Being human, we look for deeper meaning in all our cultural experiences, whether a movie, a song, or a sporting event.
Here, in New England, the lust to beat the Atlanta Falcons rested on the unshakable premise that the Patriots and their quarterback, Tom Brady, had been treated unfairly, even grotesquely, by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
So in living rooms from Rhode Island to Maine, Patriots fans loaded coffee tables with hot snacks, but reserved the coldest dish — sweet revenge — for the game’s end, knowing that and so much more would be theirs when Goodell was forced to hand over the trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
But when the smoke cleared and the confetti fell, after the Patriots had completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, the lessons left for us to chew on were more fundamental, more noble, appealing to our better angels, not our coarser thoughts.
It was as if everything our parents, our teachers, our coaches had tried to teach us transpired in the last 18 minutes of this magnificent spectacle, this Super Bowl. In the end, it wasn’t about revenge. It was about not giving up, about perseverance, about not panicking, about having a backup plan if the original plan isn’t working, about believing in yourself and your ability and in one another.
The facts spoke for themselves: The Patriots were down 21-0, then 21-3 at the half. No team had ever come back from a deficit of more than 10 points in any of the 50 previous Super Bowls, a fact repeated by television commentators to the point that it became a mantra, an article of faith.
But, like promises and hearts, precedents are made to be broken. The Patriots refused to give up, as surely many teams would have.
Patriots safety Duron Harmon walked into the locker room at halftime and loudly proclaimed, “This is going to be the best comeback of all time!”
Who knows if it was prophecy or lunacy, but it was inspirational.
After falling behind 28-3 midway through the third quarter, the Patriots began a comeback for the ages.
You saw it. Danny Amendola hauled in a 17-yard pass on fourth down. Dont’a Hightower forced Matt Ryan to fumble. Brady kept marching the offense up the field. The defense pushed the Falcons out of range for a field goal that would have iced it. Julian Edelman made a spectacular, ridiculous, circus catch that kept alive the 91-yard drive that tied the game. James White, James White, James White.
No individual won the game for the Patriots, but every individual was essential to win. The defense and offense were entirely dependent on each other; one could not succeed without the other.
The roots of the comeback were embedded in another of our parents’ mantras: that you lay the groundwork for success in ways you often can’t see, simply by persevering. Even after they had fallen behind by so much, the Patriots were controlling possession and running the Falcons defense ragged. In the fourth quarter, and especially during the winning drive in overtime, the Atlanta defenders were gassed, exhausted.
When the Patriots won the coin toss and got the ball to start overtime, even most Falcons fans had to know the Patriots were going to win.
Which brings us to the flip side of all these lessons learned. It wasn’t just about the Patriots not giving up and giving in. In the Falcons initially impressive, ultimately unsatisfactory performance there were lessons, too. About finishing what you started, about not being complacent, about not getting ahead of yourself.
The Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, left his comfortable box and went down to the field long before the game ended, wanting to be among his players celebrating a victory that seemed inevitable. As the Patriots kept scoring, the camera kept drifting back to Blank and his wife standing there on the sidelines, a growing sense of dread spreading on their faces. The final camera shot gave new meaning to the term Blank stare.
It’s not as if the thirst for revenge was entirely quenched by watching the peerless comeback. Patriots fans, who were a majority inside NRG Stadium, booed Goodell lustily and mercilessly, drowning out his congratulatory words to Kraft and the Patriots.
Kraft called the win “unequivocally the sweetest,” and made an oblique reference to the satisfaction of winning it all during a season when Brady was suspended by Goodell for four games over Deflategate.
“A lot has transpired during the last two years,” Kraft said. “And I don’t think that needs any explanation.”
What also needed no explanation was the sight of Brady’s mother, Galynn, walking gingerly onto the field to find her son after the game ended, a kerchief covering her head.
Galynn Brady has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Kraft said, and that burden was as obvious as the smile on her face.
“She’s been through a lot,” Brady said Monday, after collecting the Super Bowl MVP trophy from Goodell. “Way harder than what I went through last night. Way harder than what our team went through last night.”
By her sheer presence, Galynn Brady provided the last, most profound lesson in all this: perspective.
So many of us had assumed that Tom Brady wanted to win this game so he could rub it in Goodell’s face. But it turns out he really wanted to win the game to put a smile on his mother’s face.
There’s something much stronger, sweeter, and more satisfying than revenge. It’s called love.