In four minutes, Super Bowl LI makes legends and lore
By Aaron Schnautz
HOUSTON – A roar enveloped the field at NRG Stadium.
Four minutes into overtime, New England Patriots running back James White stretched across the goal line to punctuate one of the wildest and most emotional finishes in Super Bowl history. Confetti fell from the rafters as Patriots fans screamed and hugged. Atlanta Falcons fans bolted for the exits, eager to erase memories of a 25-point third-quarter lead.
“You couldn’t even write this script,” White said. “You could never imagine it.”
White’s third touchdown of the game provided the dagger to the Falcons’ championship hopes. But for many of the 70,807 spectators, it was White’s previous play that set off celebrations for New England’s fifth Super Bowl title.
The Patriots started the first-ever Super Bowl overtime with five straight completions from quarterback and game MVP Tom Brady, setting up a first-and-10 from Atlanta’s 25-yard line. Brady received the shotgun snap and faked a handoff to receiver Chris Hogan. Most Falcons defenders tracked Hogan sweeping to the left, so Brady looked right and found his favorite target of the night. White caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage – a run in the stat sheet but a pass on the field – and sprinted to the first-down marker.
Defenders shoved him out of bounds at the 15, and it was fitting in that moment that one of the most electric Super Bowls ever was happening in a stadium named for one of Houston’s largest power companies. A charge pulsed, eliciting jubilation from Patriots fans and heartbreak from supporters of their red- and black-clad opponents.
The NFL had changed its overtime rules in 2012 to allow for a second possession if the first ended with a field goal. But for some inexplicable reason – possibly due to never needing to enforce them before – the Super Bowl still used sudden-death rules to settle games tied at the end of four quarters. This meant New England could win the game with just three points, which was now a comfortable but not automatic 33-yard attempt away.
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski had made 201 of his 217 career field-goal attempts within 40 yards, but head coach Bill Belichick elected to drive for the end zone and a guaranteed victory. If any hope remained for a Falcons win after White’s catch-and-run, it evaporated on the next play.
New England spread three receivers to the left and split tight end Martellus Bennett to the right. White motioned out of the backfield pre-snap, drawing the attention of Falcons safety Keanu Neal and forcing rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell into one-on-one coverage with the bigger and taller Bennett.
Brady spotted the mismatch and threw a perfect spiral to Bennett’s back shoulder. The 275-pound tight end leaped and pivoted his body to shield Campbell. Bennett cradled the ball and positioned himself to become the first player in NFL history with a walk-off touchdown in the Super Bowl.
“I wanted to get it because I knew I was going to be open when (Brady) called the play,” Bennett said. “I had him by a couple steps.”
It would be one of 30 records Atlanta and New England combined to break or match on this legendary night. The fans at the game and more than 113 million watching at bars or their homes were witnessing history in the making. But Campbell jarred the ball loose when he crashed on top of Bennett in the end zone. Falcons players, coaches and fans exhaled.
The relief disappeared a second later, however, when yellow flags flew in Campbell’s direction. As the referee signaled for defensive pass interference and placed the ball two yards from the goal line, the dichotomy between the two groups of fans couldn’t have been more extreme. Patriots fans had reached a fever pitch, ready to get the last laugh in a two-year battle with the NFL about the Deflategate scandal. (Boos overpowered commissioner Roger Goodell’s voice on the public-address system during the trophy presentation.) Meanwhile, anguish, disbelief and tears filled the faces of Falcons fans. Some had already left; others were forcing themselves to watch through the end.
Atlanta had a last flicker of hope on the ensuing play. New England elected to throw from the 2-yard line, an incompletion to Bennett that was tipped and nearly intercepted by linebacker Vic Beasley. The play evoked flashbacks of Super Bowl XLIX, when Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a late-game interception at the 1-yard line to preserve the Patriots’ last Super Bowl win two years ago.
But the only heroics left belonged to White, who set a Super Bowl record with 14 receptions. Not an hour earlier, Falcons fans were dreaming of a massive parade through the streets of Atlanta to celebrate the first championship for any of the city’s teams since the Braves won the World Series in 1996.
Instead, those fans wondered how they’d wound up on the wrong side of history.
“It sucks,” said Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who went to high school 30 minutes east of Atlanta. “It sucks for the fans, and it sucks for me. It’s tough when you put so much hard work in and come out on the short end.”