It gained 23 yards on first-and-10 with 2:28 left in regulation. It required a tip off cornerback Robert Alford’s hands and leg. It was coined “the comeback catch” in a 28-20 game that the New England Patriots once stood 25 points away from winning.
Julian Edelman viewed the replay on the HD video board overlooking NRG Stadium that night. But maybe it didn’t fully set in then.
The wideout couldn’t recall watching perhaps the biggest moment of Super Bowl LI for himself – at least not from snap to snag – before he sat down with NFL Network’s David Carr this week.
“I believe this will be the first time,” Edelman said as the All-22 began to roll on the screen.
New England set up in five-wide from the offense’s own 36-yard line. Tom Brady stood in shotgun from there, and the quarterback had Edelman as the nearest receiver to the right, followed by tight end Martellus Bennett and running back James White.
The Atlanta Falcons aligned in two-man concept across from them.
“What we have is the rock combination up top, so we have the rock out as the killer-five beater, the under here, and the middle read with me,” Edelman detailed.
Edelman was tasked with running a skinny post opposite Alford. When the ball was snapped, however, little separation was gained out of that break between him and the cornerback, who’d already notched an 82-yard pick-six and a fumble recovery by the time the fourth and seemingly final quarter was well underway.
The stutter-step didn’t quite stutter him.
“He didn’t bite as much as I wanted him to,” Edelman said of Alford. “He made a good play. I wish I had done the route a little differently.”
The way Edelman ran the route, though, still managed to draw Brady’s attention in the middle of the field underneath safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Some hesitation was involved. A slight underthrow was, too, as No. 11 veered towards the hashes and No. 23 undercut him.
Yet the ensuing pass deflection would not end in an incompletion.
“Well, right here, he tips it, so I thought I could potentially have a shot,” Edelman said. “I was trying to get my feet in the ground as soon as possible, jump in that area and just go for it.”
Brady’s pass spiraled into Alford’s coverage and flailed end-over-end after it met his gloves. Alford flailed end-over-end much like the football did. But Edelman remained on his feet, able to lunge back the way he came from as Neal and Allen crashed in.
Sticking out of the red rubble was the football, inches from the turf but never grazing it. Atlanta’s defenders swayed their arms to signal no catch, all while Edelman tucked his close to the vest to imply it was one.
“I was pretty sure,” Edelman said. “It was one of those things – it was bang-bang. I knew it was close, and I felt like I cradled my body under it, but thankfully it hit [Alford’s] leg. I think I remember watching it hit off his leg, and it gave me extra life and then it popped up.”
The Falcons’ subsequent challenge would not be upheld.
“I didn’t think there was doubt, but you never know what a catch is nowadays,” Edelman said.
Edelman, the leading pass-catcher in Patriots postseason history with 89 receptions in 15 games, would finish Super Bowl LI ranked third all-time on the NFL’s postseason receptions list behind only Reggie Wayne and Jerry Rice.
He’d finish it with five for 87 yards. But his catch that nearly wasn’t one stood on its own. It was, in some sense, a microcosm of the game itself.
“I would say probably three out of 100,” Edelman said of his odds securing that circuitous pass from Brady again. “Three percent chance.”
Four plays later, the Patriots would find their way into the end zone as White scored on a one-yard run to make it a 26-28 game. A two-point conversion toss to wideout Danny Amendola arrived on the next snap to knot things up and force the first overtime in the Super Bowl archives.
It shouldn’t have materialized. It just did.
“Always a chance,” added Edelman.