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.