As the curtains fell and the lights went up, I couldn’t help but question if what I was watching was real, because Superbowl 51 was stranger than fiction.
Going into Sunday night, fans of the 14-2 New England Patriots and the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons held their breath in anticipation, only to find themselves holding their breath again after an entire game of football, when there was still, quite literally, a score to settle.
New England entered the 2016 season with their poster boy and quarterback Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the season, controversially accused of cheating, despite being cleared by a federal judge the previous season. Shocking the league, and almost certainly themselves, they began the “Revenge Tour,” thundering their way, illogically, to the Superbowl. The Patriots were angry, and hungry to make history; this Superbowl would bring the team a record-setting five championships in fewer than 20 years, and could cement Brady’s legacy as the greatest quarterback in the history of football.
Going into the 2016 season, the Falcons were equally motivated, if for different reasons. Quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones had been left out of discussions for the “best players in the league,” despite inarguable talent. The Falcons had been basically forgotten, and in a lot of ways, Atlanta itself felt the same way. It was time to “Rise Up,” the team’s playoff motto, and a better part of the viewing audience was ready to rise up with them. The city has claimed a meagre four championships across the major North American sports — Boston had 35. There were many cries for “the little guy” to take one for a change.
Take they did; Atlanta soared with 21 unanswered points, 14 of which were created by New England turnovers. The golden boy, Brady himself, threw an interception before a touchdown. Allowing only a field goal before the half, Ryan and the city of Atlanta were finally getting their day in the upset of the year.
The halftime show by Lady Gaga would require its own 700 words to cover, full of fireworks and only somewhat cynical patriotism, and it was a welcome distraction for Patriots fans — they needed a break from the beat down.
Ryan opened the second half by throwing yet another touchdown, seemingly at will, making the score a dread-inducing 28-3. The greatest comeback in Superbowl history had been the Patriots own 10 points, only two years prior. Twenty-five was impossible; apologies were already being written in Boston, champagne spraying across Georgia like rain. The game was basically over.
A Patriots touchdown — finally — in the closing minutes of the third quarter teased a flicker of hope, but they missed the basically-guaranteed extra point. Like the rest of the game, the Patriots blew their chance.
Enter Chekhov’s gun, the literary theory stating that anything mentioned in a story must contribute to the plot.
With fifteen minutes of regulation time left, and 19 points to score, New England took the field with a renewed determination — the story would not end like this, with their heads hung in shame.
After a quick field goal to make it a two-possession game, Brady seemingly woke up. Marching his team up the field to score a touchdown, and selling a perfect fake to send James White through for a two-point conversion, the quarterback had changed the game — the score was 28-20, Atlanta.
For the first time, the Falcons were unable to move the ball up the field, seemingly on the ropes. Forced to give the ball back after less than a minute, New England had fewer than two minutes to make history and tie the game. It was more time than they needed; the 25-point deficit had been reduced to ashes and for the first time ever, the Superbowl was going into overtime.
New England was able to get the ball first off of the coin toss, and Tom Brady was only 80 yards away from completing his revenge tour. Building a 10-straight completion run, Brady made it to the two yard line of the Atlanta red zone, surgically carving through the Falcons’ gassed secondary.
On history’s doorstep, Brady sent James White up the gut. As 111 million viewers cheered or cried, White was pushed by his team through the Falcons defensive line an inch beyond the painted plain of the endzone. The Patriots won, 34-28.
In the light of day, there will almost certainly be a discussion as to whether Superbowl 51 was the greatest game of football to ever be played; the discussions as to whether or not Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, however, have ceased. Even if it is just in the making, it is hard to argue with the stuff of legends.