GLENDALE, Ariz. — Considering that this football stadium on the fringes of the Arizona desert was the scene of past heartbreak and a lost quest for perfection, perhaps the beautiful symmetry of what happened Sunday night was meant to be.
Know this: It was so incredible, so decorated with harbingers and flashbacks of the five prior Super Bowl thrillers the Patriots have reached during Bill Belichick’s extraordinary 15 seasons, that the outcome and all that led to it simply cannot have been happenstance.
There is no such thing as a football god, because no football god would suffer Roger Goodell as its mortal representative. But something beyond circumstance and coincidence must have contributed to what we saw Sunday night. It was too perfect, too tangled with this franchise’s rich recent past in so many ways, to be a mere random act of sports.
Led by Tom Brady, indisputably the greatest quarterback in the history of this irresistible-in-spite-of-itself sport, the New England Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl championship and first in a decade with a 28-24 victory over the defending champion Seattle Seahawks.
Brady threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to overcome a 10-point deficit against the ferocious Seattle defense, a rally requiring unfathomable poise and toughness. But the victory was not certain — truly, it seemed to be slipping from grasp again — until an obscure rookie defensive back Malcolm Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass at the goal line with 20 seconds left to play.
Legacies are permanently secured. Redemption is theirs to savor. This fourth Super Bowl win may have done the impossible — it may have trumped the first, which ended, as you may recall, with Adam Vinatieri’s instantly iconic 48-yard field goal.
The 2001 Patriots might be the most improbable Super Bowl champion of all-time. But if there’s one as deserving at the 2014 Patriots, they’re no better than tied for the top spot. As soon as it ended, in the midst of that holy-bleep euphoria, didn’t you wish you could watch it all again right then?
And all because the last miracle went their way this time.
Because they’ve been to six Super Bowls and nine AFC title games since Belichick and Brady joined forces, the Patriots — and their fans — possess an enviable reservoir of big-game memories. The what-ifs and remember-whens stick with us, and we’ve seen so much that the present is practically guaranteed to provide similarities to past occurrences.
But this … this was just weird. So many plays and events — unusual plays and events — in this game were reminiscent of past events. The ghosts, friendly and unwelcome, were jogging our memories all night.
It began early, when Chris Matthews, a wide receiver whose career regular-season catch total on NFL.com is a series of dashes rather than digits, started toasting Kyle Arrington in 40-something-yard increments. You may not admit it now, but I will. You were reminded of David Tyree, the Giants’ receiver who … well, you know.
When the Patriots began what would be the winning drive with 6:52 remaining and Seattle holding a 24-21 lead, it was Shane Vereen who caught two early passes — including a beautiful one-handed grab — on the drive to start it right. If you didn’t salute J.R. Redmond at that moment, I’ve got a 13-year-old Super Bowl highlight DVD that will catch you up.
With so much at stake — let’s not imagine how the tone of the chattering class would be different this morning had the Patriots suffered a third consecutive Super Bowl loss — Brady led an epic 10-play, 64-yard drive, punctuating perhaps the definitive sequence of his singular career with a touchdown pass to the relentless Julian Edelman.
Brady had put the Patriots in position to win. But with 2 minutes and 2 seconds remaining on the clock, it would be on the defense to earn the save. At that moment, how could you not flashback to Super Bowl XLII and this very venue, when the Patriots left roughly the same amount of time on the clock, and the cameras caught Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi pumping each other up on the sidelines, saying, “It’s up to us to end it.”
They could not end it, and so no one remembered that Randy Moss coulda/shoula been a Super Bowl hero. That was the night perfection was lost. And when Russell Wilson began the drive by hitting Marshawn Lynch for a 32-yard gain, those old uh-ohs reared up again.
Then came another Tyree flashback. With 1 minute 14 seconds remaining, Wilson found Jermaine Kearse for 33 yards down the right sideline. But this was no ordinary catch. Butler, in tight coverage, tipped the ball — only to see it ricochet of virtually every one of Kearse’s appendages before the receiver settled it in his hands while lying on the turf.
It was Tyree all over again, another absurd play at a crucial moment. It felt … unfair. Unjust. Victory seemed a play away for Seattle. You wondered who would play the role of Ellis Hobbs to Plaxico Burress, which undersized defensive back would be looking up at the making of history this time.
Instead, it was Butler who made his own history, reading Wilson’s intentions without a split-second of hesitation and coming up with an interception that changed the entire narrative of recent Patriots history.
The kid had better be front and center on the first duckboat. Because there’s no parade without him.
He secured the fourth Lombardi, putting Belichick and Brady in the most exclusive company It made a champion of Vince Wilfork again. It clinched the first ring for so many outstanding players — Edelman and Gronk and Devin McCourty and Darrelle Revis and Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich.
He stole the ball, like John Havlicek. He stole a place in Boston sports lore, like Dave Roberts. He trumped Antwan Harris, ’01 AFC Championship Game, for bragging rights as the most obscure defensive back to make a huge play during a championship season. He did what Asante Samuel could not.
He caught the damn thing. Not long after, the hands that hauled in that football were aiming the Lombardi Trophy skyward.
This ending, well, it felt familiar too. Except, hallelujah and praise Goodell, it rattled awake a decade-old memory all the while vanquishing some lousy ones from Super Bowls lost.
The Patriots are champions again. The job has been done. Maybe the magnitude of the moment is getting to me, but it sure seems culmination is as sweet as it was 13 years ago, when a certain football split the uprights and the best of times began.