GLENDALE, ARIZ. — When Tom Brady and the Patriots broke the huddle with 12:10 remaining in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, they were in a position that no team wants to be in.
New England trailed the Seahawks by 10 points, 24-14, and was basically without a running game, rushing four times for four yards in the second half to that point. So the Patriots were going to have to throw the ball the length of the field against one of the most vaunted defenses in the annals of the NFL. Seattle finished the regular season with the league’s best defense in points, total yards and passing yards allowed.
“Against any team, that's a hard order,” said Patriots veteran running backs coach Ivan Fears. “Against that defense? They're good. There's no doubt about it.”
And this was a Seahawks defense that, given a lead, always finishes the job. According to Pro Football Reference, Seattle had not lost a game it led in the fourth quarter by 10 points or more since 2004, when the Seahawks led the Rams 27-10 with 8:47 left and lost 33-27 in overtime. Seattle had a double-digit fourth-quarter lead 49 times since then. Sunday night was the 50th.
And of the 29 teams that held a 10-point second-half lead in the Super Bowl, none of them had ever lost.
“We loved our chances,” said Tharold Simon, who was pressed into action as Seattle’s third cornerback when Jeremy Lane was injured after intercepting Brady in the first quarter.
This time, however, the Seahawks had to stop Brady. He already shared the record for most postseason comebacks (five, with Joe Montana) and owned the record for postseason game-winning drives (eight). On Sunday, the 37-year old, was more than up to the challenge.
In a fourth quarter for the ages, Brady completed 13 of 15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. After his final throw of the night, a three-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with 2:06 remaining, Brady’s passer rating for the quarter was 140.7.
“With Tommy, [we were] as confident as you could possibly be,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “If it wasn't him, I'm not sure we would have the luxury of saying, ‘You know what? Let’s use that [quick passing game] as our version of the running game.’ But that's who we have, and he allows us to do so many things.”
The Patriots had to hang on at the end, to be sure. Seven years ago on the same turf in Glendale, Giants receiver David Tyree made the improbable helmet catch that set the stage for a heartbreaking 17-14 defeat in Super Bowl XLII, ending an undefeated season. On this night, it was Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse making an equally improbable, juggling catch while on his backside for a 33-yard gain, putting Seattle five yards away from breaking the Patriots’ hearts again. Marshawn Lynch ran it to the 1 on the next play. On second down, cornerback Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie, broke on a quick slant, his daring dash beating receiver Ricardo Lockett to the spot on the goal line. The two collided as Butler made the game-clinching interception.
But, make no mistake, it was Brady’s heroics that won this game and the fourth Super Bowl title in 14 years for the Patriots.
“One of the things we take great pride in is playing until the finish, so we had the lead and for them to come back on us, that’s hard for us to accept,” said Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who soon will be named head coach of the Falcons. “I have to tip my hat to them and the execution they had at the end.”
The Patriots came in with an offensive game plan that called for a balance between quick passes targeting the short, soft areas in Seattle’s predominant Cover 3 zone, and a power rushing attack led by bruising tailback LeGarrette Blount.
It worked largely to perfection in the first half, as the Patriots put together three lengthy drives in their five possessions. Two ended with Brady touchdowns passes, to Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski. Another ended deep in Seattle territory when Brady, pressured by Michael Bennett, threw an ill-advised interception.
When Seattle was in zone coverage, the Patriots either cleared out coverage to create a void for scatback Shane Vereen (11 receptions) and Edelman (nine catches for 109 yards). If it was man-to-man, the Patriots spread out Gronkowski, isolating him against Seattle’s cornerbacks and linebackers.
“It's a zone team, and they played a lot more zone than man tonight,” McDaniels said. “When they played man, Gronk had a big night on some of those plays. You have to make them cover somebody and displace somehow in the zone coverages and bring somebody else into that spot where somebody left. You have to try to make them move. If they all just settle back, the throwing lanes are so small that you really can't make any yards. You've got to make somebody chase something else and bring somebody in behind it. We had a little success with that, and our guys deserve all the credit. They made a lot of big plays.”
In the second half, however, the Patriots stalled. Trailing 17-14 by the time they got the ball for their first possession, Brady threw his second interception of the night. The Patriots went three-and-out on their next two drives as the running game was relegated to nothing.
“We tried to stay balanced,” Fears said. “When they have an extra guy in the box, it's kind of hard to block them. There's no two safeties high [cover]. [Strong safety Kam Chancellor] is in the box, he's like a linebacker at 6-2, 232. There's a good reason why they play good run defense.”
It appeared Seattle was readying for the knockout punch—and staking a claim for its own dynasty with the first back-to-back titles since the Patriots in 2003 and ’04—when Bruce Irvin sacked Brady on first down with 12:10 left.
It set up third-and-14 from the New England 28-yard line. All game long, Brady stayed even keeled, uncharacteristically so. Normally, each of the two interceptions would have kicked off some helmet throwing and yelling; instead, they were met with calmness. There were also no freakout touchdown celebrations. Brady’s coolness called to mind his boyhood idol, Montana.
“You could see that he had that focus in his eye, and it was unbelievable to see that,” Edelman said.
At some point, the Seahawks’ defense, already thin from season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Jordan Hill, was going to feel the effects of losing Lane and end Cliff Avril (concussion in third quarter) to injury.
The loss of Avril, who could have been named MVP of the Super Bowl win over the Broncos one year ago, had the biggest impact. Seattle’s pass rush didn’t have the same pop with backup O’Brien Schofield next to Bennett.
“That was a real factor,” Quinn said. “It’s such a factor when you put him and Mike [Bennett] together. O’Brien fought like crazy and we gave him his opportunity, but that was big for us.”
On the third-down play, the Patriots let the pass-rushers go wide. Brady stepped up in the pocket and delivered a strike in the middle of the field to Edelman, who took a wicked shot from Chancellor but hung on for 21 yards.
“I think the key to that play was we ran the ends around the quarterback and cleared out the middle, and Tom had a chance to step up and it bought us some time there,” McDaniels said. “And the coverage kind of broke down a little bit, and that's where Julian, he was actually the last guy crossing the field, and Tommy made a great throw and obviously Julian made an unbelievable catch and took a big hit.”
The Patriots had their second first down of the half. That’s when they took off.
A screen pass to Vereen and a late-hit penalty on safety Earl Thomas took the Patriots to the Seattle 27-yard line. They faced another third down, this time third-and-8, when Brady feathered a throw into zone coverage to Edelman down to the 4-yard line. Two plays later Brady found Danny Amendola to make it 24-21.
After a three-and-out by the Seahawks (just one of those plays a run by Lynch, who had 102 yards on 24 carries), the Patriots took over at their own 36 with 6:52 remaining. Brady was 8-for-8 for 74 yards on the final drive, and never faced a third down. The biggest play was a 20-yard pass he threaded between Chancellor and cornerback Byron Maxwell while being hit, Gronkowski taking it down to the Seattle 32. That set the stage for the final pass to Edelman.
“We kind of got away from a little bit of balance there, running regular people and two tight ends and that kind of thing,” Bill Belichick said. “We just put our two-minute-type personnel out there with Shane, three receivers and Rob. I thought that was our best opportunity there from about the 10-minute mark or so. It worked out well, and our offensive line did a great job. Tom did a great job. Our receivers made a lot of tough catches and tough yards. That’s what you’ve got to do against a team like Seattle. They don’t give anything easy.”
In the aftermath, NFL fans from coast to coast basked in the glow of one of the most competitive and thrilling Super Bowls in history. Super Bowl XLIX will take its place alongside XLII (Plaxico Burress’s touchdown with 35 seconds left to give the Giants the win over the undefeated Patriots), XLIII (Santonio Holmes’ TD with 35 seconds remaining to beat the Cardinals), XXXIV (Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackling Titans receiver Kevin Dyson a yard short of the end zone as time expired) and XXXVI (Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expired).
That last Super Bowl was when an unheralded former backup quarterback named Brady moved the Patriots 53 yards in nine plays with no timeouts for the game-winning field goal. It was the first title for Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.
Brady is now tied with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win four titles, and Brady tied Montana with his third Super Bowl MVP. Belichick joined Chuck Noll of the Steelers as one of two coaches to win four Super Bowls. The Patriots became the sixth team to win four Super Bowl titles, all of which have come since Kraft bought the team in 1994.
It doesn’t look like it’s the end for this group. The Patriots were the youngest team ever to win a Super Bowl, with an average age of 25.2 years. They repelled Seattle’s bid to join greatness, and solidified their own legacy thanks to a historic performance from Brady, who set a Super Bowl record with 37 completions on 50 attempts.
“They had two great drives, and they controlled the ball going down the field,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the Patriots’ final two drives. “Really we didn’t make any major mistakes, they just really played well enough to get the ball down the field. Tom did a great job to engineer the win. That’s it.”