By Dan Shaughnessy
February 5, 2017
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy while coach Bill Belichick looks on.
DAVID J. PHILLIP - THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HOUSTON — It will take weeks, months, maybe years to fully absorb this one, but given all the layers of drama, emotion, and improbability, the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday night might very well be the greatest moment in Boston sports history.
And that, folks, is saying something.
Super Bowl LI at massive NRG Stadium was supposed to be all about revenge and a Roger Goodell trophy moment, but it wound up being the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history and a victory against which all others — in every sport — will forever be measured.
“Thanks to all our fans,’’ said Tom Brady, while he held the Lombardi Trophy. “You’ve been with us all year and we’re going to bring this sucker home!’’
The Patriots fell behind, 21-0, in the first half. They trailed, 28-3, with less than three minutes to play in the third quarter. Forget about revenge for Deflategate penalties, it looked as if the Patriots were going to be embarrassed. And then they scored 31 unanswered points in less than two full quarters.
We can officially retire all arguments about Greatest Of All Time. Brady is the greatest quarterback. And Bill Belichick is the greatest coach. They are the first pair to win five Super Bowls. And no one will ever forget how they got this latest one.
Playing in silent fury following his September suspension, but inspired by the presence of his ill mother, who hadn’t seen him play all season, Brady threw for 466 yards and led a 91-yard tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation. He was named Super Bowl MVP for a record fourth time.
Belichick, meanwhile, repeatedly outsmarted the Atlanta coaching staff. He Did His Job. The Hoodie made the other guys panic. And he made some history along the way.
The victory was clinched at 10:25 p.m. EST when third-year running back James White slashed through, and bounced off, a pack of helpless Falcons defenders to finish off a 75-yard touchdown drive in overtime. The poor, pitiful Falcons never touched the ball in the extra session. It’s always a mistake to lose the coin toss to the Patriots.
Goodell could hardly be heard over the boos while he presented the trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The commish handed over the Lombardi, shook hands with Kraft, then bolted. He shook hands with Brady on the confetti-littered stadium lawn.
“Two years ago when we won in Arizona, I told our fans that was the sweetest one of all,’’ said Kraft. “But a lot has transpired. I want to say to our fans and our brilliant coaching staff, this is unequivocally the sweetest, and I’m proud to say for the fifth time we are all Patriots, and tonight for the fifth time, the Patriots are world champions.’’
“It’s all about these players,’’ added Belichick. “They’re tough and they compete.’’
The Falcons were supposed to be mere speed bumps on the Patriots’ road to immortality, but they turned out to be just plain speedy. Atlanta forced a couple turnovers in the second quarter and capitalized with three touchdowns to take what should have been an insurmountable lead.
“It was hard to imagine us winning it at that point,’’ admitted Brady. “When we got the ball in the second half, it was tough to slow us down.’’
Brady received the loudest ovation of the pregame. He first appeared a little more than an hour before kickoff, raced from the tunnel to the faraway (Patriots) end zone, and shook a fiery fist toward Patriots fans assembled behind the end zone. It was an entrance that had some hair on it.
Former president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, both of whom have been battling health issues, presided over the ceremonial coin toss, while Vice President Mike Pence looked on from a private suite.
The first quarter was somewhat shocking. Nobody scored. It marked the seventh straight Super Bowl in which the Patriots did not score in the first quarter. Brady and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan were both sacked twice, and each team punted twice in the first 15 minutes.
Then came two Patriots turnovers and three second-quarter Falcons touchdowns.
The third of Atlanta’s three quick scores came when Brady was picked off by Robert Alford, who dashed a breathtaking 82 yards into the other end zone. Brady was the last man who had a chance to tackle the Falcons cornerback, and it was not a pretty sight. It was the first pick-six of Brady’s illustrious postseason career.
The Patriots managed a 41-yard field goal in the final seconds of the first half. No team in Super Bowl history had ever come back from a deficit of more than 10 points.
It got worse for New England in the third quarter. The Patriots had to punt on their first series of the second half, and Ryan took over, hitting Tevin Coleman for a 6-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-3 with 8:31 left in the third.
“I wasn’t thinking much,’’ said Brady. “I was just thinking we had to score.’’
Belichick emptied his bag of tricks the rest of the way. On their first touchdown drive late in the third quarter, the Patriots went for it on fourth and 3 from near midfield and converted. Brady later saved the series with a 15-yard scramble. A 5-yard TD pass to White cut the margin to 28-9 with 2:06 left in the third. When Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point, it really felt like this might not be New England’s night. It was 28-9 at the end of three.
After a Patriots field goal cut the margin to 28-12, Dont’a Hightower forced a Ryan fumble and the Patriots took over on the Atlanta 25-yard line. It was still a two-score game. Seconds later, Brady hit Danny Amendola (6 yards) in the end zone to make it 28-18. Two-point conversions were critical, and the Patriots got the first one they needed with trickeration on a direct snap to White to make it 28-20 with 5:56 left.
You could feel the Falcons panicking. They advanced the ball to the New England 22 and could have sealed the game with a chip-shot field goal but moved backward on penalties and sacks and wound up punting.
This was New England’s last stand. And Brady made it count. He moved his team 91 yards in 10 plays. White’s 1-yard TD run cut it to 28-26, and then came a 2-point conversion pass to Amendola.
“It never felt like we were out of the game,’’ said Amendola.
In overtime, the Patriots called heads — as they always do — and the coin came up heads. Sudden death. The Falcons never had a chance. They still don’t know what hit them.
More than 40 minutes after the game ended, citizens of Patriot Nation lingered near the floor of the stadium and chanted, “Ro-ger, Ro-ger.” Those chants may be reprised during Tuesday’s victory parade.
It’s the 10th championship for a Boston sports team since the Patriots broke a 15-year city drought with their first title in New Orleans in 2002.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.