In sport, as in geopolitics, great powers do not let go easily.
Super Bowl XLIX had been billed as a potential watershed, when the New England Patriots might finally surrender a decade’s supremacy. Instead, the Patriots held off their would-be successors, the Seattle Seahawks, in one of the most thrilling NFL title games ever. History’s rewriting will have to wait.
As it enters the off-season, the NFL continues to face huge problems: off-field violence, on-field concussions and accusations of cover-ups (not to mention that minor, as yet unresolved matter of the deflated game balls used by the Patriots en route to the Super Bowl). But as long as its annual showcase – this one the highest rated in TV history – produces epics like this, suggestions of the impending demise of America’s most popular sport must remain premature.
The 28-24 scoreline gives but the barest whiff of the excitement, or of the game’s quite unscriptable climax. Indeed, for much of the first half it was oddly listless. Though they went in only tied at 14-14, New England seemed to have matters under control. For the first 25 minutes, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson did not throw a single completion, before making belated amends with a pair of scoring drives. But then the heroes took over.
One of them, inevitably, was the Patriots’ Tom Brady, now just the fourth quarterback to win four Super Bowl rings, his claim to be the greatest at his position in NFL history stronger than ever.
At 37, Brady still has it: not just that mesmeric quickness of eye and the throws like angry darts zooming to their intended target but, most important, an unbelievable competitive instinct. Great players in every sport have that drive. Few, however, have it like Brady.
In the third quarter, he seemed to be buckling as the Seahawks’ relentless defence gave him no respite, closing down every throwing avenue, forcing him into errors.
Seattle moved into a 24-14 lead and the cameras fastened on the Patriots’ talisman, watching from the touchline bench, dejected and apparently resigned, the personification of a great power crumbling. Then those competitive juices started to flow. In the fourth quarter, Brady went 13-for-15 for 124 yards and two more touchdowns, making him 37-for-50 and 328 yards for the game. Those two scores boosted his overall touchdown total in six Super Bowls to 13, a record. Indeed, on Sunday night, according to the statisticians, he broke, equalled or extended no less than eight Super Bowl records.
But no less fittingly in this extraordinary contest, when it mattered most, everything hinged on someone few would have heard of. A year ago, Malcolm Butler was a virtually unknown cornerback for the West Alabama Tigers, down in the nether regions of college football. On Sunday night, as an undrafted rookie, he won the Patriots the Super Bowl.
As the game entered its final minute, Wilson threw a Hail Mary down the rightfield line in the direction of Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse. Harried by Butler, Kearse seemed at first to have lost his chance. Instead, the football bounced off his every limb – but somehow not the ground. Lying on his back, he finally made the completion. The gain was 31 yards and the Seahawks, amazingly, were first and goal, the Patriots at their mercy, a virtually routine three yards from a touchdown and victory.
Then, even more amazingly, a fluke for the ages was followed by a mistaken call for the ages. Surely the Seahawks’ mighty running backs would get to finish the job – but instead coach Pete Carroll opted for a pass play. “I just knew what was coming,” Butler said. He did, making the interception that, with just 20 seconds on the clock, gave possession back to the Patriots and with it the game.
To his credit, Carroll took responsibility for the calamity. “We were on the precipice of another championship,” he confessed, adding that “there was nobody to blame but me, a very hard lesson to learn”.
Thus ended Super Bowl XLIX. Brady, for the third time, was voted Most Valuable Player and insisted many good years are in him yet. Meanwhile, for 12 more months at least, the Patriots remain the NFL’s greatest power.Reuse content