PHOENIX — The final drive by the Seattle Seahawks in the New England Patriots’ 28-24 win Sunday will go down in Super Bowl lore, as the Patriots went from heroes to losers to champions in a matter of 2 minutes and 2 seconds.
Malcolm Butler’s interception on the goal line with 20 seconds left is a play that will live forever in glory in New England and in infamy in the Pacific Northwest, where Seahawks fans and even players openly questioned coach Pete Carroll’s decision to throw the ball from the 1-yard line instead of handing it off to Marshawn Lynch.
“We had it,” said linebacker Bruce Irvin. “We were on the half-yard line, and we throw a slant. I don’t know what the offense had going on, what they saw. I just don’t understand.”
But while Butler’s interception was the defining play of the night, it was just one of several important plays on the Seahawks’ wild final drive, which featured everything a football fan could ask for — spectacular plays, nail-biting drama, game-theory strategy, small decisions looming large, and one of the greatest finishes in NFL history, if not the best ever.
Here is an inside look at how that drive unfolded:
The Seahawks took over at their 20-yard line with 2:02 left in the game after the Patriots scored to take a 28-24 lead. They needed to drive 80 yards and finish with a touchdown — a field goal wouldn’t suffice — but the Seahawks had all three of their timeouts, plus the two-minute warning. The Patriots had two timeouts remaining.
The Seahawks struck big right away, with Lynch beating linebacker Jamie Collins on a double move and hauling in a perfect Russell Wilson pass for a 31-yard gain to put the Seahawks in Patriots territory with 1:55 left.
The first burned timeout
The problem for Seattle, though, was its inefficient use of timeouts. On second and 10 from the Patriots 49, with 1:50 remaining, Wilson burned his first timeout, even though the clock had been stopped after an incompletion on the previous play. Wilson didn’t like the look he was seeing in the New England defense, and with the play clock winding down, he used his first timeout instead of drawing a 5-yard penalty.
The fluke reception
After the timeout, Wilson threw incomplete on second down, but connected on third down with Ricardo Lockette for a first down at the Patriots 38.
The Seahawks rushed to the line of scrimmage, snapped the ball with 1:14 on the clock, and Wilson heaved up a jump ball toward Jermaine Kearse. Butler was in perfect position and outjumped Kearse for the football, but when the two fell to the ground, the ball hit Kearse’s left shin, then his right knee, then his right hand, and then he caught it while rolling over at the 6-yard line.
Safety Duron Harmon jumped over the two players on the ground, not realizing the ball was still in play. Kearse alertly got back to his feet and tried to run, but Butler pushed him out of bounds at the 5.
The second wasted timeout
The Seahawks now had first and goal from the 5 with 1:06 left in the game, and once again the clock was stopped with Kearse going out of bounds. But the Seahawks were disorganized getting set at the line of scrimmage. With the play clock at three seconds, Wilson burned the second timeout.
The unheralded play
After the timeout, the Seahawks came out in a power set from the 5-yard line: I-formation with Lynch and a fullback, plus a tight end on the left and two receivers split right. The Seahawks ran Lynch off-tackle to the left side, and he had a free path to the end zone after safety Patrick Chung was cleared out by the fullback.
But linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Akeem Ayers combined to bring Lynch down at the 1. Hightower first shed left tackle Russell Okung and then dived at Lynch’s ankles, while Ayers came off his block and corralled Lynch from behind.
This play got lost in the shuffle, but the effort by Hightower and Ayers to keep Lynch out of the end zone ultimately saved the day, and set up the game-deciding play.
The clock management
Lynch was tackled with 1:02 left on the clock, the Seahawks with one timeout left and the Patriots with two. With the ball now on the 1-yard line, clock management became just as important as X’s and O’s, if not more so.
Bill Belichick had a big decision here about using one of his two timeouts. Using one would stop the clock and, in all likelihood, give the Patriots about 50 seconds with the football if Seattle scored a touchdown.
Instead, he put the decision in Carroll’s hands. In Belichick’s view, he’d rather let Seattle use its last timeout, or have the play clock dictate Seattle’s play calling, and let Tom Brady have two timeouts to work with instead of one.
Ultimately, both coaches opted to let the clock run down, and the Seahawks snapped the ball with 26 seconds left. Belichick later said that had the Seahawks run the ball on second down, “We would have used our timeouts if that had been a running play.”
More than 24 hours later, Carroll continues to take a lot of heat for his decision to throw the ball on second and goal from the 1 instead of handing off to Lynch.
“I just really feel like sometimes these coaches are so intelligent they outstrategize themselves,” said Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner. “I think that’s what that case was. It’s simple. You turn around and give it to the best back in the game.”
But Carroll and Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell did not come to this decision lightly.
First, they had to worry about not giving Brady enough time to drive the Patriots back into field goal range — hence draining the clock all the way down to 26 seconds. Plus, with only one timeout left, the Seahawks couldn’t just run the ball three straight times.
If Lynch is stuffed on second and 1, either the clock keeps running (if the Patriots don’t use a timeout) and the Seahawks are forced to rush their third-down play, or they take their final timeout. This also would have required the Seahawks to throw the ball on third down (with no timeouts, the Seahawks would have had to throw the ball on third down just to ensure that the clock was stopped before a fourth-down play).
Carroll also explained that he didn’t like his personnel matchup against the Patriots’ goal line defense, but this explanation doesn’t quite make sense. After Lynch’s first-down run, Carroll took his fullback off the field and replaced him with Lockette. The Patriots responded by sending Butler onto the field. But the Seahawks could have tried to run at the Patriots’ goal line defense with a fullback on the field.
Regardless, Carroll and Bevell called what they thought was a very safe play — a quick slant to Lockette with Kearse setting a legal pick. If they completed it, touchdown. If it was incomplete, it would have stopped the clock without the use of the last timeout. And what were the odds of an interception? To that point, there had been 108 passes attempted from the 1-yard line during the 2014 NFL season, and not one of them had been intercepted.
“Everything was perfectly in hand,” Carroll said. “We were just talking about the time and timeouts and how we were going to give them no time to come back.”
The Seahawks came out with Kearse and Lockette stacked on the right side — Kearse in front of Lockette — with Butler and Browner in man coverage for New England. The play design was simple; Kearse was supposed to run straight up the field, intersect with both Browner and Butler, and create enough space for Lockette to run a short slant route for the touchdown.
“That’s a play that’s supposed to work versus the two guys covering one-on-one,” Carroll said.
There were no audibles, either. This was a pass all the way.
“There wasn’t really a check out of it,” Wilson said. “We had a good play.”
But credit Butler for doing his homework, and Browner with a big assist. Browner, playing tight man coverage, used his 6-foot-4-inch length to jam Kearse at the line of scrimmage, preventing him from setting his pick on Butler.
And Butler recognized the play immediately.
“In preparation, I remembered the formation they were in — two-receiver stack,” he said. “I just knew they were running a pick route.”
Suddenly, the play turned into a race to the goal line between Butler and Kearse. Wilson took a quick drop and fired a fastball, but Butler beat Lockette to the spot, and simply outmuscled him for the football. Bevell later commented that Lockette “could have been stronger through the ball,” while Wilson acknowledged that his throw could have been a bit more to the inside. “One inch too far, I guess,” he said.
Super Bowl win probablity
As Super Bowl XLIX unfolded, the odds of the Patriots winning fluctuated with every play. During the first half, the odds wavered between about even and in the Patriots favor. In the third quarter through the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Seahawks were favored. But the Patriots' rally to take a 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter turned the odds back in New England's favor until Jermaine Kearse's catch on the Seahawk's final drive. At that point, the odds of the Patriots winning was a meager .12. But then moments later, Malcolm Butler's interception spiked the odds back up for the Patriots to .99.
But the game wasn’t quite over yet. After the interception and a celebration penalty on New England, the Patriots stood on their 1-yard line and still had 20 seconds to burn.
Belichick could have taken a safety, but that would have cut the deficit to 2 and forced the Patriots to punt the ball back to the Seahawks and given them a chance to drive for the game-winning field goal. He also could have tried a handoff to LeGarrette Blount, but he didn’t want to risk a fumble.
Brady couldn’t just kneel on the ball, because that would have resulted in a safety. And he couldn’t toss the ball high into the air, because an incompletion would have stopped the clock.
“A lot can happen,” Belichick said. “Snaps get fumbled, or if the ball is on the half-yard line and we don’t get it out, it’s a safety.”
So the Patriots really had only two options — have Brady dive head-first into a pile of 300-pound behemoths, or try to draw the Seahawks offsides and create 5 yards of space.
The Patriots were prepared to do the former; with only Matthew Slater in the backfield, the Patriots were clearly prepared to have Brady sneak it up the middle. But the Seahawks bailed them out with the latter.
Defensive end Michael Bennett, who had a great game with four quarterback hits, tried to jump the snap to cause a fumble, but got too antsy and wandered into the neutral zone. Teammate Demarcus Dobbs tried to pull him back onside, but Patriots left guard Dan Connolly made a smart veteran move to come out of his stance and make contact with Bennett, drawing the offsides penalty.
The infraction gave the Patriots 5 yards of breathing room. Twenty seconds and one brawl later, the Patriots were world champions, and the Seahawks were left wondering how it all went so wrong.
“I made the decision,” said Carroll. “I said, ‘Throw the ball.’ And unfortunately, the guy makes a great play and jumps in front of the route and makes an incredible play that nobody would ever think he could do.”