HOUSTON – Add the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history — and, given the stakes, perhaps in NFL history – to the New England Patriots’ list of accomplishments.
On a night that was supposed to be about Deflategate vengeance or about reaffirming all-time greatness, the Patriots checked those boxes and far, far more. They used a rally for the ages to add to their collection of Lombardi Trophies by defeating the Atlanta Falcons, 34-28, in overtime Sunday evening in a remarkable Super Bowl LI.
The Patriots trailed 21-0 in the first half, 28-3 in the third quarter and 28-9 entering the fourth quarter. Yet they secured their fifth Super Bowl triumph in seven appearances in the big game with Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their quarterback.
Brady, in a season that began with him serving his four-game suspension for his alleged role in the Patriots’ supposed scheme to use underinflated footballs in the first half of the AFC title game two years ago, moved past Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most Super Bowl victories by a quarterback and was named MVP of the game for the fourth time. Belichick moved ahead of Chuck Noll for the most such wins by a head coach.
No team ever had come from more than 10 points behind to win a Super Bowl. And no Super Bowl ever had gone into overtime.
The Patriots pulled off that double feat. They got the ball first in overtime and drove to tailback James White’s two-yard touchdown run 3:58 into the extra period.
Brady threw for 466 yards and two touchdowns on 43-for-62 passing. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns.
For most of the night, the Patriots mixed turnovers with spotty pass protection, no running game and dropped passes on offense. Tailback LeGarrette Blount lost a first-half fumble and Brady threw an interception that was returned 82 yards for a touchdown by Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford. The Falcons got a touchdown run by tailback Devonta Freeman and touchdown passes by Ryan to tight end Austin Hooper and running back Tevin Coleman.
But Brady threw a third-quarter touchdown pass to White. The Patriots got closer with a field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth quarter, then converted a fumble by Ryan on a sack into Brady’s six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Danny Amendola. After a successful two-point conversion, they were within eight points with just less than six minutes remaining.
They got the ball back and, aided by a remarkable juggling catch by wide receiver Julian Edelman, got even with 57 seconds left on White’s one-yard touchdown run and another two-point conversion.
The Falcons ranked 25th in the NFL during the regular season in total defense. They were 27th in scoring defense. But Atlanta has players on defense who are young and fast. The Falcons can rush the passer and generate turnovers. And they dominated Brady and the New England offense during a first half that ended with the Patriots trailing 21-3.
The Patriots’ first four possessions resulted in three punts and Blount’s fumble. The Patriots seemed uninterested in attempting to establish the running game and, as has been the case in many of their most significant defeats over the years, they struggled to safeguard Brady. He was sacked twice on New England’s second drive of the game.
The Atlanta offense likewise had its issues getting moving, and the opening quarter was scoreless. But the Falcons started clicking early in the second quarter with back-to-back completions from Ryan to wide receiver Julio Jones. Freeman took over from there with carries on three straight plays, providing a five-yard touchdown by bouncing outside to the left and leaping into the end zone.
The Falcons got the ball back and made it 14-0. Ryan found Hooper matched up with Patriots safety Patrick Chung on the left side and threw a dart of a pass for a 19-yard touchdown.
The Patriots, aided by three defensive holding penalties on the Falcons, moved into position to get back into the game. But on a third-and-six play from the Atlanta 23-yard line, Brady forced a short throw intended for Amendola into heavy traffic. Alford made the interception, veered toward the sideline to his right and had only Brady between him and the opposite end zone. He easily eluded the quarterback and could stroll at the end of his 82-yard touchdown return, the second-longest on an interception in Super Bowl history.
The Patriots regrouped somewhat to get a 41-yard field goal by Gostkowski just before halftime. But it was more of the same in the third quarter. The Patriots got a stop on defense. But their drive ended with a drop by Edelman, and the Falcons responded with Ryan’s six-yard touchdown to Coleman.