way to Warner to disrupt the Rams offensive timing. Ty Law jumped a Bruce sideline route and raced to a 47-yard interception return touchdown that gave the Patriots a 7-3 lead. Another turnover, a Terrell Buckley fumble recovery, set up the 8-yard Tom Brady-David Givens touchdown pass that gave the Pats a 14-3 halftime lead.

Ty Law INT in Super Bowl XXXVI
You could argue this was the play that interrupted one dynasty and began the rise to power of another -- Patriots cornerback Ty Law intercepts a pass intended for Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce and returns it for the first touchdown of New England’s Super Bowl XXXVI upset TONY GUTIERREZ AP

But the potentially crushing turnover, a 97-yard touchdown fumble return by Tebucky Jones with New England up 17-3 in the fourth, got nullified by a defensive holding penalty. The Rams scored on that drive and on a 26-yard pass to Ricky Proehl to tie the game with 1:30 left.

Though out of timeouts, instead of playing for overtime (as TV color commentator John Madden insisted they should), Brady drove New England to the Rams’ 30. He spiked the ball to stop the clock, coolly catching it at the top of an unusually perfect bounce. Adam Vinatieri nailed a 48-yard field goal as time ran out.

One potential dynasty had been aborted by a true dynasty rising.

SUPER BOWL XXXVIII

PATRIOTS 32, PANTHERS 29

February 1, 2004

Reliant Stadium, Houston

MVP: QB Tom Brady, New England

The “wardrobe malfunction” of the halftime show starring Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake as well as the bawdiness of some commercials overwhelmed national conversation for months after the game.

Too bad because few Super Bowls exceeded this one for excitement.

The Patriots opened the regular season with a 31-0 loss to Buffalo and ended it by routing Buffalo, yep, 31-0. Brady developed into a quarterback James Bond, coolly able to handle any situation. Each team’s defense won its respective conference championship game, keyed by defensive backs manhandling wide receivers down the field. Amidst snow flurries in the AFC, the Patriots short-circuited an Indianapolis offensive juggernaut that hadn’t punted in the Wild Card or Divisional Round, picking off Peyton Manning five times. Ty Law got three himself.

The Super Bowl was two games, but not broken down in the normal manner. The first and third quarters with no points and few first downs seemed an homage to the defense-dominated 1970s Super Bowls. Not a total surprise given the conference championship games.

The second and fourth quarters, on the other hand, exploded with plays big and/or wild. With 3:30 left in the first half, the game sat on 0-0. At halftime, the Patriots led 14-10. Crammed into that short span were a Tom Brady-Deion Branch touchdown pass; a 95-yard Carolina drive to a 39-yard Jake Delhomme-to-Steve Smith touchdown pass; a Brady-Branch 52-yard connection setting up a Brady-to-David Givens score; and a 50-yard John Kasay field goal.

In the fourth, the Patriots extended their lead to 21-10, but DeShaun Foster’s 33-yard run and Mushin Muhammad’s 85-yard touchdown catch put Carolina up 22-21. Linebacker Mike Vrabel came in on offense and caught a touchdown pass from Brady (32 of 48 for 354 yards). The two-point conversion gave the Pats a 29-22 lead with 2:51 left.

Carolina needed only 1:43 to tie it on a Ricky Proehl touchdown catch. But, as was the case two years earlier, Proehl’s game-tying touchdown catch was followed by Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal, this time from 41 yards. The key play might’ve been when Kasay booted the kickoff after the Proehl touchdown out of bounds. The Pats started at their own 40, a couple of first downs from field goal range.

SUPER BOWL XXXIX

PATRIOTS 24, EAGLES 21

February 6, 2005

Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville

MVP: WR Deion Branch, New England

Just like last year’s Philadelphia-New England matchup, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots expected to lose both offensive (Charlie Weis) and defensive (Romeo Crennel) coordinators to head coaching jobs after the Super Bowl.

New England had more challengers in the AFC than Philadelphia did in the NFC, but, in the end, this was the matchup most commonly anticipated from August forward. There was the predictable result, too: Patriots by three, as in their two previous Super Bowl wins. Linebacker Mike Vrabel caught a pass for a touchdown, as he did the previous year.

The Patriots got Super again by snuffing Indianapolis’ offense (again) and, in the AFC title game, avenging a 14-point regular season loss at Pittsburgh with a 14-point win at Pittsburgh (the Patriots like symmetry).

Wide receivers provided the break from the foreseen. From a receiving corps known for not having a true No. 1 guy, the Patriots’ Deion Branch broke out with 11 catches for 133 yards. But Philadelphia’s Terrell Owens almost cornered the drama market with a gritty performance.

A broken ankle suffered late in the season on the play that inspired the “horse collar tackle” rule put Owens out for the regular season and first two Eagles playoff games. He proved to be tougher, more determined than anybody thought and not only did he play in the Super Bowl, he caught nine passes for 122 yards.

Down 24-14, the Eagles took possession with 5:40 left. But with quarterback Donovan McNabb occasionally vomiting in the huddle and a curious lack of urgency, it took them 3:52 and 13 plays for a 79-yard touchdown drive.

The Patriots recovered the onside kick. On the sidelines, Belichick shared a group hug with Weis, headed for Notre Dame, and Crennel, who would be the head guy in Cleveland. They knew they may never have it this good together again.

SUPER BOWL XLII

GIANTS 17, PATRIOTS 14

Feb. 3, 2008

University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

MVP: QB Eli Manning, Giants

One game, then one defensive stop from perfection. Surely, the NFL’s greatest finishers of this era would close the book on the greatest season ever.

Almost as if in response to their arch-AFC rival Indianapolis winning the previous year’s Super Bowl (and the last three games against the Patriots), the Pats loaded up in 2007: traded for Wes Welker, seemingly bred to play slot receiver; 6-4 wide receiver Randy Moss, a fleet flyer seemingly bred for the bomb. Then, Donte Stallworth as a free agent.

What resulted: NFL records for points (589), touchdown passes (50, Brady), touchdown receptions (23, Moss) from a passing juggernaut that jerked the NFL toward its shotgun-heavy present. The Patriots worked mainly from the shotgun formation, the first time since the single wing disappeared in the early 1950s that less than half a team’s snaps were to a quarterback directly behind the center.

Also, this was the year the sheen on the Patriots turned to Evil Empire shadow. The Spygate scandal inferred the Patriots cheated to upset St. Louis. And, the Patriots seemed to respond to the controversy and resentment by running up the score. They threw late in annihilations of Washington (52-7) and Buffalo (56-10). Brady got reinserted against the Dolphins for one more touchdown after a Jason Taylor defensive touchdown cut a Patriots’ second half lead to 21.

The only thing that could blow up New England’s Death Star seemed to be a relentless pass rush from a mighty front four that could bash Brady about and left enough personnel options in pass coverage. Only three teams managed that: Indianapolis, which led the Patriots by 10 before losing a midseason battle of undefeateds 24-20; Baltimore, riding emotion after the fatal shooting of Washington’s Sean Taylor, a friend to several star Ravens; and the Giants, which outplayed the Patriots most of the way in the regular season finale before losing 38-35.

And, now, as the Super Bowl entered its fourth quarter, the Giants had done it again to the NFL’s first 16-0 regular season team. They’d sacked Brady five times. This time, the Giants had run the ball enough to run the clock more, cutting down on the number of possessions they’d have to keep the Brady Beast contained. Still, the Patriots led 7-3 until Eli Manning hit David Tyree with a 5-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth. Brady answered three drives later with an 11-yard touchdown to Moss: Patriots, 14-10 with 2:42 left.

The Giants survived a fourth-and-1 when immense Brandon Jacobs plowed for 2 yards. But it was a third-and-5 conversion that would be the play of the game, maybe the decade and one of the most instantly iconic catches in NFL history.

From the Giants’ 44, Manning eluded Adalius Thomas with a pocket dance, then jerked his jersey out of Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green’s grasp and threw a rainbow downfield. Not only did Tyree, a sparingly used backup, out-position premier safety Rodney Harrison for the jump ball, but he held the ball against his helmet — and off the ground — as the two tumbled to the turf. If only a miracle could beat the Patriots, the 32-yard gain to the Patriots’ 24 seemed to be it. Manning ended the 83-yard drive with a 13-yard pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left.

Well, nobody’s perfect — except the 1972 Dolphins.

SUPER BOWL XLVI

GIANTS 21, PATRIOTS 17

Feb. 5, 2012

Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

MVP: QB Eli Manning, Giants

The general rule in Super Bowl rematches with similar casts: what you’ve seen is what you’ll get.

Pittsburgh over Dallas by four through the air in Super Bowls X and XIII. Dallas over Buffalo with turnovers being pivotal in Supers XXVII and XXVIII. Maybe that’s why, though the Patriots entered Super Bowl XLVI as betting line favorites, the buzz in Indianapolis around the official hotels and media centers slightly favored the 9-7 Giants.

Each key side subtracted a future Hall of Famer: no more Randy Moss running long for the Patriots, no more defensive end Michael Strahan chasing quarterbacks for the Giants. But the reason the Giants played Nemesis Kid to the Patriots’ remained the same. The Patriots lived by the pass, now making tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez their main weapons. The Giants, between their front four and their secondary, lived to kill the pass. Besides, the Giants beat the Patriots 24-20 in the regular season.

Retellings of this game usually center around fourth quarter events: Wes Welker’s sort-of drop, Eli Manning’s Peyton-esque missile to Mario Manningham and Ahmad Bradshaw scoring the game-winning touchdown despite trying to stop himself on the 1 yard line so the Giants could milk more clock. The momentum swings of the first three quarters deserve notice.

The Patriots found themselves fighting to stay in the game after an early 9-0 deficit. Brady got busted for intentional grounding in the end zone and the Giants drove to a touchdown after the free kick. With the Patriots on the verge of being an early KO victim, the defense unplugged the Giants the rest of the first half. That gave the Patriots’ offense time to warm up and do what they do better than anyone: close the first half with a touchdown, a 4-yard Brady-to-Danny Woodhead pass at the end of a 96-yard drive, and open the second half with a touchdown, Brady to Hernandez for 12 yards and a 17-9 lead.

A pair of New York field goals had cut the lead to 17-15 when the aforementioned late game events started. Welker failed to make a twisting, but achievable catch of a deep ball from the New York 44 with four minutes left. A punt two plays later left New York on the 12, not buried, but definitely in a hole. On the first play, Manning launched a bomb to the left sideline that sliced down between defenders to a feet-dragging Manningham and, boom, New York was at the 50.

Futilely challenging Manningham’s catch cost the Patriots one timeout. They spent another as the Giants moved inexorably into gimme field goal range. Once the Giants reached second and goal at the Patriots’ 6 with 1:03 left, the timeout-poor Patriots were helpless to stop New York from running down the clock to a field goal with minimal time left. Unless they gave the Giants a touchdown.

Bradshaw burst through the given hole, then realized too late he encountered less resistance than lovers walking through Harvard Yard. He spun himself while trying to brake, but still fell backwards into the end zone.

The Patriots had the shot they needed. They got close enough for a Hail Mary to reach the end zone...and visit several hands before coming to rest on the turf.

SUPER BOWL XLIX

PATRIOTS 28, SEAHAWKS 24

Feb. 1, 2015

University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

MVP: QB Tom Brady, Patriots

This set up like a Rocky movie -- the former champs full of guile and guts trying to dethrone the muscular, brutal young bucks. But only if you looked at it as Brady and Belichick vs. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense.

Each owned a 12-4 regular season records and a No. 1 playoff seed after slow regular season starts. Each won one playoff game by unlikely comeback and one by blowout. But the Patriots as a franchise hadn’t gone all the way in a decade, when a good chunk of the current roster considered “going all the way” something different. Also, a story broke game week, something about Brady using slightly deflated balls in the AFC Championship smashing of Indianapolis.

On the other hand, Seattle swaggered in the year after an old-fashioned Super Bowl win-by-annihilation. Their devastating defense possessed 1970s physicality and fearsome nomenclature (Legion of Boom). Running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch let his pounding running style, as hard and angry as Lynch’s native Oakland streets, do his public speaking.

The Patriots kept Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson without a completion until the second quarter, when they led 7-0. In a near replay of the Patriots-Carolina Super Bowl, a point-starved first half found the scoring buffet just before halftime. In the last 2:16, a Lynch 3-yard run, a Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski 22-yard pass and an 11-yard pass from Wilson to Chris Matthews left the game tied 14-14 at halftime

Ten third quarter points by Seattle got countered and then some by a pair of Patriots’ fourth quarter touchdowns, short Brady passes to Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. Down 28-24, Seattle needed to drive 80 yards in 2:02. Just as in both Supers against the Giants, the Patriots needed one stop.

Soon, it looked like, as in both Supers against the Giants, the Patriots defense wouldn’t get that stop. A 31-yard Lynch reception and an 11-yard pass to Ricardo Lockette put Seattle on the Patriots’ 38. If this didn’t seem enough like the Giants losses, Jermaine Kearse and Malcolm Butler went up for a deep ball and Butler got his hand on it...but Kearse came down with it after double catching it, Lynn Swann style. Butler alertly finished the play, pushing Kearse out of bounds at the Patriots’ 5 after Kearse scrambled to his feet.

That wound up No. 1 on the NFL Network’s Top 10 list of Most Forgotten Plays because of No. 1 on their Top 10 list of Worst Plays.

After Lynch bulled to the Patriots 1-yard line, Seattle let the clock run down to 26 seconds before lining up for second and goal. Recognition washed over Patriots defensive backs Butler and Brandon Browner. They’d practiced against a red zone play that featured the outside receiver, Lockette, cutting inside and losing Butler behind Kearse’s obstruction. Browner chucked Kearse, keeping him out of Butler’s way. While Butler hustled to the spot Wilson fired at, Lockette moseyed at a gear past walk-through. Butler got there first for the interception.

No call in NFL history has been more questioned. Analytics geeks flung numbers describing why the play call was fine, the execution stunk. Some pointed to the fact that the Patriots always had one of the best goal line run defenses, just as the Giants did in the 1980s when Belichick was defensive coordinator. Most analysis kept it simple, as they felt the Seahawks should have — near the end of the game, needing a yard against a tired defense, you give it to your main man power back Lynch and get that yard.

One thing forgotten: The game wasn’t completely clinched for the Patriots until Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett, with the ball on the 1, jumped offsides. Now, with enough buffer to kneel down without being in the end zone for a safety, the Patriots ran out the clock by taking a knee twice.

SUPER BOWL LI

PATRIOTS 34, FALCONS 28

Feb. 5, 2017

NRG Stadium, Houston

MVP: QB Tom Brady, Patriots

The line was Patriots by three. Nobody imagined “Patriots down 28-3.”

And nobody imagined Patriots fans soon would proudly wear t-shirts and hoodies bearing that score, the setting for the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Brady already owned the greatest comeback from a four-game season-opening suspension. The Patriots went 14-2 despite being Brady-less the first four games, then without Rob Gronkowski during midseason. While they threw the ball far more than they did in the early 2000s, the real reason they rolled through 2016 as they did 2003 or 2004 was the revival of the Patriots defense. They allowed the fewest points in the league.

You couldn’t tell that from the first three quarters, although Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan did look like that year’s NFL MVP and the Falcons looked like the team that led the NFL in scoring. That’s right, team — after Devonta Freeman’s 5-yard run and a 19-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hooper, Atlanta’s defense chipped in with an 82-yard interception return by cornerback Robert Alford. A drive to a half-closing field goal still left the Patriots’ trailing 21-3.

Make that 28-3 after a 6-yard touchdown pass to running back Tevin Coleman. Brady responded with a drive to a 5-yard touchdown pass to James White. Kicker Steven Gostowski bonged the extra point off an upright, but nailed the 33-yard field goal to bring the deficit down to 16, 28-12.

Then came what many Patriots players considered the biggest play of the comeback. Handling situational football, both as coaches and players, became a Patriots’ trademark. During what remained in the game, it would prove the difference between a winning franchise and a Super Bowl loser.

The Patriots needed a short field, most likely from a turnover. Though they’d scored on consecutive possessions, they took 13 plays and 6:25 to go 75 yards and 12 plays and 5:07 to go 72 yards. At that pace, time would kill the Patriots, especially if Atlanta could get a first down or two each possession while keeping the ball on the ground to keep the clock moving.

But with 8:33 left and third and 1 on their own 35, the Falcons came out in a shotgun formation with Freeman offset to Ryan’s right and in front of the quarterback. Instead of trying to bang out a yard and, success or fail, run clock, Atlanta planned to pass and weren’t hiding it — Freeman was too far forward for a draw play. And they weren’t doing something quick. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower had time to shoot by Freeman with excuse me contact of two students passing in a hallway and pop Ryan at the 25 as the quarterback cocked to throw. Alan Branch recovered for New England at the 25.

There’s the short field. Just 2:28 later, a 6-yard Amendola catch and a White conversion brought the Pats’ to within one score, 28-20, with 5:56 left.

A 39-yard reception by Freeman and a balletic, toe tap sideline 27-yard catch that Julio Jones seems too big to make put Atlanta on the Patriots’ 22. The Falcons sat well within NFL scoring leader Matt Bryant’s dependability range and a 10-point lead. Only 4:40 remained. The Patriots had two timeouts. But, instead of milking the clock with runs before a Bryant field goal try, after a 1-yard loss on a run, Atlanta got antsy. And the Patriots came up with another massive sack, a 12-yard sack Trey Flowers. A holding penalty on tackle Jake Matthews negated a completion and put Atlanta out of Bryant’s field goal range.

(On Seattle’s staff as defensive coordinator when the failure to run failed in Super Bowl XLIX: Falcons head coach Dan Quinn.)

A punt and the Patriots had 91 yards to go, 3:30 to do it and two timeouts with which to do it. A 16-yard pass to Chris Hogan on third-and-10 got the drive going. On the most pivotal play, a pass Alford batted away wound up bouncing into Edelman’s hands amongst a flock of Falcons for 23 yards. That’s when the feeling permeated the stadium, the crowd, the TV audience, maybe even the Falcons — the Patriots would tie the game. The Patriots would win the game in overtime.

Which they did. White plowed over from the 1 with 57 seconds left. Amendola caught the two-point conversion. In overtime, the Patriots took the kickoff and marched 75 yards in eight plays. White muscled the final two yards on a pitch play for the game-ending, Super Bowl-winning touchdown.

Everybody wants to be the Patriots now. But only the Patriots are. Atlanta showed its only what the Patriots used to be.

Patriot comeback reaction
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with Julian Edelman (11) after New England came from 28-3 down to beat Atlanta 34-28 to win Super Bowl 51, the first Super Bowl to go into overtime. Jamie Squire Getty Images

SUPER BOWL LII

PHILADELPHIA 41, NEW ENGLAND 33

Feb. 4, 2018

US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

MVP: QB Nick Foles, Eagles, 28 of 43 passing for 373 yards and three touchdowns. And one reception for 1 yard and one touchdown.

They were back and ready to finish a rerun from 13 years before — win their third Super Bowl in four seasons by unplugging Philadelphia in a matchup of No. 1 seeds.

But other than the names, the uniforms, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, little else in setup resembled the earlier New England-Philadelphia Super confrontation. Well, there was the team from the Keystone State losing a keystone offensive player when quarterback Carson Wentz tore an ACL. In trotted backup Nick Foles, a journeyman on his third team in three years since after being cut by the team that made him a third round draft pick in 2012 — the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Patriots overcame injuries to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski’s ever present pains and were, officially, 5.5-point favorites.

Super Bowl LII showed Fusillade Football runs the NFL in the second decade of this millennium. Offensively overwhelm your opponent into panic or submission. Take all your shots and woe to he who leaves a weapon unused.

Each team went for it on fourth down twice. When the Eagles did it on fourth and goal from the 1 with seconds left in the first half, Foles caught a pass from tight end Trey Burton for a touchdown and 22-12 halftime lead. “The Philly Special,” the Eagles called it. Foles made the first Super Bowl touchdown catch by a quarterback on the second ball thrown to a quarterback in this game (Brady stumbled when Julian Edelman threw him the ball earlier).

It was one of Brady’s few stumbles. And 75-yard touchdown drives on each of New England’s first three second half possessions ended with Brady touchdown passes as the Patriots took their first lead with 9:22 left in the game.

But it was only a 33-32 lead because the Eagles offense owned the Patriots defense almost as completely. Foles’ third touchdown pass, an 11-yarder to Zach Ertz put the Eagles back in front 38-33 after a missed two-point conversion.

The Eagles didn’t only fly, they marched. Former Patriot LeGarrette Blount and former Dolphin Jay Ajayi combined for 147 yards rushing on just 23 carries, 6.4 yards a pop. Meanwhile, New England rolled up a Super Bowl-record 613 yards of offense, 505 by the arm of Brady.

Defenses ranked fourth (Philly) and fifth (New England) in fewest points allowed during the regular season got stampeded and strafed so badly that there were more extra point kicks missed (two) than punts (one).

Like any game overwhelmed by one side of the ball, it would be decided by the other side. The Patriots could’ve used a Malcolm Butler play. But it wouldn’t come from Butler, who spent the game benched for...well, nobody but Belichick is sure why and he didn’t feel like talking much about it.

On the second play after Ertz’s touchdown, Philly defensive end Brandon Graham swatted the ball from Brady and Derek Barnett fell on it at the New England 32. The first sack of the game by either team produced the first Eagles stop of the half. This allowed the Eagles to run down the clock to 1:05 before booting a 46-yard field goal.

A Brady Hail Mary bomb fell incomplete.

Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. He drinks coladas whole. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.
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