The greatest there has ever been.
Take your pick who or what that applies to; a Super Bowl that saw a barely believable, record-breaking comeback and a first-ever overtime period, Tom Brady – the sport’s finest-ever quarterback, Bill Belichick winning a record fifth Super Bowl ring as a head coach, the New England Patriots’ dynasty as a whole or pretty much anything else connected to Sunday night’s breathless spectacle.
First, a word for the Atlanta Falcons. Dan Quinn’s youthful roster will no doubt be back in the playoffs over the coming seasons, even without brilliant young mind Kyle Shanahan, who leaves his post coordinating the league’s best offence to take his first head-coaching job in San Francisco. Blowing a 25-point lead in such a fashion will, however, likely take the entire off-season to get over for many of these players.
But the story here is the Patriots, as it was always likely to be, as it was even as they were being blown out at half-time and still trailing by 25 points in the third quarter. The dynasty, they said, was over. Cobbling together middling players with a brilliant coach and an all-time great quarterback isn’t enough. Only it was, just not quite yet.
"He's laser-focused, and the entire time, there wasn't a time where we looked at Tom like he knew this thing was over," Patriots receiver Chris Hogan said. "There wasn't a doubt in my mind. We have one of the best quarterbacks that ever played the game."
Even the assertion that they never lost hope feels hard to believe at 28-3 down in the third quarter, but New England had plenty of reason to believe when James White, their third-string running back, started popping up with key catches as Brady’s favourite target in the final throes of this match-up.
As ever with the Patriots’ offence there was no way to know who was getting the ball, only who was throwing it. Brady had been decked repeatedly in the first half as the Falcons applied interior pressure successfully but as the game wore on his famed quick-release returned, getting the ball out of his hands too fast for Atlanta to even make him sweat. White, the key benefactor, turned in a game he’ll remember for the rest of his life, snagging big chunk plays on all downs before smuggling in the winning touchdown in overtime – the first time in 51 Super Bowls that there has been a need to prolong the greatest show in sports.
"When you fall behind by a lot in a game like this, you have to make a lot of great plays and have a lot of things go right," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
No moment went more right than Julian Edelman’s sprawling catch with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter to secure a vital first down. The ball had been tipped in the air by Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford – whose pick-six had earlier opened up what had seemed like an unassailable lead for the Falcons – and three players threw themselves to the ground to grab it.
Edelman missed the first catch, getting lucky as it bounced off a defender’s ankle, before half-catching it himself, seeing it slip to millimetres above the ground before clasping two hands firmly around the ball.
“I mean, that’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest Super Bowl catches,” said Hogan, Edelman’s fellow wide receiver.
“That was an amazing catch. Just the concentration, everything about it, he did a great job to get his hands underneath it,” added teammate Rob Ninkovich.
“That is the best catch that I’ve ever seen in person, hands down. I mean, I thought, I couldn’t even tell, but I was like he ain’t catch that. But that man’s incredible, man,” affirmed Donta Hightower, Patriots linebacker.
When those moments start happening and Brady’s conducting his up-tempo offence like an orchestra, the momentum is akin to a steam train, and Atlanta were tied to the tracks.
The Falcons had opportunities to ice the game away but their inexperience on the big stage cost them. Key penalties went against them, Matt Ryan took a sack that dragged Atlanta out of field goal range when one Matt Bryant kick would have ended the contest. Dan Quinn’s clock management was, to say the least, a bit of a mess. If you give Tom Brady a minute then he will hurt you. Quinn will have been lying awake all night considering those seconds he left on the clock.
“At half-time, we weren't down at all, we were disappointed in the way we played and knew that we could go out and do a lot better in the second half,” said Tom Brady afterwards.
"The one positive was we had the ball for 20 minutes in the first half and I think as the game goes on that gets tough on the defence in these Super Bowls, everyone's expending a lot of energy, when we got it rolling in the second half it was tough to slow us down."
Brady’s on-the-fly analysis, as astute as you’d expect, is how he has become the greatest-ever quarterback to play the sport. He knew he’d tire out this dynamic Falcons defence and he did so with relish late in the game. When he assumed possession for the final two drives there was a feeling, as with the likes of Joe Montana before him, that Brady would succeed. That is the mark of a winner.
He is now tied for the most Vince Lombardi trophies ever won by a player, boasting a Super Bowl ring for each of the fingers that guides the pigskin, as if pointed by lasers, to his supporting cast. At 39 he isn’t retiring yet. At 40, he will still be the best quarterback in the league. By 50, he will without any doubt be in the Hall of Fame.
Bill Belichick, as discussed on these pages in the build-up, needed another win to pull clear as the head coach with the most Super Bowl wins. He got it in dramatic style and cemented his place in the pantheon of greats.
Between them, these two are the New England Patriots dynasty.
"When I was a fan sitting in the seats in Foxborough… we only had one home playoff game in 35 years, which we lost in 1978 to the Houston Oilers," said Robert Kraft, Patriots owner and the biggest beneficiary of the Brady-Belichick era.
"I dreamed about owning the team in my hometown and dreamed about a championship.
"I never would have dreamed that we would have the continuity and stability that we have. We're just lucky to have had the confluence of situations, where we wind up with the best head coach in the history of the game and the greatest quarterback. … Keeping them together and keeping a great team around them, it's pretty special."
Special it was, special it is and special it will continue to be. As long as Brady and Belichick are steering this franchise, they will continue to be in the annual mix for championships.
How much longer Brady, 39, and Belichick, 64, decide to continue will be something on Kraft’s mind, if only because they are two people he will never be able to replace.
They are, in short, the greatest there has ever been.