Once again, here we are. We've endured an long offseason, the preseason is done, and we're just a few short days from the official start of the 2017 league year. And once again, the timing has somehow worked out perfectly, as today we finally wrap up our list of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2016.
Amazingly, as hard as these lists are to put together, what I'm going to put at Number One always seems to make itself abundantly clear as the season goes on. This now marks the fifth straight year that I've done these offseason countdowns, and each year, what goes in the one spot represents something truly special. In 2012, we had The Buttfumble. 2013 gave us an amazing comeback against Peyton Manning. In 2014, Malcolm Butler's pick to seal Super Bowl 49. Last year we had a play that gave the Buttfumble a serious run for its money in The Funt. What a crazy few years it has been.
And yet, as astonishing as it is to say it, I feel like the Number One Most Memorable Moment of 2016 puts them all to shame. Even Malcolm Butler and the single greatest play in Super Bowl history has to take a backseat to what is about to follow.
But first, the list up to this point:
20. The New England Patriots trade Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a bag of peanuts.
19. LeGarrette Blount runs through the entire Seahawks line on his way to the end zone.
18. A Chris Long strip sack helps to ice the game against the New York Jets.
17. The Patriots defense shuts down Trevor Siemian and the Denver Broncos on the road.
16. LeGarrette Blount owns Byron Maxwell with an epic hurdle.
15. A different kind of Malcolm Go highlights a convincing road win against the San Francisco 49ers.
14. Chris Hogan finds some nice redemption against his old team in the form of a beautiful 53 yard TD.
13. Shea McClellin leaps the line to block a FG against the Baltimore Ravens.
12. LeGarrette Blount sets a franchise record with his 15th rushing TD of the year against the Denver Broncos.
11. Tom Brady hits Chris Hogan for a 79 yard TD to ice the game against the Baltimore Ravens.
10. Rob Gronkowski sets a Patriots All-Time receiving TD record by notching his 69th against the Buffalo Bills.
9. A kickoff return for a TD highlights a historic night for Dion Lewis in the AFC Divisional Round against the Houston Texans.
8. Dont'a Hightower blows up Andy Dalton for a safety to give the Patriots some much-needed momentum against the Cincinnati Bengals.
7. Michael Floyd decapitates Tony Lippett to spring Julian Edelman for a 77 yard touchdown.
6. A Jacoby Brissett naked bootleg highlights a Thursday night shutout of the Houston Texans.
5. Tom Brady returns from suspension to the tune of 406 yards and 3 TDs in an absolute beatdown of the Cleveland Browns.
4. Tom Brady becomes the winningest quarterback in NFL history by notching win #201 against the Rams.
3. A flea flicker and a rumbling run help send the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo comes out, in his first ever NFL start, and takes down the Arizona Cardinals on the road, in primetime, on Sunday Night Football.
You all know what's coming. No surprises here. So let's just get right to it. I've bee looking forward to this one for too long to delay it any longer.
1. Tom Brady leads the Patriots from 25 points down to an overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
February 5th, 2017. Super Bowl Sunday. For the second time in three years, the Patriots were back in the big game. Their opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, were representing the NFC for the first time since Super Bowl XXXIII, where they lost 34-19 to the Denver Broncos. Atlanta's scorching hot offense, led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, set all kinds of records on their way to the Super Bowl, and were said to be too much for even the genius of Bill Belichick to figure out. The Patriots were favored by the Vegas oddsmakers, but there was more uncertainty heading into this game than any betting odds would let on.
Amazingly, the game started as a defensive showdown; both teams punted twice on their first two possessions, and all that talk about explosive offenses seemed to go right out the window as the first quarter wore on. However, with the Patriots driving, a LaGarrette Blount fumble on the Atlanta 33 yard line opened up an absolute onslaught of Atlanta scoring. Their next two possessions: five plays, 71 yards, touchdown, five plays 62 yards, touchdown. Both drives had taken less than two minutes and bookended a Patriots three and out. Down 14-0 and trailing in a game for the first time in several months, New England needed to answer before the game potentially got out of hand.
Tommy B finally found a rhythm, driving from the 25 to the Atlanta 23. However, on 3rd and 6, Brady threw an absolutely unforgivable pass, intended for Danny Amendola, that Robert Alford read all the way. Brady, rattled by pressure and forced to release the ball early, telegraphed his throw a mile away and allowed Alford to step in front of the throw and take it to the house for an 82 yard pick six. Brady made a futile attempt at a diving shoestring tackle, but he hit nothing but air as Alford cruised down the sideline and into the end zone.
As Alford celebrated that touchdown and the replays started to roll, every single Patriots fan watching the game started thinking about how many times over the coming weeks, months, and years they would have to be subjected to this picture. No team had ever given up a pick six and won the Super Bowl. Atlanta was up 21-0 with no signs of stopping, and New England looked sloppy and intimidated. The Patriots got punched very, very hard in the mouth and it didn't look like they knew what to do. They were able to avoid a first half shutout by getting enough yardage for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, but the 21-3 halftime score felt more like 2100-3. There wasn't a whole lot of positive to take away from those first two quarters. Atlanta looked like the better team. That much-touted offense was worthy of every ounce of praise they had been getting, and it was clear that Atlanta's defense had not taken kindly to being called a real liability. They responded to their criticism with a fumble recovery and a pick six in the first half, and would sack Brady five times on the day.
Halftime. Let the memes begin. Lady Gaga's performance featured a period where she seemed to fall off the face of the Earth, an apt metaphor for what was happening to the Patriots.
Of course, there was always that hope of halftime adjustments, which Belichick does better than anybody. If New England could come out, stop the Falcons, and score on their next possession, they could work their way back into the game.
And that's just what the defense did. Atlanta went three and out to start the third quarter, and Julian Edelman returned the pun 26 yards to set up great field position on the Atlanta 47.
New England's next drive? Three plays, negative two yards, 22 seconds of possession.. Punt.
And when Atlanta marched right down the field on their opening possession, 85 yards on eight plays, to make the game 28-3, any hopes that remained evaporated.
At this point in the game, I'm willing to admit that I resigned myself to a loss. I wasn't happy - not by any stretch - but I began the process of reconciling the defeat. The Patriots had won their 4th just a few years ago. Brady was already the greatest to ever play the game. Atlanta was just a better team. This wasn't some freak catch and an improbable drop preventing the Patriots from winning. They just got beat, plain and simple. I could live with that.
The Patriots got the ball back with 8:31 left in the 3rd quarter, down 25 points. The biggest deficit ever overcome in Super Bowl history up to that point was 10 points.
The team that did it? The Patriots.
Brady got to work.
With two minutes and six seconds left in the quarter, Brady found James White on a flat route for their first TD of the day. Celebrations were muted and then cut short when Ghost shanked the extra point.
Falcons 28, Patrots 9.
How many plays was Atlanta going to run this time before they scored? Five? Six? Seven? it was just a matter of time, right?
Wrong. Three and out, punt.
Patriots go back to work 12 plays, 72 yards, but two sacks stalled the drive and New England had to settle for three.
Falcons 28, Patriots 12. 10 minutes to play.
Atlanta gets the ball back, time for some clock control. An eight yard run on 1st and 10. Just one yard on 2nd down. 3rd and 1 on the Atlanta 36.
Atlanta came out in shotgun. They were a passing team, and they weren't going to deviate from their bread and butter now. An overloaded left side was rife with coverage mismatches. Matt Ryan could gain big yards here. He calls the play, snaps the ball.
Enter 270 pounds of fury named Dont'a Hightower.
Devonta Freeman missed his assignment, and by the time he realized his mistake, it was too late. Higjhtower came crashing in off the edge and walloped Ryan right as he was about to release, sending the ball tumbling to the ground where it was recovered by Alan Branch. New England's ball at the Atlanta 25.
I need to stop here for a moment. Let's talk about that play, and about Hightower.
This man has played in two Super Bowls as a New England Patriot. In each, he has made plays that completely altered not only the course of the game, but the course of football history. It's easy to forget, in the madness surrounding the Malcolm Butler interception, that Hightower made the tackle on Marshawn Lynch that kept him out of the end zone. It's also easy to forget that he did it on a ruined shoulder.
Cut to two years later, with his team desperately in need of a big play to keep their rapidly dwindling championship hopes alive. Hightower came off the line like a warrior poet and jarred that ball loose and delivered for his team again and I don't care if he never plays another down for the rest of his life because I will never look at him as anything other than one of the most important player that Bill Belichick has ever coached. He lifted our worlds up on his shoulders that February night. Never forget that.
Five plays, 25 yards. Brady hits Amendola in the end zone. The old Kevin Faulk direct snap to James White converts for two.
Atlanta 28, Patriots 20.
Patriots need a stop. Atlanta can't get into field goal range. Less than six minutes to play. One more Falcon point and the game is essentially over.
Atlanta, from their own 10, went 39 yards on their first play from scrimmage, courtesy of Devonta Freeman and a blown coverage. Two plays later, on 2nd and 8 from their own 49, Matt Ryan hit Julio Jones for a 27 yard reception to bring the Falcons down to the NE 22.
If you believe in alternate reality theory, then there exists, somewhere out there, a reality in which the Atlanta Falcons won Super Bowl LI. And in that reality, this catch from Julio Jones is very rightly exalted as one of the greatest catches of all time. It's one of those plays that, as much as it hurts to have it happen against your team, you have no choice but to respect and appreciate. Julio Jones is the best receiver in the game right now, and making plays like that it what he does. I'll be curious to see how that play is remembered, if it's remembered at all, years down the road, because it's nothing short of art in motion. And it would seem that ridiculous catches in perfect coverage simply seem to follow the Patriots wherever they go.
From the 22 yard line, a field goal would be 39 yards - a relative chip shot for Matt Bryant. With 4:40 left to play, all Atlanta had to do was run three up the gut, kill some clock, and send Bryant out to put the Falcons up by 11 with two minutes to go. And that's exactly what they started to do; Freeman was stopped by Devin McCourty as the Patriots went all in to stop the run.
2nd and 11 from the 23. Falcons again in shotgun. Run #1 didn't work, so it's back to the air. Throwing has worked for Atlanta up until this point, so let's lay on the gas. Ryan takes the snap. Trey Flowers beats a double team, penetrates the backfield, and sacks Ryan for a 12 yard loss.
I'm still emotionally exhausted from recapping the Hightower strip sack, so I don't know how deeply I can get into this one - but let's just admit this and get it out of the way now: this was a massive error by the Falcons, both in playcalling and execution. You run the ball there, and even if you don't, you CANNOT take a sack for 12 yards in that situation. You just can't do it.
That said, What a play by Flowers - right through Alex Mack and absolutely relentless in his pursuit of Ryan. Flowers doesn't make that play, Patriots very likely lose this game, npo questions asked.
Timeout New England, their first. 3:50 to play.
3rd and 23 from the New England 35. it's now a 52 yard field goal, which is still very makeable if you're Matt Bryant. Plus, Atlanta, didn't need to get the first; even a few more yards would help their chances of putting this game away. Ryan opted for a short out pass to Mohammed Sanu for nine yards, putting Atlanta at the NE 26, right back into comfortable FG range.
Not so fast. Holding, offense. 10 yard penalty.
As Chris Long came in off the edge, tackle Jake Matthews grabbed him around the neck and impeded his progress to the quarterback, drawing the flag. 3rd and 33 from the New England 45 - out of range.
The next play fell incomplete. Falcons have to punt. Tom Brady takes the field again, on his own nine yard line, with 3:33 on the clock.
Tom Brady needed to drive his team 91 yards, score a touchdown, and go for yet another two point conversion.
His first two passes fell incomplete, bringing up 3rd and 10 from the nine yard line with 3:17 to go. As the pressure closed in, Brady found Chris Hogan for 16 on a crossing route. Two plays later, he hit Malcolm Mitchell for 11 to give the Patriots a new set of downs on the 36. The next pass, a deep seam route to Julian Edelman, fell incomplete, as Robert Alford was able to get his hands on it and knock it to the ground.
Or did he?
The referees converged at the spot of the ball, signaling a catch, and placed the ball at the Atlanta 41 as New England sprinted to the line to both try to get a play off before the two minute warning and to prevent Atlanta from challenging. However, the red flag was too quick, and Dan Quinn issued the challenge.
But the evidence was clear. Somehow, Edelman managed to catch the ball. He was able to dive in between three Falcons and secure it less than six inches from the ground. The call stood.
If there's any team in the National Football League that knows a thing or two about an impossible catch just ripping your guts out, it's the Patriots. First it was David Tyree, and then it was Jermaine Kearse, and earlier in this very game Julio Jones. However, with that call standing, New England could finally boast a receiver of their own making an impossible play when things looked bleak. Edelman's Catch immediately stamped its place in the history books - and the drive continued.
Deep right to Amendola for 20. A James White catch and scamper for 13. White for seven more. On 2nd and 1 from the goal line, White charged into the end zone for his second TD of the day.
Falcons 28, Patriots 26.
I mentioned earlier that, at 28-3, I had made peace with the fact that the Patriots were going to lose this game. I wasn't happy about it, but I was going to be OK. But when White crossed that goal line and the Patriots needed their 2nd straight 2 point conversion to tie the game, I'm willing to admit now that I was convinced that they weren't going to get it. They were going to stay at 28-26, have to go for the onside kick, not recover it, and that was going to be that. Or even worse, they were going to recover the onside kick, Brady was going to get them into position, and then Ghost was going to shank the game winner. I was going to have to lose the Super Bowl twice - once peacefully, and once in absolutely soul-crushing fashion. I steeled myself for this reality and held onto my seat.
However, by the absolute narrowest of margins, a WR in-screen to Danny Amendola saw the first third of the ball cross the goal line to make the try good. Of course, any initial celebration was cut short when a flag on the field indicated a potential redo, but the penalty was on Atlanta; Dwight Freeny jumped offsides.
Penalty declined, tie game.
Nothing from the Falcons on the ensuing possession. The final whistle blows, and for the first time in Super Bowl history, we were heading into overtime.
Overtime rules are pretty simple - a coin toss decides possession, a touchdown wins it. if a field goal are the first points scored, the opposing team has the opportunity to answer. The only difference between OT in the regular season and the postseason is that in this one, the game was going to continue until there was a winner.
I have admitted already, twice now, that I felt certain that the Patriots were going to lose. But as overtime started, a very different thought went through my head:
If New England wins the coin toss, this game is over.
Captains back out onto the field. Visiting team gets the call. Matthew Slater at the 50 yard line, stonefaced, emotionless.
Five words come out of his mouth. The first, "heads."
A coin flip. Glinting metal and flashing camera phones.
Back to Slater, face still without expression. The final four words.
"We'll take the ball."
Off the field, back to work. No looks, no handshakes.
The Patriots are going to win this game
As the Patriots get ready to take the field, Julian Edelman passes by Tom Brady, who is seated on the bench. As he grabs his helmet, he adds words of his own - three of them, to be exact. Three words that had far more meaning than any that had been said up until that point of the night.
For your mom.
Galynn Brady had been unable to watch her son play live for the entirety of the 2016 season, as she had been diagnosed with cancer and spent the bulk of the year undergoing treatment. But not even cancer could stop her from being in attendance for this Super Bowl, where she sat, clad in a headscarf, with the rest of the Brady family as they prepared to watch Tommy B make an effort to complete the greatest comeback of all time.
The Patriots are going to win this game
Touchback, 1st and 10 at the 25. Tom Brady hit James White out of the backfield for six yards. 2nd and 4 at the 31. Brady to Amendola for 14 more in what was probably the most beautiful throw of the entire game. New set of downs
Chris Hogan for 18. James White is stuffed on the quick out, but Brady hits Edelman for 15 more on the very next play. A fake bubble screen to White gains 10 more. All of a sudden, New England was on the Atlanta 15 yard line.
The Patriots are going to win this game
Brady in shotgun, looking for Bennett in the end zone. Incomplete.
Flag. Defensive Pass Interference. De'Vondre Campbell failed to turn his head around in coverage, and the ref called the penalty. The foul occurred in the end zone, so it's 1st and goal on the one.
First play, a fade route to Bennett. Brady puts too much under it, broken up by Vic Beasley.
2nd and goal.
The Patriots are going to win this game
Strong toss left to White. Edelman in motion towards the line, Hogan on the interior. Edelman sticks his block, allowing a man who spent his rookie year on IR as he battled through chemotheraoy on his way to becoming a cornerstone of the new England offensive line pull around the edge and give White the angle he needed. To White's right, alone against one of the best tackling corners in football, sticking his block and making sure his teammate had every opportunity possible to get into the end zone, was rookie Malcolm Mitchell.
White cuts back as the Falcons make contact at the two yard line, one defender on him, then two, then three. He's short of the end zone. But he's still on his feet. As Falcons defenders reach to wrap up his ankles, he makes a final dive forward.
Patriots players start to celebrate. Blount runs onto the field and tackles James White. Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan sprint to the sidelines to embrace their teammates.
But not Brady. Not yet.
The play was close. White's knee may have been down before he crossed the goal line, which would lead to a real problem as the confetti cannons had already been shot off. Brady wasn't going to celebrate until the results were final.
And they were. The play was good.
Chaos. Madness. Tears and hugs, joy and disbelief. The Patriots had come back from 25 points down to with the Super Bowl, the fifth under Brady and Belichick.
Brady received the news alone, on one knee, as he sobbed.
He would eventually compose himself, join his coach and his running back as they celebrated. But for that moment, even as the world watched and the reporters swarmed, Tom Brady was completely alone - not only on the field, but on the pantheon of greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. We'll never know for sure what was going through his mind at that moment, but I'd like to think that he was looking back at the last two years of his life, two years marred by the most ridiculous controversy in the history of professional sports, and knowing that he answered every critic, every hater, every science denier, and everyone who ever took a chance to shoot down his legacy by generating the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history and not only cementing himself as the greatest QB of all time, but quite possibly the greatest football player of all time.
Odds are he wasn't thinking any of that - he's too nice a guy. But whatever was going through his mind at that moment, I know what was going through mine:
Oh man Roger Goodell has to hand Bob Kraft a Lombardi right now this is going to be good
The stage was set up, the players surrounded it, and the Lombardi Trophy, escorted by Michael Strahan, made it's way to the podium. Kisses and fingerprints everywhere. Hats and t-shirts, fathers hugging sons, children in the arms of their parents - and somewhere behind the stage, somewhat away from all the madness, Tom Brady, still openly weeping, held his mother and kissed her before walking up the steps to be recognized for the fourth time as Super Bowl MVP. The Patriots fans in the stands were on their feet, cheering as loud as they could.
Until, of course, Goodell took the microphone.
"What a..." was pretty much ass you could hear as the boos drowned him out completely. The direct microphone to TV connection made him audible to the fans at home, but if you were actually there, this is all you heard. Goodell was on the stage for maybe 30 seconds before handing the Lombardi over to Mr. Kraft and slinking off stage.
And man did it feel good.
I know that Goodell doesn't care about what fans think about him. I know that he doesn't concern himself with his public image. I know that he is an employee of the owners, his job is to look out for the owners' best interests and increase league profitability. I also know that, technically, Goodell is very good at the job he is being asked to do. His job description should also probably entail "look out for the interests of the players" and "protect the sport of football," but it doesn't. Those aren't aspects he is supposed to concern himself with, so he doesn't. I know that seeing Goodell booed like that most likely didn't even move the needle for him.
However, despite all of that...I'm never going to forget how smug and self-satisfied I felt watching that whole exchange go down. The crap that that man put this team, and us, through over the past few years was completely and utterly vindicated. Of course there were still going to be the Rob Parkers of the world who will never let go of anything and flat out refuse to acknowledge greatness when they see it, but for everybody with a brain, the Patriots got the better of Roger Goodell. He took away their quarterback, their money, and their draft picks, and they still found a way to not only win the Super Bowl, but Goodell had to stand there like an idiot and just take it from the fans. it was glorious. It's stupid and petty and vindictive, but it was glorious.
And for me, at least, this game represented total and complete closure on the Deflategate saga. The Patriots came out on top, in the most spectacular fashion, and nothing will ever be able to take that away from them. After I got up from the floor and managed to compose myself, a feeling not entirely unlike relief fell over me in waves.
I'm also happy to say that, for me, this game also put to rest any and all lingering feelings of despair I had from the 2007 season. David Tyree caught that pass, the Giants won, and the Patriots of 2007 will forever be 18-1. That's totally fine with me now. Chant it from the rooftops for all I care. Play a game with yourself to see how many times you can fit the word "cheat" into a single sentence. Knock yourself out. 5 Rings. Greatest QB of all time. Case closed.
Now I'm well aware of the fact that I lumped the entire game in here rather than take one specific moment out of this Super Bowl to highlight as my Number One. But how could I possibly have just picked one? Goodell getting booed off the stage ranks right up there, sure, but think about what it would be overshadowing if I chose to just highlight that delicious little tidbit? i could practically make up a Top 20 list comprised entirely of moments from this game. Don't believe me? Let's give it a shot:
- Tom Brady's throw to Amendola in OT to move the chains
- The direct snap for 2
- The 2nd two point conversion that barely crosses the line
- Trey Flowers sacks Matt Ryan
- Chris Long drawing a holding penalty to take the Falcons out of FG range
- Matthew Slater's coin toss face
- Brady converts a crucial 4th and 2 to Danny Amendola to keep a drive alive
- Martellus Bennett draws a DPI call to give the Patriots 1st and Goal on the 1 with the chance to win the Super Bowl
- Tom Brady hits Chris Hogan on a crossing route on 3rd and 10 from inside his own end zone
- Hightower's strip sack
- Edelman's catch
- James White crosses the goal line to give Tom Brady his fifth
- Brady kneeling alone on the field, sobbing
- Belichick and Brady embrace after the win
- LeGarrette Blount lets the world know who the greatest coach and QB of all time is.
- Brady, in tears, kissing his headscarf clad mother as she celebrates the first game she has been able to attend all year
- Roger Goodell has to hand Bob Kraft the trophy amid thunderous boos
- Brady holding the trophy aloft with both hands, screaming LET'S GO!
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.