HOUSTON â€” The New England Patriots developed a reputation for playing nearly mistake-free football in winning four Super Bowl rings during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era.
That brand took a beating against the Atlanta Falcons, as the Patriots fell behind 28-3. But even that could not deny them a fifth Super Bowl title.
“There were a lot of plays that coach talks about, you never know which one is going to be the Super Bowl winner,” Brady said. “There were probably 30 of those plays tonight and any one of those were different, the outcome could have been different.”
New England’s 34-28 overtime win was the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history, and broke the Patriots’ own record for the biggest deficit overcome in a Super Bowl.
One of the most efficient teams in the NFL this season, New England’s calling card was blitzing opposing defences with an offence that took care of the ball and exploited vulnerability.
But early on Sunday it was a complete role reversal as turnovers, dropped passes, a missed extra-point, an inability to handle the Falcons’ pressure and poor clock management relegated New England to desperation mode for most of the second half.
It nearly was enough to wash away the Patriots’ hopes. Not quite.
The Patriots entered the night 1-5 in the Brady/Belichick era when they trailed by 14 or more points at any point in a playoff game. Their lone win was in the 2014 divisional round against the Ravens.
Trailing 28-12, linebacker Dont’a Hightower got a free hit on quarterback Matt Ryan, causing a fumble. Alan Branch recovered for the Patriots and quickly marched 25 yards to close within 28-20.
“Man, I’m just doing what my teammates expect me to do,” Hightower said.
The Falcons punted, and New England took over on its own 9. Brady did what Brady has done so many times, marching his team 91 yards in just 10 plays. Brady then connected with Danny Amendola on a 2-point conversion pass to tie it up.
The drive included several incredible catches, the biggest being an 11-yard grab by Julian Edelman in which he was able to balance the ball on the foot of Robert Alford before getting his hands under the ball.
“We’ve been on the other end of a few of those catches,” Brady said. “But tonight we came up on the other end of it. …It was one of the greatest catches I’ve seen. I don’t know how the hell he caught it.”
That momentum carried into overtime as Brady and the Patriots offence picked apart the Falcons secondary. He was 5 of 7 passing on the drive to set up a James White’s game-winning, 2-yard touchdown run.
But Brady said there was no panic in the locker room at halftime or during the second half.
“This year down 25 points It’s hard to imagine us winning it. …When we got rolling there in the second half it was tough to slow us down.”
Atlanta’s defence was active throughout. It began on the Patriots’ third drive of the night when Deion Jones stripped running back LeGarrette Blount, causing a fumble. Alford recovered to set up Atlanta’s first touchdown of the night, a 5-yard run by Devonta Freeman.
It wouldn’t be the last time Alford would make the Patriots pay for a miscue.
He put the Patriots in a 21-0 hole in the second quarter when he cut in front of a pass intended for Danny Amendola and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s defence was having a field day with New England’s offensive line. The Falcons sacked Brady five times on the night and hit him eight more times.
Nothing worked for New England. Not even a flea-flicker pass by Edelman in the third quarter that was dropped by Dion Lewis.
Brady tried to give the play time to develop as he got pressure on the edge from Dwight Freeney. But Alford read the play perfectly, intercepting the pass in stride and darting into the open field.
Brady gave pursuit, but his desperation dive to trip Alford up as he went by came up with air.
The pick-six by Brady was the first he’s thrown in the 34 playoff games. It gave him 31 interceptions, moving him into first place on the all-time list. Brett Favre was the previous record holder with 30 interceptions in 24 playoff games.
Before Sunday, the only time the Patriots had thrown a pick-6 in the post-season was Steve Grogan’s pick-six against Bears in New England’s 1986 Super Bowl loss to Bears.
White said the team leaned on Brady throughout.
“We followed his lead,” said White, who had three touchdowns. “He was motivating us the whole game, even when we were down. He just willed us to another victory.”
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Kyle Hightower, The Associated Press