If you have to wait 213 days before the next meaningful NFL game - and you do - then the last one which decides which team gets to leave with the shiny trophy needs to be noteworthy. We have been subjected to some very fine examples of that in the last 20 years (after 20 years before that of almost exclusively blowouts) and we can add another to the list of great dramas as New England survived Seattle last night in Arizona, 28-24.
This game, for the neutral 3rd party observer, featured two heavyweights that were both the #1 seed in their respective conferences who would stand toe to toe in the middle of the ring and decide this over 3 hours of impacts. The defending champion started slowly, but eventually had the game by the neck with a 10-point lead with 10 minutes to play - a lead that no Super Bowl had ever seen overcome. But, they were playing a team that knows a little something about winning Super Bowls. At least the Quarterback and the coach do, and this was a clear indication of how powerful the alliance of having maybe the best coach and the best QB team up over the long-term. They have now won 4 Super Bowls together along with 6 appearances. We are rapidly approaching the situation where their hold of the throne over the course of 14 seasons is beyond anything we have ever seen. To win Super Bowls 36 and 49 (titles 14 years apart) with the same coach and QB is a singular accomplishment in the history of the sport.
But, as you know, winning a title is not an individual accomplishment like it might be in golf, boxing, and tennis. And therefore, a win like this Super Bowl is dependent on the opponent making a less than stellar decision when they appeared to have the game won and then the execution involved for an unforgettable goal-line interception that saved the game as the coach and QB could only stand on the sideline and hope. It demonstrated how football is the ultimate team game and as great as Tom Brady is, he needs Malcolm Butler to make a play or Brady takes the loss like he did when some guy named David Tyree made the play of his life as Brady looked on in 2008. This is how we measure players and it clearly is ridiculous. But, it doesn't stop us from doing it.
The Super Bowl was won, it seemed, when New England came storming back in a game where they were down and without a whole lot of hope when their first 3 possessions of the 2nd half went for an interception, a 3-and-out, and another 3-and-out. Meanwhile, the Seahawks who started slowly again had strung 4 straight drives together where they pulled points - all 24 that they scored in the game - on the final 2 drives of the 1st half: touchdown, touchdown - and the first 2 drives of the 2nd half: field goal, touchdown.
New England took the ball, down 24-14, with 12:10 to play and needing to score to keep hope alive. This is where Brady might have won the MVP with a 3rd and 14 and a 3rd and 8 conversion in the same drive to Julian Edelman. Edelman, a 7th round pick, was the target of the game for Brady and made difficult catches all night and then received a number of punishing blows for his trouble. No team allows fewer 3rd and long conversions than Seattle, but Brady to Edelman saved the day on two such occasions before he hit Danny Amendola for a touchdown to cut it to 24-21 with 7:55 to go.
Seattle needed to retake control of the game, but instead held the ball for 63 seconds on a very quick 3-and-out where they were not given a clear pass interference as Ricardo Lockette was tripped by a falling Malcolm Butler who reached out to concede a flag over a disastrous play. A few plays later, they punted it right back to New England with 6:52 left and down 3.
From there, the Patriots "death by a thousand paper cuts" offense started marching. Tom Brady seldom throws the ball down the field anymore and seldom is aided by a running game. Instead, it is 4-yard pass after 5-yard pass all the way down the field, which requires patience and precision, but also is the perfect way to counter a big time secondary as one is hard pressed to remember an impactful moment from Earl Thomas or Richard Sherman in the game.
The 10-play drive that ensued included 8 passes with four to the running back Shane Vareen (the 2nd most famous Cal Bears RB in the Super Bowl) and only a few throws down the field to Rob Gronkowski who came alive to convert a couple 2nd and long situations. The entire drive never got to 3rd Down and seemed to discard the idea that the Seahawks were a defense that could not be taken down by a strong offense. They had stumbled in the NFC Championship Game and survived. But, this time, when they needed a stand, Brady and the Patriots put two straight 4th Quarter drives in the end zone.
But, 2:02 was plenty of time for a Seattle team that knows a little something about late game heroics as well. Wilson on a swing pass beauty to Marshawn Lynch gets them quickly to the New England 49 at the 2-minute warning. Then, a clutch 3rd and 10 conversion to Lockette for 11 yards gets a fresh set of downs.
From there, Wilson looks to go back after Malcolm Butler, the undrafted rookie corner from West Alabama. The Patriots had been running man coverage the whole night, and that means that Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner would be on the outside, but in the slot against Jermaine Kearse would be Butler. Seattle ran him on an "out and up" and Wilson put the ball up where he could win against this rookie free agent. The ball bounced off the arms, down to the legs and back into the arms of Kearse. He tried to get up and put it in the end zone, but Butler pushed him out of bounds. It was amazing and Tyree-like all at once.
Now, 1st and goal from the 5 meant "Beast mode" to the 1 as Marshawn Lynch was ready to win the game with 1:01 to go. Inexplicably, the Patriots don't start to kill the clock as they have two timeouts and elect not to use them. I believe that without the ensuing moment, Belichick surely gets ripped up for that odd decision that seems to have no upside whatsoever. Yet, it will not be remembered.
0:26 to go. 2nd and goal from the 1. Seattle still with a timeout. What is the call with Marshawn Lynch ready and the Patriots with only 3 corners and no safeties in the game? The Patriots seemed to be daring the Seahawks to throw and with 11 personnel seeing no safeties, you can understand why they might try it. But, that means not trusting Lynch and that OL to get a yard with 3 cracks. We don't know what might have happened. We only know what did.
What happened next was Wilson seeing Butler again in man coverage. He had success going after him and why not attack the undrafted rookie corner with a slant underneath a pick from Kearse on Browner, knowing Butler would have to get through the traffic to beat Lockette to the goal-line? If you watch the play 25 times, you still wonder how Butler beat the receiver to the throw. Lockette was blamed for not winning the slant as the first rule of slant running is not to let a corner inside your lead shoulder. A throw to the outside shoulder would also have prevented this moment. But, in the end, Wilson picked on the rookie one too many times and Butler not only prevented the touchdown but caught the ball in one of the most dramatic interceptions in football history.
The play call was poor. The throw wasn't great. The route could have been better. And Seattle dies in excruciating fashion on the goal-line of another Super Bowl championship.
Poetic justice, I suppose, as the NFC race has been this way all month. Detroit deserved a better fate against Dallas (they will claim). Dallas deserved a better fate against Green Bay (they will claim). Green Bay will deserve a better fate against Seattle (they will claim). And now, Seattle has some great stories about how they deserved better in Super Bowl 49. Unfortunately, "deserved" has nothing to do with it.
What happens is what matters. New England won a game they could have lost. Seattle lost a game they could have won. History books will be written and the Patriots will receive the spoils. We could call them lucky, but they would have plenty to say about luck giving them a tough decade with their Super Bowl losses in 42 and 46 coming quickly to mind.
Regardless, the Super Bowl and the playoffs were filled with high drama and unforgettable moments for us to enjoy for the next 8 months. One team's season ends with a parade, the other 31 try to figure out how to get - in some cases - that last yard.
There is no sport like football. And no better example of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat than the playoffs. Legacies intersect between all-time legends like Brady who had his place in history cemented and undrafted rookies like Butler who were working at Popeye's Chicken not long ago. The Patriots don't win without both of them stepping up at their moments of truth and being reliant on all men on the roster and the coaches to do their job and hope for a smile from lady luck along the way.
NFL, we are going to miss you this spring. But, what a show along the way.