For the fifth time in franchise history the New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions. At the beginning of the season it seemed improbable that I would be able to type that sentence. The Patriots had fallen in the AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos due in large part to a missed Stephen Gostkowski extra point and Roger Goodell’s season-long smear campaign had finally succeeded and seen Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of 2016. It was as low a point as the Patriots had reached in a long time and it led the entire football world to speculate on the downfall of the NFL’s model franchise.
We know what happened next: the combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett went 3-1 until the suspended Brady could return to his team. Once Brady was able to lead the Patriots again he burned down everything that stood in his path, losing only one game (a nail-biter against Seattle) and throwing just two interceptions all season. Brady played like a man on a mission to defend his name against the NFL’s bumbling idiot excuse for a commissioner. At 39 years old Tom Brady was looking to paint one more masterpiece.
The NFL season always feels way too short, doesn’t it? It seems like you’re watching the draft one day and then all of a sudden you’re asking yourself how it’s already Week 7. This is going to make anyone outside of Boston roll their eyes so hard that a few of those pupils may not come down, but the season feels even shorter for Patriots fans. Since 2001 when they won their first Super Bowl, New England has only won 10 games or less twice – in 16 years. They won 12 games or more 11 of those 16 years including four seasons with a record of 14-2 and their historic 16-0 campaign in 2007. The trouble with these winning ways is that Pats Nation has become conditioned over the years to expect absolute greatness season after season. We want to see our team play exciting games, but we’re also offended if they win by less than three scores on any given weekend. It’s a dilemma that we’ve been caught in for quite some time now. As a result, there are only a few games that really test our mettle each season and by the time we’re ready to lay it all out for the postseason we have to watch the Texans get blown out. Life’s tough when your team doesn’t have a lot of legitimate competition. Any Patriots fan will tell you that they cherish the few hours in a season where they can actually question the outcome of a game. Super Bowl LI (51) gave us a lot more than we bargained for.
If you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you are a Chargers fan because I’m from San Diego. That means the majority of my readers don’t know what it’s like to wake up on Super Bowl Sunday and have a pit in the bottom of your stomach that says your favorite team could be champions later that day. And yes, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m going full Patriots hubris here. We hold this stuff in to be polite but Roger Goodell pissed us off and we don’t care anymore. Anyway, watching the Patriots play in the Super Bowl is both a privilege and a curse. For a week your nerves are never settled, you keep seeing images of the “Helmet Catch” in your sleep, and perfect strangers on the street go out of their way to inform you that they sincerely hope your team loses by 50 on Sunday. Once the Super Bowl finally arrives you just want to lock yourself in a room alone where you’ll be free to celebrate, agonize, question referees and maybe even cry without judgement. Of course, you can’t watch the game alone because all of your friends want to make sure they are in the room as you watch the Patriots lose so they can immediately make fun of you. They have been waiting all season for your team to stumble, after all. That’s just the life of a Patriots fan on the West Coast. The emotions, hatred, and uncertainty were no different last week and if anything they felt amplified by 10.
[This is an interlude for some emotional blah-blah stuff so feel free to skip it. I’m serious. Don’t waste your time. I’m only writing this part to make sure I get the whole account for future me to remember. You’re going to regret this for the rest of your life] Two years ago when Tom Brady slayed the mighty dragon that was Seattle’s defense I had a girlfriend from Boston who wore one of my jerseys and reassured me that it would be okay even as Jermaine Kearse seemingly made the play of the game and set up a Seahawks victory. I couldn’t help but think about her as I rolled out of bed on Sunday morning dreading the moment when Julio Jones would inevitably make some impossible catch to turn the tide in Atlanta’s favor at the last minute. She and I had watched Super Bowl XLIX (49) in a house full of Seahawks fans, but I never felt like my back was against the wall. Having her by my side was all the support I needed that day. Now, as I prepared to watch Brady and the Pats try for a fifth Super Bowl victory, I realized that I had never felt more alone. Even if they were victorious I wouldn’t have anyone to truly share that joy with, only a bunch of people who would congratulate me despite spending the past three hours hoping to see my team fail. That sobering epiphany really began to take away my excitement for the game until I snapped out of it and ate a piece of pizza for breakfast because there’s no place for such weakness on Super Bowl Sunday. No place at all.
Back in the real world it was finally time for the greatest Sunday of the year and internally I was barely holding on. I’ve never watched a Patriots game I didn’t think they would win, but after reviewing endless stats and highlights for two weeks while writing the Totally Non-Biased 4th and Gyas Super Bowl Preview® it was becoming increasingly difficult to believe Atlanta’s juggernaut of an offense could be stopped. And when I say juggernaut I’m referring to the X-Men character Juggernaut who could not, in fact, be stopped under most circumstances. I started the morning with some flag football to try and take the edge off, but because I was practically boiling inside I had a tough time regulating myself on the field. I finished the game with two and a half tackles – the flag football game – and more trash talk than I had uttered all season. The Falcons were in my head and I couldn’t deny it.
We ended the game at about 2:30 pm (the Super Bowl started at 3:30pm on the west coast) and headed home to change. I put on my 2016 AFC Champions shirt and then my red throwback Julian Edelman jersey which I had donned for every playoff game so far. I’m slightly superstitious as a sports fan so I try not to change up my outfits during the playoffs and haven’t bet on a game featuring one of my favorite teams since 2010. A Patriots logo embroidered hat I bought the day of Super Bowl XLIX topped off my outfit and then I pulled out the secret weapon – a rally towel from that Super Bowl I had received from the Patriots themselves. My phone was already buzzing with “ready to lose?!” texts so I set it to the side and sat down by myself in the corner as the game started. I knew that anything I said could and would be used against me should the Super Bowl not go my team’s way so I resolved to keep all of my commentary and complaints to myself.
In what seemed like only a few minutes the Falcons were up 14-0 and Super Bowl 51 was most certainly not going my team’s way. Anybody in the room could have mistaken me for Bill Belicheck as I focused singularly on the screen and muttered furiously under my breath, gesturing towards different players and areas of the field. Beneath my silence I demanded to know why Malcolm Butler wasn’t shadowing Julio Jones and when New England’s receivers were going to catch a damn ball. A glimmer of hope before halftime was snatched away when Robert Alford took an ill-advised Tom Brady pass 82 yards the other way just as the Patriots were driving towards the end zone. The interception came about because of what was quite possibly Brady’s worst throw all season. I insisted with myself that if the Patriots could score a touchdown before halftime the game would be well within reach; instead they settled for a field goal and pushed my spirit within the point of breaking. I knew that Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would destroy whatever part of my psyche the Falcons hadn’t already got around to so I took a walk to a nearby taco shop.
As I ate my delicious pollo asado California burrito from La Fuente in Serra Mesa (hey, a free burrito never hurt anybody) I was reminded of one of my favorite Patriots games ever. On a cold, windy Denver night in November 2013, New England faced a 24-0 deficit before defeating Peyton Manning and the Broncos in overtime. The Patriots had fumbled six times before halftime, compared to a paltry pair of turnovers in the game that was currently unfolding, and then hosted an absolute clinic to come back for a victory, led by Tom Brady’s 344 yards and three touchdowns. I watched that game on a couch next to the biggest Broncos fan I know and silently endured his increasing verbal abuse with every Broncos score, commenting only that, “the game isn’t over until it’s over”. I managed to maintain my composure even as Denver faltered and New England fought their way back into the game, finally kicking the game winning field goal in overtime after deciding to give Peyton Manning the ball first because the wind conditions were so harsh. I decided that, unsettling as it may have been that Lady Gaga might have just jumped to her death before our eyes, New England’s fifth championship would be even sweeter once Tom Brady again led the team to an amazing comeback. When I returned to the house to watch the second half, my friend Trevor asked what my score prediction was based on the first half. I half-heartedly replied, “I predicted 31-27 in the blog yesterday”. I exchanged my Edelman jersey for Brady, hoped for the best, and prepared for the second half.
Some people might call New England’s third quarter performance encouraging given the context, but after another 15-minute period they had allowed yet another Falcons touchdown and managed to score just one of their own, a short pass from Brady to James White. My buddy Kurtis, the real MVP of Super Bowl 51, showed up to the Super Bowl party with five six packs of Ballast Point beer so my gestures and mumbling only intensified as a comeback became less and less likely with every tick of the clock. The odds were stacked a little higher against the Patriots when Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point following our first touchdown of the day. Oddly enough, that was the first time I had felt legitimate hope since right before the pick-six. Have you ever lost a game of Connect Four and then immediately played a few more games? No matter what happens you are definitely not going to let yourself be beaten the way you were that first time. Bill Belicheck, the best coach in the NFL at preparing his team for specific situations that might occur in a game, had seen this movie before. As I mentioned earlier the Patriots might have been playing in their third Super Bowl is as many years were it not for a missed extra point and failed two-point conversion. I knew at that moment that should New England somehow close the spacious gap between themselves and the Falcons they would be prepared for the inevitable two-point situation. My belief in the cyclical nature of sports and the revitalized play of the Patriots defense fumigated the butterflies in my stomach and replaced the dread with certainty. Certainty that if Tom Brady was going to become the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls then an amazing comeback was the only appropriate way for it to happen.
There is always argument surrounding what the key play of any game is and especially when that game is the Super Bowl. Personally, I believe that the most important sequence of Super Bowl 51 occurred with 8:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Patriots had just scored a field goal to cut the Falcons’ lead to a smaller 16 points. After Tevin Coleman picked up nine yards total on first and second down, Matt Ryan dropped back to pass on 3rd and 1 from Atlanta’s 35 yard line. Using a bull rush Dont’a Hightower overtook the lineman assigned to block him and swatted Ryan’s arm just as he was about to throw the ball, crushing him in the process. The ball flew into the air and took a bounce or two before being recovered by New England defensive tackle Alan Branch. I, along with the entire NRG Stadium and New England region, held my breath as the referees reviewed the turnover, but we already knew what the verdict would be: fumble, recovered by the Patriots. Real, unashamed hope began tugging at the edges of my heart as New England drove the ball 25 yards to the endzone and finished the ensuing drive with a six yard Danny Amendola touchdown. A beautifully executed direct snap to James White for the two-point conversion meant that the Patriots had a very real chance at winning this game. I clutched my “We Are All Patriots” rally towel tightly and silently allowed myself to believe that the greatest quarterback of all time had saved his best for last.
(Pictured: Fumble Bae, sprinkling some hope on Patriots Nation)
The Falcons acted swiftly to extinguish my hope by completing a 39 yard catch-and-run to Devonta Freeman after starting the next drive on their own 10 yard line. This was my nightmare coming true. Even if Tom Brady and the offense could score at will there were just too many weapons to stop Atlanta for a full four quarters. Two plays later Julio Jones made what I thought at the time to be another one of “those catches”. The miraculous catch every team since 2007 has pulled out of their a** in the Super Bowl against the Patriots and one that they had narrowly escaped two years earlier. Yet here we were again watching in jaw-dropped disbelief as the replays showed Julio Jones leaping towards the sideline at full extension, somehow willing his toe to smack the turf as he floated out of bounds and completed another near-impossible catch. I couldn’t decide if Julio or David Tyree would be higher on my list of “Super Bowl villains to disrespect in public should I ever be gifted with the chance”. It was the first time I stood up and said anything out loud all night. Either way the Falcons were now on the Patriots’ 22 yard line and headed straight for a game-sealing score. That is, until Matt Ryan was sacked by Trey Flowers for a loss of 11 yards on 2nd and 11. The defense hadn’t given up quite yet. On the next play Atlanta offensive lineman Jake Matthews locked New England pass rusher Chris Long into a WWE-style chokehold while trying to keep Ryan from being sacked twice in a row. The penalty resulted in the Falcons having no choice but to punt after coming up short on 3rd and 33. It was officially Brady Time.
It’s easy to forget because his team is rarely trailing in the 4th quarter of any game, but Tom Brady is second in the NFL all-time with 39 career 4th quarter comeback wins. Even in his days as a Michigan Wolverine, Brady was known for delivering his best performances with a game on the line, so any Patriots fan or Brady supporter-at-large will tell you that they never doubted Brady would lead his offense from their own 9 yard line, with 3:30 left, to a game-tying touchdown. Two incomplete passes later Brady was staring down 3rd and 10 and I was staring down another can of Sculpin IPA in preparation of what would come when New England failed to gain a first down. My fears were never realized because Captain Comeback himself found AFC Championship hero Chris Hogan for 16 yards and then drilled a sideline pass to rookie revelation Malcolm Mitchell for 11 more, stopping the clock at 2:34 when he was pushed out of bounds. Considering that the Patriots were at one point down 28-3 in this game and showing no signs of offensive cohesion I was convinced that only a miracle could save our chances at a fifth Lombardi Trophy. The miracle at first seemed to be Dont’a Hightower’s forced fumble, and then I thought maybe it was the least-sacked quarterback in the NFL going down for an 11-yard loss when his team was in game-sealing field goal range, but as I and the rest of the world was about to find out, the true miracle had yet to occur.
Over the past decade or so of being a Patriots fan there has always been one catch that I could pick out as my favorite. Against the Jets in (I believe) 2008, Tom Brady launched a long bomb to a streaking Randy Moss down the middle of the field. Moss easily strode past cornerback Darelle Revis and caught the perfectly placed pass in his outstretched hand (that’s right, just one) as he entered the end zone. A thing of true beauty. My new favorite catch was not so much a thing of beauty as it was a spectacle of awe and wonder, a test of faith. With 2:28 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51, down by 8 points, Tom Brady attempted to squeeze a pass 23 yards downfield to Julian Edelman between the corner underneath and safety behind him. Edelman would later say that the route was not up to his personal standard, but regardless Robert Alford was able to tip the pass in the air. Edelman dove for the ball along with Atlanta defensive backs Alford, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen, landing in a heap of arms and legs that were able to keep the ball suspended long enough for Edelman to complete the catch. Leaping out of my chair I vigorously brought my arms together in front of my chest, moving them up and down to demonstrate the official signal for a completed catch. “He caught it! He caught it! He caught it! That’s a catch!” I exclaimed while the replay shone a thousand times over on the flat screen in front of me. The FOX broadcast began showing clips of the luckiest play of all time a.k.a. David Tyree’s “helmet catch” from Super Bowl XLII which angered me at first, but then I realized that it meant everything was going to be okay. Watching Edelman’s hands separate momentarily before clutching Brady’s tipped pass inches from the ground reassured me that the hard work had been done. Now all they had to do was finish the job.
Four plays after Edelman’s amazing catch ripped my heart out of my chest and then slammed it back where it belonged James White plunged into the endzone from a yard away and Brady threw a quick screen to Amendola for the two-point conversion. My friends were freaking out all around me, shouting their disbelief that the Patriots had actually overcome those seemingly insurmountable odds and tied the game at 28, but for me there was only peace now. No longer was even a shadow of a doubt able to creep through my thoughts. I stood up, walked across the living room and into the kitchen, waved my rally towel high in the air and let out a roaring “LET’S GOOOOOOO” the likes of which would have made Tom Brady proud. All the doubt, the pressure, the anxiety, the “sorry man” texts that had been sent way too early, they all poured out of me in that single shout that ensured I would barely be able to speak at work the next day. When the captains of the two teams had to again meet at halftime for the overtime coin toss I felt like a psychic. Head referee Carl Cheffers asked Patriots special teams captain Matt Slater whether they wanted heads or tails, “Heads”, Slater and I replied in unison. The coin was flipped and I announced that it had indeed come up “heads” before Cheffers could even bend over to look. Slater and I declared that New England would elect to receive the ball so in sync that you’d think we rehearsed it. As the Patriots rode Brady’s best drive of the day towards Atlanta’s endzone, I realized that a field goal and one defensive stop would make my prediction of 31-27 accurate to a single point. I quickly shook the desire to be right about something and hoped that our momentum would lead to a game-winning touchdown to keep Atlanta’s offense off of the field. After eight plays that’s exactly what happened when James White dove into the endzone from 2 yards away, cueing the confetti showers that meant New England had won their fifth Super Bowl title.
“LET’S GOOOOOO”, I screamed to anyone who could hear. What else do you say after a game like that? What else could encapsulate the emotions of watching your team overcome a 25-point deficit? What else could save a grown man from the embarrassment of crying in front of his friends? When the Giants beat my Patriots for a second time in 2011 I sank to the ground as the final whistle blew and the ball fell harmlessly near the outstretched arms of Rob Gronkowski who couldn’t even run proper routes because of an injury sustained two weeks earlier. Now, in 2017, as LeGarrette Blount repeated to Brady that he was the “best f***ing ever” on live television I sank to the floor and whispered in disbelief. “We did it”. I covered my face in case tears should come and just exhaled for what felt like the first time in hours. I stood in front of the TV and beamed as Patriots legend Willie McGinest walked the Lombardi Trophy towards the podium where Belicheck, Brady, and owner Robert Kraft were waiting. When he was replaced halfway through with Michael Strahan I demanded angrily, “what the f*** is that guy doing here? He’s the last person we want touching our trophy. First they show the helmet catch while we’re trying to win a Super Bowl, now Strahan is delivering our trophy? Come on, FOX”. None of that mattered when Roger Goodell took the mic to address the NRG Stadium crowd because he was met with the loudest, most absolutely extraordinary chorus of boos I have ever heard in my entire life and I couldn’t have been happier. It was the shining star on every Patriots fans’ tree that night watching Goodell hand the most coveted prize in football over to the man who he had spent so much time and energy slandering over the past two years. The boos continued throughout his entire speech, including mine that put the acoustics of my buddy Michael’s house to the test, until Robert Kraft replaced him and was welcomed by the cheers of a king returning home after a long and arduous campaign away from his people. In his speech Kraft referenced “certain events over the past two years” which only drove the fans lucky enough to see their team win firsthand further into a frenzy. Our moment of vindication had come.
Glancing at my phone, I noticed that my inbox now held fifty (50) unread text messages, most of them premature attempts at pouring salt on my now non-existent wounds. I decided that they could wait until tomorrow. One by one, my friends around the house offered some version of, “man, they deserved it, that game was crazy” or “I still hate the Pats but Brady is definitely the best ever”. I didn’t really care. The feeling was so surreal that I remember wondering if I would be able to take a personal day the following Tuesday in order to watch the parade in person. All I wanted to do was share this moment with someone, anyone, who loved the Patriots as much as I did and had just experienced the same spectrum of high-stress emotions as me. I might have ended up texting that ex-girlfriend from Boston, but that’s a story for a different time. The only thing that mattered was that the Patriots were once again Super Bowl Champions and they couldn’t have made the moment any more spectacular. I sat in front of the tv for a while, opined to nobody in particular that I felt James White deserved to be MVP, and eventually went home as exhausted as if I myself had just played in the Super Bowl. It was a cold night but the silent joy in my chest kept me warm. I had to remember to exhale every few minutes and remind myself that we had really done it, we were really champions.
The nature of sports is to constantly be in motion towards whatever’s next. It’s reflected in every part of the culture: when football season ends, free agency rumors begin to spread. Everyone wants to know who their team is going to select in the draft. If a legendary player is on his way out, announcing his retirement after a decade or more of service, we immediately seek out his replacement. But this time, just for once, I couldn’t move on from the moment at hand. Instead I chose to spend my free time in the following week watching replay after replay and any behind the scenes or “mic’d up” feature I could find from the Super Bowl. Even though I wonder what the offseason will bring for the Patriots, whether or not Dont’a Hightower will remain with the team, if injury-prone Rob Gronkowski will be wearing a new jersey, if the Patriots will do as I suspect and finally avenge their 18-1 campaign by going undefeated and winning the Super Bowl, but I’m taking a stand for enjoying the moment. One day when the Patriots look more like their teams of the 90’s than the squads of the Belicheck era I’m going to wish this hadn’t taken me so long. So for the time being I’m going to do everything in my power to grab hold of this feeling and squeeze it for everything it’s worth – New England Patriots, Super Bowl 51 Champions.
Special shoutout to Rain, Mikayla, RJ, Brooke, Caleb, Shane, Estefany, Clifford, Samantha, Jake, Pauly, Stoss, Papa Nick, Samuel Duke Wieland (#AttaBoy!), Bam Bam Gillen, Josh Thomas, Nic, Emily, Sam Burkman, Taylor (shoutout to Tifton), Serg and his jawline, Katie (Tifton in the building again), Heather, Knuckles Deep Nordgren, Caleb, Dylan (nerd), Jeremiah, Topher, Crystal, and my guy Luis for liking this picture where I proclaimed the Patriots as Super Bowl 51 Champions waaay back in September. Your support got me through the tough times. Also, Adam, you always say nobody reads my blog so if you’re reading this just know that although I was courteous enough not to text you when your Falcons fell apart, I have in fact been laughing at you ever since in the back of my mind. Whew, that was a long season, I need a vacation!