ATLANTA — They found each other in the mass of humanity, amid the blanket of cut-up confetti and shower of shimmering streamers, and for seconds, and then minutes, and then what surely felt like forever, they held onto each other, arms wrapped around each other’s necks, foreheads touching, emotions flowing as freely as the tears that were sure to follow.
All night long here in Atlanta they’d been finding each other, the six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback and his first-time Super Bowl MVP receiver, one catch, two catches, four catches, six, eight, 10 in all for 141 yards, the steadiest and most reliable connection on a night when there were precious few connections to be made.
As it has been for the duration of their Patriot partnership, Tom Brady and Julian Edelman were a special team of two Sunday night, a quarterback who knew where to turn in his time of greatest need, a receiver who made sure to be there when it happened. And when their work combined to lead the Patriots to this grueling 13-3 win over the high-flying Rams, there was no doubt they’d be certain to find one another once more.
“I just try to get open and catch the ball,” Edelman would say later, the Super Bowl champion T-shirt stretched tight over the shoulder pads and jersey he was still wearing underneath. “And the hug was, you know, just two Bay Area boys that love football and love to compete and are living out our dreams. I think he held me, though. I didn’t hold him.”
Consider it payback for his carrying the offense all night. As the game slogged through its offensive morass across three quarters, as the defenses on both sides asserted their authority over and over again, as Brady got pushed out of his pocket and Jared Goff got pushed to the turf, Edelman was still out there gaining ground. He was there for his quarterback, the man who so desperately wanted to win this thing one more time and erase the memory of last year’s devastating Eagles defeat, and he was there for himself, so desperately grateful to be part of a game he was forced to miss a season ago, a torn ACL felling him in the preseason, out there to help where earlier this season he couldn’t as well, a four-game suspension delaying his return.
“What did I see in Julian?” Brady would marvel after winning an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title, most by any NFL player in history. “I mean he just played the best game he has all year. So proud of him and what he’s accomplished coming back from his ACL.
“He just fought it out, grinded it out. He’s a fighter, man, that kid. He’s — I’m just so proud of him. He’s been an incredible player for this team in the playoffs and he just cemented himself, again, in the history of the NFL for what his accomplishments are.”
Officially, there were still almost nine minutes remaining when Edelman last touched the football Sunday, but that one final sprint across the middle of the field, that one final grab through a tangle of hands and bodies, that 13-yard catch that followed an 18-yard connection to Rob Gronkowski and preceded a 7-yard Rex Burkhead catch and another huge throw to Gronk (29 yards), well that was the one that helped Patriots finally crack the red-zone code. When Sony Michel plunged in from the 2 with the only touchdown of the night, it was as if the Patriots could finally exhale, ending the suspense that seemed to hold the heavily pro-Patriot crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in its grip.
“That was a big part of us moving the ball,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Julian always gives us those kinds of plays, tough plays, tough catches, catch-and-run plays, breaking tackles for a few extra yards, third down. He did a tremendous job.”
Against tremendous odds, and not the type of underdog vibes the Patriots latched onto during this playoff run, but the kind that truly make his rise to the top of the football world remarkable. Remember, Edelman was an undersized California quarterback who couldn’t get Division 1 notice, who made a stop at junior college before finally getting his chance at Kent State, who made the decision to switch to wide receiver to entice NFL scouts to look at him, and who took the opportunity to play for the Patriots as the greatest professional gift he could have been given.
To cap that by becoming the seventh wide receiver to be named Super Bowl MVP, to join Deion Branch as receivers to win that award by catching passes from the four-time Super Bowl MVP, to do so in a season filled with suspension at the start and sadness toward the end (who can forget Edelman’s heartfelt empathy for the victims of a mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue?), it barely seemed real as that confetti hit the turf.
“It’s pretty surreal,” he said. “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do. I preach that, and I guess you have to live to it.”
Trust him – last year was tough. Tough on the Patriots, who so could have used him against the Eagles, and tough on him, because he so deeply wanted to be out there.
“Injuries are psychologically so hard for an athlete because you don’t get to do what you love to do,” he said. “When your team is going out there and playing in the Super Bowl and you don’t get to help or you were not a factor, it was definitely very tough.
“But we have it this year, so we’re good.”
More than anything, Edelman has been the relentless hard worker who somehow managed to make Brady love him most of all, forging a relationship that took them from the field to the real-life world, to the point that Brady spent Super Bowl week telling anyone who would listen just how much he loves the 32-year-old player he now considers a younger brother.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Edelman echoed after the game. “He has helped me so much. He has been a huge part of mentally kind of coaching me up just through his actions and how he is as a football player, as a professional, as a father and as a family man. It is an honor to get to play with a guy like that.”
They made a heck of a team of two Sunday night.