Five years before the wild culmination of Super Bowl LI, to the day if not to the minute, Tom Brady sat alone in a chair in the locker room of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. He had a towel over his head, his back was hunched, and he wept.Back then, Brady could not wrap his mind around how the New England Patriots had conspired to give away a Super Bowl ring, allowing the New York Giants to grasp the biggest game of all away from them.
On Sunday night, and perhaps for the rest of his life, Brady was trying to figure out a far happier conundrum — how he and his colleagues managed to pull off the biggest and most sensational comeback in the long history of pro football’s showpiece, a 34-28 overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons.
At the end he didn’t leap or scream. He just stood, shaking his head, scarcely able to comprehend it all, as confetti of a red and blue hue cascaded around him and his teammates went berserk.
“We all brought each other back,” Brady said after his team had scored the last of its 31 consecutive points to end the game. “We never felt out if it. It was a tough battle.”
An hour earlier he was done. The Falcons could taste the champagne already, having piled on a swathe of points to capitalize on their own offensive excellence and Brady’s nightmarish start to the game.
Brady is the master of positive body language, yet there was a moment late in the third quarter when it finally seemed to betray him. His team trailing 28-3, he looked over to the Patriots bench, shrugging his shoulders and turning his palms toward the ceiling of NRG Stadium.
To anyone watching, it was a look that meant he had run out of ideas, run out of belief an improbable comeback could be kick-started, run out of patience with a night he thought would bring him a fifth Super Bowl ring but instead looked destined to offer nothing but frustration.
That same stadium roof had begun caving in on him and the Patriots long earlier, back when Lady Gaga was still warming those vocal chords, during a second quarter that showed defense doesn’t necessarily win championships, not if the rival offense is an unstoppable juggernaut.
Atlanta’s offense was just that. Brady and New England’s was just there.
Yet instead of it being the beginning the end, that apparent show of weakness was actually the end of the horrific beginning for Brady, and the start of him throwing off the shackles and playing like, well, himself.
For nearly three quarters of football he had been a poor imitator.
Brady was still connecting with some passes, he always does. Yet drive after drive got sawn off before it got anywhere close to making Atlanta sweat, prompting a fresh round of sideline chatter.
Brady huddled with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. A few words passed between him and Bill Belichick. He discussed routes with Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. None of it worked. And then he put those palms skyward and seemed to say, “That’s enough, my day is done.”
Except funny things happen when the pressure comes off. With rhythm a stranger to him all evening, Brady suddenly found it late in the third. Tevin Coleman had extended Atlanta’s lead by then, so when Brady hit James White for a five-yard touchdown pass it merely narrowed the gap to 28-9.
Then, as the Falcons began to sniff the champagne, there was another long drive and a field goal. The gap was suddenly two scores. He couldn’t, could he?
He could, with a little help from defensive friends. Matt Ryan got hit and the Patriots recovered, and Brady got to work. He hit Danny Amendola for a touchdown, White converted the two-pointer, and the comeback was well and truly on.
Atlanta was nervous as heck, and as the league’s best offense came up short one more time, Brady found himself with the length of the field to cover with destiny at his fingertips. He got there.
Edelman made an out of this world catch, snaring the ball an inch off the turf, to keep things rolling. And as the Falcons tightened up, the Patriot train began to look unstoppable. White ran in another, Brady found Amendola to make the two-point gap zero, and yes, miracles do happen.
Going into overtime, it was effectively over, momentum having taken an about turn and stormed off in the opposite direction. The march downfield was inexorable. White crossed one more time and … Brady had his opus.
He began the season sitting out for his Deflategate punishment, but ended it as the last man standing. He completed 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, and he earned a record fourth Super Bowl MVP award, one more than the San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana.
They spoke about him as the best ever before this week, before this night, before this extraordinary feat of resilience, fortune, ability and magic. Put him in the history books; as quarterbacks go, Brady is the greatest.
Follow Martin Rogers @mrogersUSAT.
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