Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017 | 11 p.m.
HOUSTON — Tom Brady never frowned, wearing an expression as steely as his resolve.
The greatest quarterback in NFL history stayed stone faced as he ran to the locker room at NRG Stadium with his New England Patriots trailing the Atlanta Falcons 21-3 at halftime of Super Bowl 51. When the Falcons added another touchdown early in the third quarter, Brady’s look remained unchanged.
His teammates noticed. It’s said a team takes on the identity of its leader in times of adversity, and that’s about the best explanation possible for the Patriots beating the Falcons 34-28 in overtime for the greatest Super Bowl comeback ever.
“I wasn’t thinking much, you know?” Brady said when asked about his mindset after falling behind.
No, we don’t know. We don’t know because it makes no sense that someone wouldn’t be feeling something, anything during a moment of crisis, or in this case, prolonged moments of crisis.
The Falcons were taking all the superlatives tossed around about the Patriots’ Super Bowl experience and clutch advantages, and making them look like myth in the first 35 minutes of the game. The Falcons’ offense was mauling the Patriots at the line of scrimmage, running with ease and going to the air for big plays en route to gaining nearly 10 yards per play.
Atlanta was even better on defense. Unsung defensive players Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and Robert Alford were terrorizing Brady, holding the Patriots to less than 5 yards per play.
The 39-year-old Brady has credited becoming more cerebral for his inhuman longevity, so it stood to reason his mind was racing. If he wasn’t panicking, then he had to be at least rationalizing the biggest deficit he had ever faced in seven career Super Bowls.
But he says he wasn’t, and that defies all logic. Everything about the Patriots’ dynasty, which now includes five Super Bowl victories in 15 years, defies all logic.
Before the Patriots’ 25-point comeback, no team had ever overcome being down more than 10 points in a half-century of Super Bowls. No team in the history of the NFL Playoffs had ever overcome a 16-point fourth quarter hole.
The only team that could pull this off was the Patriots. The only quarterback that could pull this off was Brady.
“Tom’s an assassin,” defensive end Chris Long said. “He tears people’s hearts out.”
And unlike Mola Ram, once the hearts out, they’re out. There’s also no burning Brady for good and tossing him off a cliff.
The Patriots’ win expectancy dipped to less than 5 percent multiple times during the second half of the Super Bowl. Those are statistical models that factor in no emotions; it happens.
It’s established that numbers can’t measure Brady’s Patriots, so shame on Las Vegas sports books for letting live betting numbers get as high as 16-to-1 on them to win. There’s a reason New England has tortured bookmakers for years by overachieving at an unexplainable clip.
Once Brady locks in, everyone else clicks around him. That happened midway through the third quarter, making Brady’s atrocious second-quarter interception that Robert Alford returned 82 yards for a touchdown and Jarrett's three sacks distant memories.
Brady started through weaving through pass-rushers, placing balls in peanut-sized spaces. He wasn’t missing.
“When he got hot,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, “it was hard for us to deal with it.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick added, “Tom has had a lot of great ones. Tonight was one of them.”
No, tonight was the greatest one of them. Belichick works magic of his own. He became the first head coach to ever fill a full hand with Super Bowl rings, just as Brady did the same among quarterbacks.
But this one for the thumb was about Brady. He went 16-for-21 for 196 yards in the fourth quarter before going 5-for-5 for 50 yards in overtime.
Overall, Brady broke Super Bowl records with 43 completions, 62 attempts and 466 passing yards. And he set up teammates to do just as much damage.
James White, buried as a third-string running back for most of the year, now holds Super Bowl records with 14 receptions and 20 points. He scored the Patriots’ first touchdown, their tying touchdown and their winning touchdown as part of a 139-yard night.
White mentioned the Brady-inspired feeling that the game was never over no matter how dire the situation appeared, one of many players to do so postgame. Another was linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who stymied the Falcons’ bid to become the first team to never commit a turnover in the NFL Playoffs.
Hightower hit sure handed NFL MVP Matt Ryan so hard he fumbled with 8:31 left in the game, and defensive tackle Alan Branch fell on the loose ball at 25-yard line. Two minutes later, Brady was firing a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola and White was charging in a two-point conversion to make it an eight-point game.
Not long after that, Brady was leading a 10-play, 91-yard drive capped inside the final minute with the recipients of the touchdown and conversion reversed. White ran it in for six points; Amendola caught a pass for the extra pair to tie it.
The enclosed dome suddenly sounded like Gillette Stadium. There was a sense the Patriots couldn’t lose, a sense the team always maintained on their sideline.
“We still had Tommy back there slinging that thing around so my confidence never went down, just doing what I had to do,” receiver Julian Edelman said.
Edelman will be remembered for making the greatest play of Super Bowl 51. On the Patriots’ final scoring drive of regulation, Alford deflected a Brady pass that Edelman then dove, trapped against the defender’s shoe, bobbled and still caught cleanly without the ball touching the ground for a 23-yard gain.
When Quinn threw a challenge flag before a replay aired in the stadium, Belichick had his doubts it was a completed pass. So did Brady.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Brady said. “It was one of the greatest catches. We’ve been on the other end of a few of those catches, and tonight we came up with it.”
Couldn’t believe it? Come on.
Nothing is unbelievable when it comes to the Patriots, and that's mostly because of Brady.