The Super Bowl That Felt Like Destiny

The 51st NFL championship game saw an incredible win for the New England Patriots, who overcame a huge lead by the Atlanta Falcons in the final stretch.

The New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports / Reuters)

The New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount managed only 31 yards in Sunday’s Super Bowl, but he excelled as an analyst. As Pats-colored confetti covered the field in the moments following New England’s thrilling 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Blount found himself huddled with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. He turned to Belichick: “You’re the greatest!” Then he turned to Brady: “And you’re the fucking greatest!” The scores of journalists and talking heads assembled in Houston would spend the next few hours trying, and failing, to match Blount’s clarity.

At the tail end of a blowout-heavy postseason, the 51st Super Bowl—which for a long time looked like another shellacking—turned into an absolute thriller. Midway through the third quarter, the Patriots trailed 28-3; no team had ever dug out of such a large hole in the championship game. Brady looked uncharacteristically shaky, and his counterpart, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, had his offense humming. Then, incrementally, things changed. The Atlanta attack stalled, New England started piecing together drives, and the score tightened: 28-9, 28-12, 28-20, and, with a minute left in regulation, 28-28. Four minutes into overtime, running back James White nosed the ball across the goal line, capping the turnaround and setting off the celebration.

For Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots, the game was more than a masterpiece. It was a summary of what has made them, over the course of seven championship appearances and five titles, one of the preeminent teams in sports history. Fifteen years ago, they beat the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl 36, and since then they have cycled through roles—from upstart to juggernaut to hanger-on—and provoked every response from admiration to schadenfreude. The constant in New England has been a kind of football opportunism, a sense that leads are meant to grow, that deficits are meant to dwindle, that advantages should be seized and, yes, rules skirted. When the Patriots are struggling, this looks like pluck; when they’re rolling, it looks like athletic genius. When they do both in the same night, it seems something like destiny.

“Coach talks about, you never know which play it’s going to be in the Super Bowl,” Brady said from the podium rolled out for the postgame trophy ceremony, and indeed, a dozen or more from a broad cast of characters came readily to mind after the final whistle. Midway through the Patriots’ game-tying drive, receiver Julian Edelman dived after a pass tipped and nearly intercepted by Atlanta defenders, wrestling it from a mess of hands and somehow securing it before it hit the turf. Minutes earlier, defensive lineman Trey Flowers had wedged through the Falcons’ front and sacked Ryan, pushing Atlanta out of range of a field goal that would have sealed a victory. A short time before that, New England had flashed some trickery on a two-point conversion; Brady pretended to go after an errant snap as the ball instead went to White, who shouldered his way into the end zone. “If any of [those plays] had been different,” Brady said, “the outcome could’ve been different.”

Tying all this together was the 39-year-old quarterback’s brilliance. The Patriots scored the final five times they had the ball; each of these drives required some magic from Brady. For the last 20 or so minutes of the game, he was nearly perfect, letting go of passes at precise angles and velocities and moments so that they could slip past defenders’ fingertips and settle neatly in their recipients’ arms. He zinged some throws and arced others, spreading the ball from sideline to sideline for 466 yards. When the clock ran low, he hurried his teammates without rushing them, and in overtime he applied a quick-tempo pressure to the reeling Falcons. Following Brady’s lead, the Patriots seemed infused with a growing belief that a win was not only possible but an inevitability.

It has been suggested at times over Brady’s career that his success owes a great deal to his circumstances, playing for Belichick and with well-appointed rosters. This has been couched as a criticism, but Sunday night showed why it shouldn’t be. Ryan, for much of the game, looked like something out of a quarterback instructional video, launching strong-armed throws for huge gains. Leading the comeback, though, Brady looked like nothing so much as a distillation and personification of the New England ethos. He didn’t force the ball downfield but took the 10- and 15-yard gains the defense afforded him. He projected the same calm in the huddle that the stone-faced Belichick does from the sideline. He seemed to read not only coverages but temperaments, sending the ball to players poised for key contributions. It was not recitation but total mastery, an awareness of every component of the game. If Brady couldn’t do that for any other team—work in such detail and with such patience under the sport’s ultimate pressure—his team couldn’t accomplish what it has with any other quarterback.

After the shock of the Patriots’ turnaround wore off, attention turned to the ceremony. The NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had suspended Brady for the season’s first four games in the messy conclusion to what had become known as “Deflategate”: the charge that Brady and the Patriots had softened footballs to afford him better control. In the two-week buildup to the Super Bowl, professional and amateur speculators alike wondered how Goodell’s handing the Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots might play out, given that recent interactions between the franchise and the commissioner had taken the form of media sniping and legal proceedings.

Goodell shook Brady’s hand quickly, then introduced the Patriots owner Robert Kraft while the New England faithful serenaded him with boos. That was the last unhappy sound of the evening; speeches from Kraft, Belichick, Brady, and White (who in true Patriots fashion came from relative anonymity to set a Super Bowl record for receptions) centered on their team’s rare gift for collaboration. Kraft thanked the fans, Belichick thanked his players, Brady thanked his teammates. Superlatives made the rounds; Brady had now won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback, and Belichick more than any other coach.

Player and coach alike, though, both looked a little out of place smiling for the sea of cameras. They’ll be most recognizable, forever, late in a tight game, holding a lead or pursuing one, figuring out some way to nudge the odds in their favor. That’s how we were introduced to them all that time ago, and that’s how we’ll remember them now that they’ve distinguished themselves, a decade and a half later, as the best to ever do their jobs.