PHOENIX — Long before the Patriots arrived in Arizona, Darrelle Revis said he had no intention of taking part in the debate over which cornerback was better — himself or Seattle’s Richard Sherman.
As the Patriots prepared to face the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, New England’s secondary heard a great deal about the Legion of Boom, the name Sherman & Co. had given themselves, as they claimed to be the best secondary in the NFL.
The Patriots deflected talk of proving that their secondary was the better group, at least publicly.
But Sunday night, in the stuffy, celebratory postgame interview area, as Devin McCourty, one of several Patriots players fanned around the podium, gave an answer about the defense making the game-sealing play, Brandon Browner’s unmistakable voice took over the room.
And during a fun, loud exchange between Browner and McCourty, with Revis egging them on, it became clear that while the Patriots’ secondary might not have a trademark-worthy nickname, it wanted to be recognized as just as good, if not better, than the Legion.
“At the top, it’s just us!” howled Browner.
“What you going to tell ’em — kiss the ring? Kiss the ring?” McCourty responded.
“How you feel?” Browner asked.
“I feel great!” McCourty answered.
“[Are] we the best defense in the league?” Browner said.
“I don’t know what they’re going to call us now — we’re the champs!” McCourty said.
“[Are] we the best secondary in the league?” Browner said.
“I think so! I think so! Champions!” McCourty, his Super Bowl T-shirt stretched over his shoulder pads, bellowed back.
For McCourty, Revis, Logan Ryan, and Tavon Wilson, the season had come full circle. Not long after Revis signed with the Patriots in March, he invited his new secondary mates to Arizona to train with him.
When McCourty landed in the desert, he took note of the banners for the Super Bowl and told himself he’d be back at the end of the season, to finish the job he and the Patriots were unable to finish in the 2011 Super Bowl, his second year in the league.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson did not attempt a pass in the first quarter, as Seattle tried to establish the run with Marshawn Lynch. Seattle held the ball for less than four minutes in the opening quarter.
Wilson’s first pass came on the second play of the second quarter, though he essentially threw the ball away after being chased all over the backfield, unable to find an open receiver.
His second pass, again on third and long on Seattle’s next possession, was also incomplete, broken up by Ryan, one of the more unheralded members of the secondary.
Wilson didn’t complete a pass until there were just more than five minutes left in the first half, a 6-yarder to Jermaine Kearse on third and 6.
Wilson followed that with a 44-yard bomb to Chris Matthews, exploiting the significant height advantage Matthews had over corner Kyle Arrington, though Arrington had good coverage on the play.
Wilson was 4-for-7 passing in the first half, for 84 yards.
Another lesser-known member of the secondary, rookie Malcolm Butler, became the game’s hero when he intercepted Wilson a yard into the end zone with just seconds left on the clock.
Butler, who played at Division 2 West Alabama, was discovered by Patriots longtime area scout Frantzy Jourdain, a former running back and safety at the University of Rhode Island. Butler was on the field in the second half after the coaching staff inserted him for Arrington.
Butler rose to the challenge, breaking up three passes, but he also felt the weight of the world on his young shoulders after he couldn’t knock the ball away from Kearse on that miracle catch with a minute to play.
The Seattle receiver grabbed the ball while on his back after it bounced off both of his legs and his right hand — but never touched the ground.
The 33-yard catch gave Seattle first and goal from the 5, and Butler feared he’d just lost the game for his team. But two plays later, he read the formation, watched Wilson, and made a jump on a slant route, his first NFL interception coming at the perfect moment.
He cried tears of joy on the sideline, but his teammates weren’t surprised that Butler did it.
“He’s been doing it to me in practice all season,” quarterback Tom Brady said of Butler’s interception. “So it was nice to see him pick somebody else off. I’m so happy for him.”
They might not have the nifty name, or the we-look-like-an-R&B-supergroup Sports Illustrated cover, but on Sunday, New England had the better secondary.
And now, a secondary of champions.
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