The Patriots Win the Super Bowl in an Unprecedented Comeback

Even by the third quarter, no one saw it coming.

Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons
Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons (Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports)

It was the greatest comeback of Super Bowl history, and President Donald Trump called it. No team had ever recovered from more than 10 points down, but the New England Patriots did, and they beat the Atlanta Falcons 34 to 28. The Patriots trailed nearly the entire game, and by the second half they were being written off as lost causes, but the Patriots would prove it only counts how you finish.

The game was a matchup of one of the highest-scoring teams, Atlanta, versus one that had allowed the fewest points, New England. The Patriots have been to the Super Bowl more times than any other team in franchise history—nine times, with seven of those since head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady arrived in 2000. For Atlanta, it was their second-ever Super Bowl appearance, and they had never won. But they had dominated through much of the season, and that momentum began with the coin toss.

Former-President George H.W. Bush was pushed onto the field in a wheelchair alongside his his wife, Barbara, who have both been in-and-out of the hospital lately with health problems. Bush flipped the coin onto the grass, and after a short roll it came up tails—the Falcons had won the toss, deferring their decision to the second half. The game got underway at 6:37 p.m., with the Falcons kicking off to the Patriots.

Before the game started, President Donald Trump predicted the Patriots would win. Trump is close friends with both Belichick and Brady, and he referred to the Falcons only as “ the other team.” In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, who pressed him to make a prediction, Trump said:

“I don’t know even know, what are the odds?” Trump asked. “I guess it’s pretty even. Two great teams. Pretty even. So I’ll say the Patriots will win.”

“By how many points?” O’Reilly asked.

“By eight points,” Trump said.

It would not be by eight points, but against all predictions late in the game, Trump would be right.

The first quarter was mostly uneventful. Neither team scored, and both their defenses foreshadowed a game where punts and special teams would decide victory. Brady had one decent drive in a march down the field, but it was stopped by a poorly executed play-action fake that ended in a sack—something that would become his theme for the first half.

In the second quarter, the Falcons took advantage of a fumble. It started after Brady made a nearly 30-yard pass, and his offense looked to follow that up on the ground. The Patriots handed the ball off to running back LeGarrette Blount, but the ball was knocked loose by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones and in a turn of momentum the Falcons ran the ball back across the field to the red zone. Starting on the the five-yard line, the Falcons scored the first points of the game. They would score twice more that quarter, with the Patriots’ only points coming from a field goal. It was a first half marked by defensive plays, with the Falcons taking advantage of turnovers, and the Patriots looking sluggish. By the end, the score was 21 to 3 for the Falcons.

Lady Gaga soloed the halftime show—a departure of recent, as these have become parades of super stars trying to upstage each other. Her set began with a mash-up of God Bless America and This Land is Your Land—a Woody Guthrie song that could be seen as a Trump dig, were it not always hamstrung to its first few uncontextualized patriotic verses. Gaga ended by singing some lines from the Pledge of Allegiance, then jumped off the stadium’s roof, suspended by wires, onto a tower. Despite the patriotic beginning, the show was mostly a pyrotechnic display that ended with a stripped-down version of her song Million Reasons, and ended with her running up a staircase, tossing the mic, then plunging downward off-screen.

The second half was a different game. New England is known to have slow start, especially in Super Bowls, and it was the third quarter when they first reached the end zone. Brady threw a five-yard pass to running back James White, which put the score at 28 to 9, with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter.

Brady would end up completing 43 of 62 passes, all for a total of 466 yards and two touchdowns. His performance saved the Patriots, with the prize catch coming from wide receiver Julian Edelman. It was the fourth quarter, the Patriots trailed by one touch down, and the ball bounced off a defender’s hands, off Edelman’s hands, onto another defender’s foot, and somehow Edelman snatched it before it hit the grass. The play was challenged, but the referees ruled it a complete pass. It was arguably the most important play of the game, because after the Patriots scored on the drive, it sent the game into overtime—the first that’s happened in Super Bowl history.

The Patriot’s got the ball first, marched down the field and scored the winning touchdown on a two-yard run, ending the game with a 34 to 28 win. Not only was this first overtime in Super Bowl history, but Brady also became the first quarterback in the N.F.L. to win five Super Bowls.

Trump had watched the game from his golf club in Florida, and reportedly left his Super Bowl party early in the third quarter, while his team, the Patriots, were still losing. After they’d won, he tweeted: