There has never been a Super Bowl like it. Then, there has never been a quarterback like Tom Brady; or a coach like Bill Belichick; or a franchise like the New England Patriots.
History makers all. But the bald entries in the record books alone cannot do this justice. To say that Brady, Belichick and the Patriots have won more Super Bowls together than any triumvirate throughout history is not even half the story – because nobody has ever won a Super Bowl this way. Not from where the Patriots stood. Not from 25 points down midway through the third quarter. For those who prefer their reference points closer to home, put it like this: Super Bowl LI will go down as this sport’s Istanbul, maybe its Nou Camp in 1999. Maybe both rolled into one.
For while the Patriots are the NFL’s big beasts, as the time slipped out of this game they were its lame ducks. They had been outplayed by the Atlanta Falcons, their icons reduced before our eyes.
Tom Brady extended his NFL legacy by winning a fifth Super Bowl with the New England Patriots on Sunday
The New England quarterback steered them to a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI
Belichick and Brady have worked together for 17 years, an unprecedented run between a coach and player in the NFL
Brady shares an intimate kiss with his wife Gisele Bundchen during the celebrations as he holds their daughter Vivian
Meanwhile, Brady’s quarterback counterpart Matt Ryan was crestfallen figure after seeing his side throw away a 25-point lead
Atlanta failed to handle the running ability of New England’s James White – who scored a hat-trick of touchdowns late on
White’s final touchdown proved the decisive one – as he crossed the end zone in overtime to break Atlanta’s hearts
The 25-year-old fought off several challenges to get his hands beyond the end zone for the crucial score
The running back was mobbed by his team-mates as he laid in disbelief at his feat to see the Patriots win
Belichick had words of praise for his running back post-match as New England owed him a lot
Brady’s radar was hopelessly awry, he was being read and caught time and again by the Falcon’s defense: Grady Jarrett, Deoin Jones, Robert Alford. The Falcons ran up an 18 point lead in the second quarter alone, one touchdown a 77 yard interception by Alford to give Atlanta a 20-0 advantage.
The game was over, before the fat lady, or even Lady Gaga, had a chance to sing.
The Patriots had not trailed by that margin all season, and never in a Super Bowl. When the first score of the third quarter went the Falcons way, too, through Tevin Coleman, Brady’s obituary was being written. He had talked of playing until he was 45, in six years’ time. He had responded to a question about retiring with a defiant, ‘Hell, no.’ But he was being made to look all of his 39 years by the best offensive team in the country. This was becoming a professional humiliation.
It is in these moments, however, that we see true athletic greatness. Just as Steven Gerrard did in 2005, Brady flicked a switch. It was as if he decided that this would not be his epitaph, his last hurrah, his farewell. He would not let his critics, those who taunted and derogated him over the Deflategate scandal for which he was banned at the start of the season, have the last word. His final years would not be defined by controversy and this blasted match.
‘They’re tough and they’re competitive,’ Belichick said of his Patriots. ‘They’ll go for 60 minutes, or longer if necessary – and at 28-3, they never looked back.’
And all of that is true. But, in the NFL, some players are more equal than others; and certainly some positions. It was the quarterback who had to drag the Patriots back into the game. It all came down to Brady: and he played like a man possessed.
Brady leads the New England Patriots out in Houston as they enter the NRG Stadium in Houston
The Patriots’ opponents the Atlanta Falcons stride out on to the turf as kick-off draws closer at Super Bowl LI
Country singer Luke Bryan belts out the American national anthem on Sunday
The 41st President of the United States of America, George HW Bush did the coin toss ahead of kick-off
Atlanta won the coin toss and chose to defer so the Patriots would receive the ball as Matt Bosher kicked for the Falcons
Atlanta’s first offensive set saw their star quarterback Ryan (right) sacked by New England’s Trey Flowers
Soon afterwards in the first quarter, New England’s main man Brady was also sacked – as he was tagged by Courtney Upshaw
He worked out the Falcons defensive game. He found his range, kept his cool, picked out his targets with military precision. It truly was one of the most remarkable displays in sporting history and it produced a climax like no-one had ever seen. Even as the Patriots began to claw their way back into the game, nobody thought a comeback was possible. There was just too much to do, too great a mountain to climb, and the Falcons were playing too well.
Brady destroyed them. Their game plan, their confidence, he hurt them more than any team has been hurt at the Super Bowl. Yes it was a choke, but it was Brady-induced. He even rose above it when, after James White had landed the Patriots first touchdown to make the score 28-9, specialist Steven Gostkowski became the first kicker to miss at the Super Bowl in 27 years. Brady ploughed on.
With ten minutes remaining, Gostkowski redeemed himself with a field goal to make the score 28-12. Now, the Falcons were in disarray. Brady’s opposite number, Matt Ryan, so special in the second quarter, looked a lost soul. A sack fumble from Dont’a Hightower seemed to take a spectacular toll.
After a scoreless first quarter the deadlock was broken in the second by Atlanta when Devonta Freeman scored a touchdown
The Falcons’ No 24 celebrates after scoring the opening points of Super Bowl LI
Freeman was quickly greeted by his team-mates as the Falcons celebrated their opening score
Atlanta’s day got better just minutes later when Austin Hooper scored their second touchdown of the quarter
The rookie collected a Ryan 19-yard pass to touchdown – just moments after being denied by a Patrick Chung rejection
The 22-year-old tight end is mobbed by his team-mates as the Falcons offense continues to purr
Atlanta’s defence was also on top and they scored their third try through Robert Alford
The cornerback picked a pass from Brady, before dodging his tackle to take the ball into the end zone
The Falcons No 23 celebrates before even reaching the end zone to complete his 82-yard touchdown
And when he did cross the whitewash he was quickly joined by his team-mates who celebrated his individual effort
Alford’s joy contrasted significantly from Brady who fell to his knees in disbelief at being picked
New England did finally get some points on the scoreboard when Stephen Gostkowski (second right) scored a field goal
Gostkowski’s 41-yard effort sails through the air as the Falcons defence try in vain to upset the kicker
The 33-year-old was congratulated by his team-mates as they went into half-time trailing 21-3 at Super Bowl LI
From that turnover, Danny Amendola recorded the Patriots second touchdown. It was then that Brady showed his genius. Instead of a kick, he snapped the ball to James White, who ran it in for two points. There were now eight points between them. The Patriots needed one more score to set up the the Super Bowl’s first overtime in 51 years.
By now, Brady’s momentum and accuracy were unstoppable, the Falcons almost powerless to respond. They were trapped in a nightmare of Brady’s creation.
For the play that tied the scores, his scheming was simply unsurpassed. There was a relentlessness about the Patriots advance, a beautiful certainty.
The famous half-time Super Bowl show was performed by musician Lady Gaga
The singer performed a medley of her hits including Just Dance, Born This Way, Bad Romance and Telephone
The NRG Stadium was shrouded in darkness during the show with the spotlight firmly on Lady Gaga
To wide receiver Chris Hogan for 16 yards; to Malcolm Mitchell for 11 yards; to the magnificent Justin Edelman, for 23 yards, the play of the night, a second take catch under incredible pressure, appearing from underneath a hillock of bodies with the ball to widespread disbelief.
Now they were near. Really near. Falcon fans must have felt the hot breath of Brady’s destiny. He found Amendola deep right, another 20 yards gained: and the two minute warning sounded. How long that brief interval must have seemed in the minds of those Falcons.
Brady, by contrast, looked the coolest man on the field. His radar honed in on running back White: 13 yards, then seven. A penalty for defensive offside left them a yard from the end zone. To the right, White got over. Brady slipped the ball to Amendola to run in another two. Scores level, the Patriots celebrated as if the cup was won. Perhaps in that moment, they knew it was.
It took three minutes and 52 seconds of the first overtime in Super Bowl history for the Patriots to be crowned champions. Brady the driving force once more finding all his targets, mostly first time: White, Amendola, Hogan, White again, Edelman, White. He thought he had it won seconds earlier, but the Falcons Victor Beasley intervened. Next time he made no mistake, picking out White at the right end. Delirium engulfed Houston’s NRG Stadium.
The second half continued in the same vain as the first, with another Atlanta touchdown – this time scored by Tevin Coleman
Coleman was congratulated by his team-mates as the Falcons ran in from six yards to score
It was beginning to seem a day to forget for Patriots fans – who saw their side outclassed by the Falcons up to the third quarter
Those supporters were given a glimmer of hope when White responded in third quarter with their first touchdown
The running back wiggled his way into the end zone as the Patriots finally breached the Falcons’ defence
White was congratulated by his team-mates as they now trailed 19 points in Houston, Texas
The Patriots were beginning to build a head of steam and reduced their deficit further through this Danny Amendola score
The wide receiver collected a bullet pass from Brady to see New England trail by 10 points at 28-18
From the following conversion, the Patriots went for a two-point play with Brady feeding White with a direct snap
And New England’s bravery was rewarded as White bundled his way into the end zone to make it an eight-point game
Julio Jones (left) made this stunning catch over Eric Rowe to give the Falcons a good platform for an attacking drive
White scored two touchdowns, but was modest enough to acknowledge the hero of the night. ‘Tom’s a great leader,’ he said. ‘We just followed him. He motivated us the whole game, even when we were down. He just willed us to another victory.’
If that makes the achievement sound too emotional, strip it back to the facts. American sport adores its facts. So here’s a few from Sunday night. The Patriots recorded the greatest fourth quarter comeback in NFL post-season history, and are the first team to win a post-season game from 16 points down. It was the biggest comeback in the history of the franchise and no team has ever won a Super Bowl from more than ten points behind.
As for Brady, his 43 completed passes, 62 attempts and 466 yards passed are all Super Bowl records. His 416 yards in regulation time would have been a record, even without overtime.
As for the debate about the greatest quarterback in history, consider that concluded, too. There has never been a player like this, a match like this, a comeback like this. The greatest player decided the greatest Super Bowl. And have we seen the last of him? This match proved the perfect riposte. Hell, no.
White was proving a thorn in the Atlanta defence and he was once more as he scored a touchdown with two minutes left
The 25-year-old throws the ball away in celebration as the Patriots score their 23rd unanswered point
New England were successful with another two-point conversion as Amendola barged into the end zone to tie the game