HOUSTON — The odds were not in Julian Edelman’s favor.
Tom Brady dropped back to pass with 2:28 to play in Super Bowl 51, trailing by eight points, 64 yards from the end zone. The first player to touch the quarterback’s pass was a Falcon, Robert Alford, the cornerback who earlier that night had snatched another of Brady’s passes and returned it for the second-longest pick-six in Super Bowl history.
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Alford got his hands on this one, too, but couldn’t pull it in. The ball spun around, end over end, through the air. As it tumbled toward the ground, at the 40-yard-line on the Atlanta side of the field, Edelman was outnumbered three to one. A trio of Falcons defensive backs converged on the ball, and a lone New England receiver.
But really, for how much of Super Bowl 51 were the odds in the Patriots’ favor?
Not after falling behind by one touchdown, then two, then three, then by 28-3 in the third quarter, a deficit so significant that no team had ever recovered from that to win the Super Bowl. If we follow Edelman’s allegory of this game being a microcosm of the Patriots season, which began with its MVP suspended for four games as a result of the lingering Deflategate investigation, then this play was a microcosm of this game. New England was up against daunting circumstances, but Edelman never took his eye off the ball, in a very literal sense.
The result: “One of the greatest catches I’ve ever seen,” said Brady, the greatest quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
The fact that Edelman would be on the receiving end of one of the most essential plays in the 34-28 victory that earned the Patriots their fifth ring in the Brady-Belichick era is not, in itself, surprising. The 30-year-old receiver has been Brady’s favorite target all season long, catching 119 of his passes in the regular season and postseason combined.
“He’s really as good of a competitor as anybody I’ve coached,” coach Bill Belichick said. “This guy, he’s played slot defensive back for us, returns kicks, covers kicks, blocks, catches tough passes, runs the ball for us on sweeps, and stuff like that. He does whatever it takes.”
In this case, “whatever it takes” was something exceptional. First consider that going into the game the connection between Brady and Edelman had earned special attention in Atlanta’s defensive game plan. The Falcons took advantage of the two-week layoff between the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl to diversify their normally vanilla coverage scheme.
“We were trapping 11, because we knew Tom liked him a lot,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said of Edelman, “and Tom noticed.” Take the case of Alford’s pick-six shortly before halftime that extended Atlanta’s early lead to 21-0. Edelman was in a bunch formation on the left side of the field, and as he ran a route across the field, Keanu Neal was waiting to come down from his safety position to cut off his crosser. Recognizing that Brady would read this and not look Edelman’s way because of this extra attention, the Falcons added a wrinkle that allowed Alford, who was originally covering Edelman, to fall off his route. That enabled him to step in front of the pass to another receiver on that side, Danny Amendola, and snare it for the pick-six.
The point of all of this is to say, the Falcons weren’t going to make it easy for Edelman to make the defining catch of Super Bowl 51. And for most of the first three quarters, the Patriots weren’t doing much to make it easy on themselves, either. Brady uncharacteristically missed a wide-open Edelman on a deep pass on their final drive of the first half, one that ended unsatisfyingly with a field goal. Then, on New England’s first drive of the second half, Brady threw a perfect pass to Edelman on a third-and-12 right at midfield. Edelman, running an out-breaking route, was wide open by NFL standards, but let the pass simply bounce off his hands.
“You gotta be like water,” Edelman said later, citing an aphorism of martial artist Bruce Lee that is also a favorite of his quarterback. That was his reaction to the mistake: Don’t dwell on obstacles, but rather adjust to the situation and move around them.
“There are going to be some plays that don’t go your way,” Edelman continued. “My confidence never went down. Just became more focused on doing what I had to do.”
Focus? That was certainly the key to Edelman's catch. New England was in an empty formation, with five receivers spread out across the field. Edelman was bunched tight to the ride side of the formation, along with tight end Martellus Bennett. There was no trap on this play, just man-to-man coverage from Alford, with Allen and Neal the safeties on top each taking half the field.
“I looked back, and the ball was, like, right there,” Alford said. “All I could do was get my hands up to hit it. I knew if I tipped it in the air—it’s something we have been going over in practice. Just tip it in the air, and if you can’t get it, then my brother will get it.”
Alford got a piece of it, all right, while falling backwards. As the ball floated in the air, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was holding his breath on the sideline and thinking, Don’t let it be intercepted. Both Falcons safeties, meanwhile, spotted the pigskin suspended in the air, and converged.
Said Allen, “We always say with our team, good things happen to those who run. When the ball was in the air, we all ran, and we all dove for the ball to try to make a good play, because effort is what we always coach. We get a lot of interceptions by effort, and it ended up coming back to bite us. You can’t ever say you don’t want to give effort because something like that happened, but … ”
By that, Allen means he and Neal went low for the ball, diving forward with their arms outstretched, in the hopes of getting underneath it and catching an interception. But as they were doing this, Edelman landed on his back right foot and somehow rebounded forward, getting in position like a baseball centerfielder. The ball was blocked from touching the turf by two limbs of Falcons players: the inside of Alford’s right knee, and the right wrist of Allen's outstretched arm.
Alford: “I saw that once they showed the replay, and I was like, ‘Ahh, I wish I could have moved my foot.’ ”
Allen: “I felt that I had the ball. I felt that I touched the ball. But he actually had it in his hands.”
Edelman got his hands, conspicuous for his bright red gloves, under the ball. But under the force of four bodies squirming on the turf of NRG Stadium, it squirted up, hovering tenuously in mid-air for another split-second, right there on the 41-yard line. Edelman double-clutched the ball, like in one of those reaction-time exercises at the doctor’s office, then laid down on it as if it were a pillow, with Alford’s foot also wrapped in his arms. When Edelman popped back up, he quickly gave the ball to center David Andrews, so they could try to get a snap off before Atlanta could challenge.
Allen didn’t believe, or didn’t want to believe, that Edelman had caught it. He heard Edelman yelling, “I got it! I got it!” at the Patriots sideline, but Allen told himself, “you didn’t catch that.” How sure was Edelman? “I knew I had it,” he said. But, then again … “No one knows what the rule for a catch is,” he admitted.
The Falcons challenged, but what followed was a simple, and pivotal, announcement by referee Carl Cheffers: “The receiver’s hand was under the ball. The ball never hits the ground.” First down, Patriots, at the Atlanta 41-yard line.
The gravity of this play wasn't only that it advanced the Patriots 23 yards closer to the game-tying score in regulation. There’s also the Patriots’ flagrant history of being on the wrong side of circus catches in the Super Bowl. David Tyree in Super Bowl 42. Mario Manningham in 46. Were it not for those two plays, New England might have entered this game with six rings. Then, on Sunday night, Julio Jones had delivered an unfathomable toe-tapper that put the Falcons in position to go ahead by two scores late in the fourth quarter, but for the ensuing sack and penalty that knocked them back out of field-goal range. After the Jones play, Patriots safety Devin McCourty turned to fellow defensive back Logan Ryan and said, “Why do all these catches always go against us?”
Two minutes and 19 seconds later, Edelman defied both gravity and history. He admitted his catch was lucky, one of those how-the-ball-bounces kind of moments. But as the saying goes, luck favors the prepared, and Edelman also thought of the “stupid hills in Foxborough,” the 50-yard grass slopes Belichick forced his players to run all the way up to their departure to Houston six days earlier. The Patriots outlasted the Falcons Sunday night, and perhaps it was this conditioning, and the fact that they lifted heavy into February and practiced in pads days before the Super Bowl, that gave them the stamina to do so.
“There’s something we say around here: You gotta believe,” Edelman said. “And that’s what we kept on saying. You gotta believe; you gotta believe; you gotta believe.”
So said the 5’11’ Edelman, a seventh-round quarterback out of Kent State, who just made the greatest catch in what was arguably the greatest Super Bowl ever, from the greatest quarterback of all time. Yes, this was a microcosm of a game, a season—and, the New England Patriots’ dynasty of this millennium.