After two bitter defeats, Tom Brady solidifies legacy with fourth Super Bowl win
Regardless of what the "Deflategate" investigation ultimately reveals, there won't be an asterisk in the record books next to New England's 28-24 win over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX.
However, there will be quite a few exclamation points, question marks and %#@& reactions after one of the wackiest finishes in NFL championship history.
New England's Tom Brady placed a giant exclamation point on his fourth-career Super Bowl title and third MVP trophy with a fourth-quarter performance that further inflated his legacy as arguably the game's greatest quarterback ever. With the Patriots down 10, Brady methodically directed a comeback with pinpoint passing against what was the NFL's top-ranked defense.
"It wasn't the way we drew it up," a smiling Brady said Sunday night from a dais as red, white and blue confetti swirled around University of Phoenix Stadium rafters. "Throwing a couple of picks didn't help, but we have a lot of mental toughness as a team. We've had it all year.
"We never doubted each other. That's what it took."
The doubt is now left for Seattle.
As impressive as his rally was, Brady's greatness wouldn't be getting championed without one of the most head-scratching Super Bowl play calls.
That's because Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson looked like he'd be the one receiving praise and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for a second straight year. The Seahawks had a second-and-goal at the Patriots 1-yard line with 26 seconds left and a time out remaining. The obvious option was feeding the football to Marshawn Lynch, Seattle's plow-horse running back who had already rushed for 102 yards.
The Patriots couldn't stop Lynch on a three-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. There was no reason to believe they could do the same now.
Yet so close to the goal line, Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called a pass play.
Yes, a pass play.
Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler jumped the route and intercepted Wilson's throw intended for Ricardo Lockette, stunning the Seahawks and sending New England's sideline into celebration.
The thought on everyone's mind after seeing Seattle do itself in: Why?
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll defended Bevell's decision. He said the Patriots had sent their run-stuffing unit on the field and Seattle was using a three-receiver set.
"We didn't want to run against that goal-line group right there," Carroll said. "We called the play. It was a miraculous play the kid made to get in front of that route."
Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin didn't see it that way.
"I don't understand how you don't give it to the best back in the league," he said. "We were on the half-yard line and we throw a slant. I don't know what the offense had going on."
Carroll and the Seahawks now must deal with the same kind of second-guessing and criticism that Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have experienced in the aftermath of their two previous Super Bowl losses.
Brady made his share of poor plays against the New York Giants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVII. Had the Patriots lost Sunday against Seattle, Brady would have gotten lambasted again for throwing two interceptions.
When the Patriots started this season at 2-2, the demise of a 37-year-old quarterback was being speculated by the public and media. But just like when he shut out doubts about not being able to make it in the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick, Brady didn't listen to the naysayers.
He began finding rhythm in a precision quick-hit passing attack that kept opposing defenses spinning. Brady was afforded better protection by an offensive line that began to jell and his own improved footwork (an offseason training focus). Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also were smart enough to exploit weaknesses in the opponents they faced.
Super Bowl XLIX was no exception.
For example, Brady usually found Rob Gronkowski when the Seahawks matched him against a linebacker. One of those times came when Gronkowski victimized Seattle's K.J. Wright for a 23-yard touchdown pass on a go-route in the second quarter.
Another opportunity inadvertently arose after one of Brady's biggest mistakes -- a duck thrown into the end zone late in the first quarter that was intercepted. Jeremy Lane was injured on his subsequent return, forcing second-year Tharold Simon into his role as Seattle's nickel cornerback.
Brady targeted Simon early and often, including on the game-winning touchdown pass. Brady capped an 8-for-8 showing on that drive by hitting wide receiver Julian Edelman, who pushed himself free of Simon's coverage to snare a three-yard score with 2:02 remaining from Brady.
Just the fact New England was still in the game at that point was impressive enough.
No team in Super Bowl history had overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half. Belichick said afterward that he wasn't as concerned about being down 10 points to Seattle as he was when trailing Baltimore by two touchdowns in the second half of New England's second-round AFC playoff win.
It didn't seem that way from the outside.
The Seahawks were showing signs of turning this Super Bowl into a blowout like in last year's 43-8 rout of Denver. Seattle's swagger, arrogance and crassness were all on display on the score that put New England into a 24-14 hole.
After his three-yard touchdown catch, Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin pantomimed dropping his pants and defecating while using the football as a prop. Seattle's Richard Sherman continued his passive-aggressive feud with New England's Darrelle Revis by mocking his fellow cornerback on the sideline for surrendering the score.
The Patriots didn't respond immediately, going three-and-out on their next two series. But when Seattle didn't score either, the door was open for Brady to get New England back into the game.
Brady did just that on a third-and-14 with a 21-yard strike to Edelman down the middle of the field. It was a statement throw, with Brady escaping Seattle's pesky pass rush and firing with as much mustard as when he became the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl with the 2001 Patriots.
"I had an opportunity to move up in the pocket and Jules had kind of a deep in-cut," Brady said. "I tried to drill it to him and he made a great catch (and) took a big hit. That was the key to the whole drive."
Brady and Edelman converted again on a third-and-8 that gained 21 yards. Danny Amendola finished the drive with a four-yard touchdown catch from Brady after Seattle lost track of the diminutive wide receiver.
"We were down 10 and we just said, 'Look, we've got to put one good drive together to get us back in the game,'" Brady said. "We made the plays."
Brady made plenty himself. His 37 completions were a Super Bowl record with New England successfully clearing out Seattle's zone coverages.
Brady's four touchdown passes give him a total of 13 in Super Bowls, breaking the record held by his childhood idol Joe Montana. Brady added 328 yards to his Super Bowl-career record of 1,605.
Those numbers, of course, are secondary to joining Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to have ever won four Super Bowls. But like his head coach whom he hugged at midfield after the game, Brady continues to refuse to answer "legacy" questions.
"I never put myself in those discussions," Brady said. "That's not how I think. There are so many great players that have been on so many great teams. We've had some great teams that haven't won it. I think you've just got to enjoy the moment."
Brady and the Patriots will be doing that despite the controversy that continues to swirl around the franchise. The NFL is investigating whether New England illegally used under-inflated footballs for a competitive advantage in its AFC championship victory over Indianapolis.
Because the Patriots were stained before by the 2007 Spygate scandal, the deflation talk was amplified even further. Patriots owner Robert Kraft again defended his club in a postgame interview by saying "our people didn't touch the balls."
Brady said he doesn't feel any vindication by winning Sunday but is proud that his squad didn't let it become a distraction that took away from Super Bowl preparation.
"It's just a lot of mental toughness," Brady said. "The whole team had it. Coach (Belichick) always says, 'Ignore the noise and control what you can control.'
"We had a great two weeks of practice. That's what it took. Every situation that came up was important -- every third down, every short-yardage (situation), every red-area possession. That's what we were focused on. That's what we needed to be focused on. That's how we got the victory."
That and a quarterback who isn't done punctuating his Hall of Fame career.