Here we are at last.
It's amazing how things work out sometimes. I never really have a set plan or schedule when I begin counting down the Top 20 Patriots Moments of any given season; I put them up when I can, slate them in during quieter offseason weeks, and just make sure to get them all done before the next season starts in earnest. I never really try to time anything well or make any intelligent decisions regarding exactly when I post; that kind of forward thinking is a little to advanced for me. So it's nothing more than coincidence and a fair bit of dumb luck that has allowed me to coincide this, the single greatest moment of the 2014 season, with tonight's NFL Network special that also more or less comes down to what I'm about to try and relive. I wish I could take credit for it, claim tremendous foresight, but I can't.
This now marks the third straight year that I have counted down the Top 20 Patriots Moments of the previous season. And for the third straight year, what was going to take the Number One slot was glaringly obvious right from the getgo. 2012 gave us Mark Sanchez and The Buttfumble. 2013 brought us a 24 point comeback and an overtime win against the Denver Broncos. And as we find ourselves getting ready to relive the Number One Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2014, we once again find ourselves having known what was coming for quite a while now.
I don't know about any of you, but this year's countdown felt different to me...almost a bit lackluster. Now don't get me wrong - I had an absolute blast writing these articles, remembering the 2014 season, and recapping what really were some absolutely amazing Patriots moments - after all, 2014 was one of the craziest in recent memory. But at the end of the day, I just couldn't shake the feeling that I was more or less killing time and providing filler until I was finally able to get around to what is not only the greatest moment in the Patriots 2014 season, but arguably the greatest moment in Patriots history and one of the best plays of all time. When your Top 20 countdown is a bunch of big plays and crazy occurences that are all leading up to this, it's hard for any of them to carry the same kind of weight. And because of that, I'm more excited than ever to finally get to relive what has been playing over and over in my dreams almost every night since early February.
But first, the list so far:
20. Jimmy Garoppolo wins a job - and our hearts - with a spectacular preseason.
19. Brandon LaFell officially arrives in a Week 6 contest against the Buffalo Bills.
18. The Patriots get embarrassed on national television with a 41-14 beatdown at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs.
17. The Patriots sign Darrelle Revis.
16. Vince Wilfork and Jamie Collins help the Patriots lock up a 1st round bye against the New York Jets.
15. Chandler Jones blocks a Blair Walsh field goal attempt against the Minnesota Vikings to keep the momentum with the Patriots.
14. Rob Gronkowski officially returns to form as the Patriots destroy the Chicago Bears.
13. Darrelle Revis shuts down Calvin Johnson as the Patriots stomp the Lions.
12. Chris Jones finds redemption in the form of a last second blocked field goal against the New York Jets.
11. The Patriots avenge a Week 1 loss by obliterating the Dolphins to secure the AFC East.
10. Julian Edelman's catch and run helps lift the Patriots over the San Diego Chargers.
9. Danny Amendola hauls in a 19 yard touchdown catch on 3rd and goal against the Jets to secure a lead.
8. Jonas Gray rushes for 200+ yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts.
7. LeGarrette Blount goes off - again - against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
6. Nate Solder rumbles into the end zone off a playaction pass against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
5. Rob Gronkowski bowls over the entire Colts defense on his way to the end zone and a 42-20 rout.
4. A spectacular one-handed catch caps off a 43-21 beatdown of the Denver Broncos.
3. We're on to Cincinnati.
Buckle up, everyone. Time to take a trip back to the Super Bowl and the pick heard around the world.
1. Malcolm Butler intercepts Russell Wilson at the goal line with 25 seconds left to play to clinch Super Bowl XLIX for the Patriots.
Super Bowl Sunday. The greatest day of the year. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one delicious package. Hardcore and casual fans alike all across the globe were getting together at various Super Bowl parties to feast on junk food, drink a lot of beer, watch some interesting commercials, and see the Seattle Seahawks try to repeat as World Champions. Standing in their way were the New England Patriots, led by quarterback Tom Brady, making his NFL record sixth Super Bowl appearance as he searched for that ever elusive fourth ring. It's a time for friends, family, get togethers, and celebration of one of the all-time great American traditions.
Or if you're like me, you hadn't left your apartment all day. You had spent the entire morning and afternoon in a catlike state of nervous readiness, willing the clock to move faster so you can just get the game started and the feelings of sheer terror and trepidation would subside just a little bit. If you were like me, you watched this game alone, with the doors locked and the shades drawn. There were no wings. There was no pizza. No nachos. No beer.
OK, that last one is a lie. There was still plenty of beer. But the Alec Shane Super Bowl Party only had one guest, and that was just the way he wanted it. By the time this game finally kicked off, I was so tense I could barely even remember my own name. Granted, I can barely remember my own name most of the time, but this was different.
That New England got the ball to start but couldn't really get anything going certainly didn't help matters.. Tommy B was utilizing a lot of short completions to move the ball, not wanting to test Seattle's defense early. They would eventually punt after securing just one first down. Seattle responded with a three and out, and Brady got back to work. He was able to drive the ball all the way down to the Seahawks 10 yard line before he became classic Brady for all the wrong reasons: felt the pressure, threw off his back foot, made a poor read, and got picked off in the end zone by Jeremy Lane. Lane would return the ball to the Seattle 14, but suffered a gruesome broken arm on the run that would end his night.
While Seattle had generated a turnover, they couldn't turn it into points. Another punt to New England, and the Patriots were finally able to get into the end zone when Brady hit Brandon LaFell on an 11 yard in route to cap off a nine play, 65 yard drive that gave the Patriots their first lead of the game. Seattle answered two drives later with an 8 play, 70 yard drive that was basically the Marshawn Lynch show; Lynch ground the ball downfield, and eventually punched it in from three yards out to tie the game at seven.
The last two minutes of the half were by far the most exciting. With the ball at their own 20, Brady marched right down the field with another series of short, easy passes that allowed the receivers to rack up yards after the catch and attain yards in chunks. Brady brought them all the way down to the Seattle 22, where on 2nd and 5 he came out in shotgun with Vereen in the backfield and a 4 WR set. Gronk was matched up on linebacker K.J. Wright, which was all that Brady needed to know. A quick three step drop, and Tommy B hit Gronk down the sidelines for a beautiful touchdown and another lead. The Pats were about to go into the locker room up by a touchdown and with some much-needed momentum.
Not so fast.
In just over 30 seconds, Seattle went 80 yards in just five plays. A huge Russell Wilson scramble and a 23 yard pass to Lockette, compounded with a 15 yard facemask penalty on Kyle Arrington, put the Seahawks on the New England 11 with six seconds left. Wilson, seeing both a coverage mismatch and a deep cushion by Logan Ryan, hit receiver Chris Matthews in the end zone to tie the game at 14. All the momentum gained by the Patriots was lost, and then some, as both teams went into the locker room knotted up.
As of right now, I can't for the life of me remember what the halftime show was. I know that it would take less than 10 seconds to look it up, but I don't remember a second of that halftime show. It's right there in the back of my mind, and I remember that there was some kind of hoopla about one particular aspect of that show, but I have no idea what it is right now. I only bring that up because odds are I was more or less blacked out from panic at this point and trying to reconcile exactly when in my pathetic excuse for a life something that was supposed to be an enjoyable hobby turned into my greatest source of panic, stress, fear, and self-loathing. I should really pick that examination up at some point.
But if you do remember that halftime show, then you probably also remember the first three possessions of the second half: Seattle field goal, Tom Brady interception, Seattle touchdown. The TD pass was to Doug Baldwin, who had managed to get Darrelle Revis tied up wit the referee and was wide open for the score. As Baldwin was getting a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for pretending to poop the ball out, Richard Sherman was caught on the sidelines reminding the world that Revis was the one who just gave up the touchdown. Seahawks24, Patriots 14.
At this point, Patriots fans everywhere had good cause to be nervous. A 10 point second half lead with one of the all-time great defenses taking the field isn't a situation you want to find yourself in. Things didn't get any better when New England punted on their next possession and the third quarter came to a close with the score unchanged.
No team has ever overcome a 10 point 4th quarter deficit in a Super Bowl before. It simply hasn't happened.
However, there has never been a quarterback quite like Tom Brady before, either.
New England's first full possession of the 4th quarter came with just over 12 minutes to play in the game. It was absolutely imperative they they get a score here, as time was on Seattle's side and it was a two score game. The drive couldn't have started out worse, as Brady was sacked by Irvin for an eight yard loss right out of the gate, and they were only able to gain four yards back on the next play. Facing a 3rd and 14 from their own 28, Brady was able to step up in order to avoid pressure and hit Edelman on an absolute laser strike that saw him get absolutely leveled on the play. But he held onto the ball, and the Patriots still had life.
Let's talk for a minute about Julian Edelman.
Tommy B was the Super Bowl MVP, and rightly so; 37 of 50 for 328 yards and 4 TDs is a stat line worthy of such an honor. But if you could hand out two awards, Edelman deserved the second one. It wasn't just his day - 9 receptions for 109 yards and a TD. It wasn't just his toughness - he took hit after hit, laid himself out there, and got right the hell back up again and into the huddle. It was his attitude throughout the whole thing. Listen to him during the Super Bowl Sound FX clip. Try and count how many times he tells his brothers that he loves them. Listen to him and his encouragement. Watch him lead by example. That's what good teammates do. That's what champions do. It's why he was the one Tommy B went to when things seemed dire.
But before Edelman got his, it was Danny Amendola's turn. On 2nd and goal from the Seahawks four yard line, Brady found him the the back of the end zone to narrow the lead to just three. Patriots 21, Seahawks 24. Just under eight minutes to go.
New England needed a stop.
1st and 10. Incomplete pass.
2nd and 10. Lynch runs for 5 yards.
3rd and 5. Incompletion.
Punt. Brady takes the field.
A short pass to Vereen, followed by another. Edelman for nine. Gronk for a huge 20. Gronk for 13 more. Shane Vereen up the middle. Seven yards to LaFell. Blount rumbling up the gut. 2nd and goal. Seahawks three yard line.
Cut to earlier in the game. New England, in a similar situation, ran a play that had Edelman cut in hard on single coverage before reversing his field and coming open in the end zone. Brady saw him, but overthrew, losing the chance for a touchdown. It was a mistake that Brady would not make twice.
Same play. Same formation. Same coverage. Different result. Patriots 28, Seahawks 24. Largest 4th quarter comeback in Super Bowl history. Super Bowl record for most completions. A fourth quarter for the ages.
2:02 left to play. An absolute eternity.
Kickoff to Seattle. Wheel route, 31 yards. A few incompletions, then 11 more yards. First and 10 at the New England 38. A deep right pass to Jermaine Kearse, defended by undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler. Perfect coverage. Pass incomplete.
Or was it.
Off his hands, Kearse falls to the ground. The ball bounces off his right knee, then off his left, comes back up, bounces off his right hand. Kearse rolls over, brings the ball in. Completion. Sits on the ground for a fraction of a second, tries to figure out what just occurred. Gets up, starts to run. Butler pushes him out of bounds.
It was first and goal at the five yard line. Chris Collinsworth is unable to contain his glee.
How could this be happening again? How many times can the Patriots lose the Super Bowl on some freak play? And why did it have to happen in the SAME FREAKING STADIUM as the first Patriots/Giants game? What did we ever do to deserve this? All of these questions, and more, ran through all of our heads as our collective stomachs, hearts, souls, and wills to live sunk down through our shoes. Where we were once standing, cheering, on the brink of that elusive fourth title, we now sank back into our various seats, defeated, despondent, already seeing the headlines as clear as day. Brady has lost it. As many championship losses as wins. Clearly a better QB earlier in his career. Still no wins since Spygate. Unable to get over the hump. The Pats are the worst. The Seahawks are the best. Back to trying to defend this team against everyone who will point to three plays - literally three plays - that have kept Brady from winning six straight Super Bowls. There was nothing to be done. The Seahawks had the ball at the five yard line with 1:06 to play, a timeout, and Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. Two runs from Beast Mode, and that was going to be it.
Seattle's first play was a run. Lynch took the handoff over the left tackle and rumbled for four yards before a combination of Akeem Ayers and Dont'a Hightower, the latter of whom was playing with a ruined shoulder, brought him down at the one.
Less than one minute to play.
There was no way to stop Lynch from gaining a single yard. It simply wasn't possible. New England had to call a timeout, let Seattle score, and hope that Tommy B could engineer a miracle drive to end all miracle drives. It was the only logical plan. We all knew it. The commentators knew it. Even Pete Carrol knew it. He stood across the sideline from Belichick, eyes focused on him, just waiting for him to call the timeout so he could save his offense some time. They locked eyes for just a moment.
His coordinators looked to him, asked him what they were to do. Asked if they should call the timeout.
There will be no timeout.
Belichick had made a decision.
Carrol, perhaps realizing that no timeout was forthcoming, hurried to call in the play. Seattle brought three receivers and a tight end out of the huddle, as the Patriots were initially in the largest goal line package. Seeing the change in personnel, it was time to call a defensive audible. This defense would need three corners.
Ayers coming off the field. Sprinting to the sidelines. Two words uttered. Two very simple, very direct words.
Butler back in the game. Had just given up a huge play, now back in the game.
Second and goal at the five. Clock continues to tick.
Thirty seconds left now.
Hawks have two receivers lined up to the weak side. Brandon Browner is on Kearse. Darrelle Revis is alone on the other side. Behind Baldwin, just off the line, is Lockette. Behind Browner is Butler, only just in the game on this last-minute substitution. This goal line package being run for the very first time that year.
The offense sets.
Twenty-five seconds. Snap the ball.
Tight end staying in to block. Lynch drawing Jamie Collins out of the center of the line by running into the flat. Vince Wilfork crashes the center, knowing full well that this may be the last snap he ever plays as a member of the New England Patriots, barelling into the backfield before center Max Unger can even set his feet. Rob Ninkovich charges the edge, hoping to play contain in case Wilson rolls right. The receivers start to run their routes.
Freeze. Back up. Rewind a few days.
Patriots practice in the days leading up to this game. Situational football has Jimmy Garoppolo, running the prep team, down near the goal line, where they run a pick play. Malcolm Butler, assigned to the in-cut receiver, gets beat on the play. They run it a few more times. He gets beat again. Belichick is unhappy with the performance, reams him out, lets him know what he's doing wrong. Makes sure he knows that he has to be ready for anything.
Like this very moment.
Ball back to Wilson in shotgun, he takes it. Single step drop. Lockett cuts to the middle as Baldwin engages with Browner, looking to push him back and into Butler's running lane. Browner holds his ground, as impenetrable as the man with the giant 7 and the giant 5 on his jersey currently giving the entire Seahawks offensive line everything that they can handle and more.
Baldwin gets zero push.
But Lockett cuts free.
Malcolm Butler reads the cut. He plants his foot and goes. He doesn't think. He doesn't question. He has committed himself entirely to this one motion. He sprints to where he thinks that Lockett will be.
Wilson sees his man coming open. He plants his foot. Releases.
Two men collide. Between them is a small, oblong, brown object that has been the singular focus of almost the entire planet for the past three hours. One of them feels the impact, stumbles, is knocked off balance. The other continues his motion, the motion he had committed so wholly to, and wrests the football away and into his arms. He secures it, takes a step, and falls to the ground.
Patriots ball, 1st and 10 at their own one yard line.
Elation. Relief. Mania. Grown men screaming like GOATS. Fans everywhere going crazy. Collinsworth trying to contain his rage, unable to speak.
And somewhere deep in the borough of Brooklyn, a lone, paranoid, insecure, hopeless Patriots fan lets out a single sob.
The Patriots were about to win the Super Bowl. There was no helmet catch. No missed interception. No epic drop. No miracle throw. There was just a defensive back who gave up a big play and then made up for it and then some.
Part of me didn't believe it. I was still waiting for something to happen, some kind of delayed flag or retroactive timeout or Roger Goodell calling from the booth for a do-over because the Patriots aren't allowed to win games. But none of that happened. The only flag on the field was for celebrating after the fact. The play was going to stand, and the ball was back in Brady's hands.
In my Fan Notes from The Super Bowl, I shared with everyone my reaction to the play:
My friend called me shortly after the game ended to ask me what came out of my mouth when Butler made that pick, and I'll tell all of you what I told him: an audible sob. Just one, and just a few tears came with it, but that's what happened. I didn't jump out of my chair. There was no air humping. There was no cheering, or screaming, or dancing in the streets. There was just one man, alone in his apartment, watching one of the greatest plays in New England Patriots history, and sobbing once. I watched the replay to see that it was real, that I had in fact just witnessed it, and that there were no flags on the ground. I then placed my laptop on the floor, stood up, went over to the window, and leaned my head against the cool glass surface, trying to gather myself. I didn't want to lose it. I wanted to watch the rest of the game with vision not blurred by tears. So I pulled myself together. I went back to my chair, sat down. And I didn't get up again for a very, very long time.
And that note is, for the most part, true. There was that single sob, that rising up, head against the window, then back to my chair. I remember it as clearly as I have ever remembered any other event in my life.
However, what I did not share at that time was that I was quite unsuccessful in my efforts not to break down entirely after that play. After walking away from the window, I sat down, put my head in my hands, and bawled. I bawled like a small child. Wracking, heaving sobs, the culmination of ten years of being so close only to have my heart ripped out on some of the craziest football you will ever see. Floodgates opening after years of waiting on the precipice of immortality - all of it came out of me in buckets.
I wasn't ashamed of it then, nor am I ashamed of it now. But I wanted to have that moment to myself for just a while longer before I shared it with my beloved community here at Pats Pulpit. Enough time has passed now so that I'm happy to tell the world that all of the joy, the elation, and the relief I felt after that Malcolm Butler pick poured out of me not in jumping up and down or screaming into the frigid February air, but in wonderful, gushing tears.
But the game wasn't over yet.
Seattle still had a timeout, and New England was backed up at their half-yard line, the offense sent back due to an unsportsmanlike celebration flag. Brady had no room to take a knee. He was going to have to try and sneak forward to buy himself some room to close out the game.
The Seahawks had their entire team on the line. They were going to force the safety, get the ball back on a punt, and try for a late field goal. It was their only play.
What happened next is yet another subtle example of the pure brilliance that is Tom Brady. Tommy B had been calling for the snap on the second helmet bob for the entire game. It was a slight tell, and one he willingly conceded to insure his receivers got the jump they needed for the short receptions they were running. But this time, as Brady came out to take the snap, he bobbed his helmet once, twice, and three times. Michael Bennett, needing to attach, snuck offsides to draw the encroachment penalty, giving the Patriots the ball at the five yard line.
Brady immediately takes a knee, Seattle calls a timeout. The Seahawks, letting their anger get the better of them, start a scuffle in the end zone that turns into an all out brawl. Brady, however, does not move. As everyone else runs into the fray, he stays on one knee, trying to take it all in, knowing what his team has just accomplished. Richard Sherman, who has also not joined the scuffle, comes over to Brady with his hand extended. Tommy B, still lost in his reverie, doesn't see him at first, but ultimately stands, takes his hand, and tells him what a great player that he is.
15 yards forward and one more knee, and the final whistle blew. The Patriots were world champions.
One of the wildest endings to a Super Bowl in NFL history. A play that will live on forever. A playcall that will be the subject of scrutiny for decades to come. The Butler did it. The Patriots did it.
That interception isn't just the Number One Patriots Moment of 2015. I think it's the number one moment in Patriots history, and I have already made the case that it's the single greatest play in the history of all of Boston sports. It was a legacy altering play. It shifted the landscape of the entire National Football League. It was one of the most exciting finishes of any Super Bowl ever. And on top of all that, it was a phenomenal individual play, made by an absolute nobody who took the opportunity he was given in both hands and didn't let it go until he was a hero on the world's greatest stage. It's just an unbelievable story, and unbelievable play, and an unbelievable moment. Should I be lucky enough to live long enough to one day put together a Top 20 Most Memorable Top 20 Patriots Moments of the last 20 Years where I rank all the number one plays of the past two decades, I can say with some confidence that something absolutely remarkable is going to have to happen for me to knock this one out of the top spot. I'll never have an easier choice ranking my number one Patriots moment, and while I haven't even come close to doing the play justice in this piece, to be able to relive it again all these months after the fact, in the wake of Tom Brady's suspension getting overturned and on the eve of the team's fourth banner going up in the rafters of Gillette Stadium has been an absolute privilege.
Malcolm Freaking Butler.
Game highlights here.
Inside the NFL 1st half highlights here.
2nd half highlights here.
Watch the interception for the millionth time here.
Picture of Sherman reacting to that play here.
Watch a collection of Patriots fan reacting to the play here.
And just for fun, a few more Pats fan reactions here.
Oh, what the heck. One more here.
(It may come as a surprise, but there are more than a few swear words in there. So consider this your official NSFW designation.)
And if you're one of those people who is inexplicably happy when other people are miserable, you can watch a collection of Seahawks fans reacting to the play here (warning: some colorful language here as well). I've personally never been one for relishing too deeply in the misery of others, especially considering that I know all too well what it feels like to be on the short end of a crazy play that cost you the Super Bowl, but you'll get no judgments from me if you want to take some time and giggle with devilish glee.
And with that, it's time to close the books on yet another Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2014. I hope you had half as much fun reliving this last season as I did. The 2013 Patriots were extremely likable for their toughness, their versatility, and how they never quit in spite of an insane string of injury after injury. But the 2014 Patriots were something else altogether. They started slow, took their licks, let the media hounds tear them down, banded together, rallied behind their coach and their quarterback, and they went on to make history. They went on to secure the legacy of a Hall of Fame quarterback and brought a Lombardi back to Boston where it belongs. And as it so often does, it ultimately all came down to one play. That one play, and the 19 on this list that preceded it, put the cap on one of the best seasons I'm likely to ever experience, and it was an honor to share that crazy ride with all of you.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I can't imagine I'll ever get to write up a play quite like the one I just described here, but I can't wait to see if these Patriots can prove me wrong.
We're on to the Steelers. We're on to 2015. We're on to one for the thumb.