Patriots

5 key plays that made the Patriots’ historic comeback possible

Dont'a Hightower of the Patriots forces a fumble from Matt Ryan of the Falcons during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

In the course of this incredible run, maybe as remarkable as the five championships themselves are the incredible number of history-defining plays the Patriots have made over the past 15 years. From Adam Vinatieri in the snow, to Ty Law in the Superdome, to Malcolm Butler at the goal line, time and again this team has reshaped the New England sports landscape with seismic highlights.

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The latest came Sunday night, when the Patriots authored the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, overcoming a 25-point deficit in the final 18 minutes, and scoring 31 unanswered points to beat the Falcons in overtime by a count of 34-28. James White had 20 of those points, with three touchdowns and a two-point conversion, while Danny Amendola had a scoring grab and a two-pointer of his own.

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Obviously, those plays were enormous, but not to be overlooked are all the plays the Patriots made in order to get themselves into scoring position, and into a position where those scores had a chance to matter. Here are five of the best (selected from about a dozen options), and we’ll list them chronologically rather than rank them — because the margin for error was so slim that if any of the five hadn’t happened the others may not have mattered.

4th and 3 at NE 46, 6:04, third quarter — Brady to Amendola, 17-yard completion

Trailing 28-3, the Patriots appeared to be getting frustrated, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to be starting to grasp at straws. Despite the score, he’d initiated a couple of Dion Lewis runs, then called a rather curious double pass with the offense facing third and three, with Julian Edelman trying to connect with Lewis on a lob thrown across the field.

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It fell incomplete, setting up fourth down — and in some ways putting the Pats’ season on the brink. If they failed to convert, the Falcons were probably 10 yards from field goal range and a chance to go up by 28 (or more) as the third quarter ticked down. But instead, that’s when the comeback really started. The Patriots put three receivers to Brady’s left, and before the snap the quarterback called Amendola into motion.

That confirmed the receiver was in man coverage with rookie Brian Poole, and after receiving the shotgun snap Brady stared down that matchup until Amendola broke off his route toward the sideline and sprung open. The completion kept the drive alive, and seven plays later the Patriots finally reached the red zone for the first time on the night.

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3rd and 1 at ATL 36, 8:31, fourth quarter — Dont’a Hightower strips Matt Ryan, Alan Branch recovers

After a promising drive petered out in the red zone, the Pats saw the clock tick under nine minutes with the deficit still at 16 points. After trying an onside kick earlier, this time Bill Belichick opted to kick deeper and trust his defense to make a play. It did, delivering what might’ve been the most important play in the game.

The Falcons needed a yard and a half, but with Tevin Coleman (the bigger of their running backs) injured on the prior play, they opted to throw from the empty shotgun. The Patriots countered by having 10 defenders within two yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap. Perhaps that was a reason why Devonta Freeman didn’t block him and Matt Ryan didn’t sense the blitzing Hightower bearing down from his right. As the quarterback looked left and cocked to throw, Hightower hit his arm, and the ball popped free.

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It landed at the feet of Branch, who quickly splashed his big body on top of the ball to come away with the Falcons’ first turnover. If Atlanta converted there, it likely would’ve drained at least a couple minutes off the clock. Instead, the Pats took over at the Falcons’ 25, and burned just 2 minutes and 28 seconds moving within a single score.

2nd and 11 at NE 23, 3:56, fourth quarter — Ryan sacked -12 yards by Trey Flowers

Stephen Gostkowski’s kickoff after Amendola’s touchdown could’ve been a game-changer, considering it pinned Atlanta at its 9 on the next drive. But a busted coverage allowed a 39-yard completion to Freeman, and Julio Jones made a sensational, 27-yard toe-tapper to bring the ball deep into Patriots’ territory. Atlanta had first down from the 22, with a field goal essentially representing a death knell for the Patriots, but Devin McCourty shot through to make a tackle in the backfield on first down.

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That’s when Flowers picked up his third sack on a monstrous night. Lined up inside, he used his speed to split blockers and chased down Ryan before the quarterback could release the ball. With that loss of 12, and the ball pushed back to the 35, Atlanta felt it needed to get something on third and 23, so they called for a safe throw.

Because they were forced to throw, however, their line was forced to pass block. And with Chris Long making his way around the edge, offensive tackle Jake Matthews dragged down the New England defender, and the holding call pushed the Falcons to the 45, beyond field goal range. They subsequently misfired on third down, and punted to give the Pats all they could ask for: the ball in Tom Brady’s hands with a chance to tie the game.

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3rd and 10 at NE 9, 3:17, fourth quarter — Brady pass to Chris Hogan for 16 yards

The next series didn’t start smoothly. Brady was under heat (as he was much of the night) from lineman Grady Jarrett on first down, forcing an ugly incompletion. Then Brady just missed a deep floater to Hogan up the right sideline.

That brought on third down, and knowing the Pats needed to throw, the Falcons pinned their ears back and brought an extra rusher. From his 9, Brady retreated to the point that both his feet were in the end zone, but as the pressure came on both sides he planted and let the ball fly just as Hogan found a soft spot in the coverage and started making his break toward the sideline. The throw – traveling 25 yards in the air — was a strike, and with that gain of 16 the Pats were in business.

That would be the last third down New England would face in the game, thanks in no small part to Brady connecting on 10 of his next 11 passes. Of course, one of those probably shouldn’t have been complete – but, finally, one of those abundantly unlikely bounces went the Patriots way.

1st and 10 at NE 36, 2:28, fourth quarter — Brady pass to Edelman for 23 yards

There are plays in a game where the impact is obvious because of the down and distance, or the score, or some combination of those circumstances. But there are also plays where the importance is as much about the belief it instills that something special is afoot. Just ask David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII. Or Jermaine Kearse in Super Bowl XLIX.

Or, now, Julian Edelman in Super Bowl LI.

Had the pass from Brady fallen incomplete in the middle of the field, the Pats would’ve still faced only second down, and the way things were humming they would’ve done so undaunted. But when Robert Alford deflected the ball, a pair of teammates crashed the pile, and Edelman still managed to snatch the pigskin before it hit the turf, that might’ve been the moment even the biggest skeptics among New England’s sports fans really felt like the comeback was going to happen.

So much had to go right. Alford could’ve intercepted the pass rather easily if he’d kept his footing. Edelman could’ve lost sight of the floating ball amid the mass of humanity. The ball could’ve landed next to, instead of on top of, a defender’s leg. Edelman could’ve even conceivably prioritized preventing an interception and tried swatting it to the ground. Or he could’ve caught the ball — which is what he did.

And what the football fans of New England, and maybe more so Atlanta, will remember forever.