PHOENIX — Vince Wilfork was on the field when the Patriots defense let the Giants drive for the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl seven years ago. He was on the field again three years ago when New England’s defense again couldn’t stop Eli Manning from leading the Giants down the field for the game-winning score in the final minutes.
This time, Wilfork and the defense finally got their redemption.
“To be a defensive player, to be on the field and put a stamp on it for us, that’s the most amazing feeling right now,” Wilfork said shortly after New England’s wild 28-24 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. “All year, we talked as a defense that we wanted to make plays when it counted. We wanted our teammates to count on us.”
And they delivered.
It took a total team effort, of course, to keep Seattle off the scoreboard for the final 19:54 of the game. After the Seahawks took a 24-14 lead, they gained just one first down on their next three possessions and punted all three times.
But the key play — the one Patriots fans will tell their grandkids about — was rookie Malcolm Butler’s interception in the end zone on second and goal from the 1 with 26 seconds left in the game.
“He just went down in history,” safety Patrick Chung said.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll will be second-guessed for eternity for calling a pass on second down from the 1-yard line, especially with Marshawn Lynch running so well. Lynch rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown Sunday, and he had just rushed for 4 yards on the previous play.
“I think everybody was expecting run when you have Marshawn Lynch,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said.
Everyone except Carroll and Butler, that is. Carroll explained that he didn’t like the matchup against New England’s goal-line package, which had a lot of beef up front — Wilfork, Alan Branch, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, Akeem Ayers, and Hightower. Carroll viewed second and 1 as almost a throw-away play, and if the Seahawks didn’t score there, he planned on running the ball on third and fourth down.
“It’s not the right matchup for us to run the football, so on second down we throw the ball, really, to kind of waste that play,” Carroll said. “No second thoughts or no hesitation in that at all.”
And credit Butler and the Patriots for doing their homework. They noticed the Seahawks came out in their three-receiver set, with Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette stacked on the right side.
“In preparation I remembered the formation they were in — two receiver stack. I just knew they were running a pick route,” Butler said.
Sure enough, Kearse ran a clear-out, and Lockette tried to run a quick slant underneath him. But Butler jumped the play perfectly and beat Lockette to the football, hauling in the interception and holding on for dear life. It was the first NFL interception for Butler, an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama, and he couldn’t have picked a better time for it.
“Goal line, three cornerbacks, you know they’re going to throw it,” Butler said. “I had a feeling I was going to make a big play, but not that big.”
“Boy, this is a hard thing to take,” Carroll said.
The script was different in this Super Bowl, but it almost finished like the last two. Just two plays before his interception, Butler was almost the Super Bowl goat, allowing a 33-yard pass to Kearse that he tipped in the air, was bobbled several times, and miraculously fell into Kearse’s lap. This was David Tyree, all over again.
Two plays later, though, Butler flipped the script.
“We call him ‘Scrap,’ because the first time we saw him, he was just so scrappy, around the ball the whole time,” Wilfork said of Butler. “That moment with him making that play, it’s just a fairytale end to the book because of what he’s done all year for us.”
The final sequence perfectly encapsulated the Patriots’ defensive performance on Sunday night — bad plays followed by spectacular plays. The Patriots completely shut down the Seahawks in the first quarter, holding them to just 15 yards of offense, while Wilson didn’t complete his first pass until less than six minutes remained in the second quarter. The Patriots did a good job of keeping Wilson in the pocket, and did a good job of swarming to Lynch.
But the Seahawks woke up in the second quarter thanks to unheralded receiver Chris Matthews, a former Arena and Canadian league player who entered Sunday’s game with zero career NFL catches.
But Matthews is the Seahawks’ biggest target at 6 feet 5 inches, and used every inch to his advantage. Matched up on Kyle Arrington, listed 7 inches shorter, Matthews caught a 44-yard jump ball in the second quarter and a 45-yarder in the third quarter to help Seattle crawl back into the game and eventually take the lead. He also caught a jump ball over Logan Ryan, listed at 6 inches shorter, for an 11-yard touchdown catch right before the half.
So the Patriots did what they do best — make halftime adjustments. Arrington and Ryan were taken out of the game in the third quarter, and Brandon Browner, the NFL’s tallest cornerback at 6-4, was moved over to Matthews.
“Kyle, no disrespect to my buddy, but that was just a mismatch,” Browner said. “Kyle was actually in good position, but the guy got him by a whole foot. I just said, ‘Let me get him. I match his size.’ ”
With Browner matching him inch-for-inch, Matthews didn’t have another catch.
“I just match up well with big guys,” he said.
The Patriots were as stunned as everyone when Kearse made his circus catch late in the fourth quarter.
“My mom said she stopped watching in the last two minutes and just prayed,” safety Devin McCourty said.
But they fought through adversity all season, and stressed to each other in the huddle to do it one more time, and to just make one more play.
“We never lost faith, we never stopped believing,” Wilfork said. “To win the Super Bowl by a defensive stop, I’m telling you, it’s priceless.”