HOUSTON — Case closed.
Tom Brady cemented his legacy as the greatest quarterback in history Sunday night and he did it in the most dramatic fashion.
The Patriots quarterback earned his fifth Super Bowl title and collected his fourth Super Bowl MVP as the Patriots staged the most incredible and improbable comeback in history of America’s game, beating the Falcons, 34-28, in overtime at NRG Stadium.
Erasing a 25-point second-half deficit, the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points against a Falcons team that played the fourth quarter as though they were waiting to be fitted for their rings rather than finishing their business on the field.
James White’s 2-yard run in OT — the first in Super Bowl history — was the difference as the Patriots pulled off their second stunning Super Bowl victory in three seasons.
“This is unequivocally the sweetest,’’ said team owner Robert Kraft after that long-awaited, awkward moment when commissioner Roger Goodell handed him the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Brady was astoundingly brilliant in the second half, and put on a fourth-quarter performance that was incredible, even by his lofty standards.
For the record, Brady finished 43 of 62 for 466 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He hit White and Danny Amendola with fourth-quarter TD passes and they each converted 2-point conversions on the other’s TD to tie the score at 28-28.
The Patriots won the toss in overtime and Brady carved up the gassed Falcons, driving 75 yards, capped by White’s run.
“Yeah, they’re all sweet,’’ said Brady, when asked if this was the best, considering the Deflategate saga of the past two seasons. “They’re all different and this was just an incredible team and I’m just happy to be a part of it. It’s just a great group of coaches and teammates and we overcame a lot of different things and it’s all worth it.’’
It is the fifth Super Bowl title for the Patriots, who are now tied with the 49ers and Cowboys for the second most in NFL history (the Steelers have six).
All of New England’s titles have come under the stewardship of the Kraft family, Bill Belichick, and, of course, Brady,
For two weeks, Belichick extolled the virtues of the Falcons’ speed to anyone who would listen. Sunday night the 70,807 on hand and millions across the world found out just what the New England coach was talking about.
Atlanta blitzed the Patriots with 21 straight points, displaying tremendous speed and feverish quickness that left the favorites defenseless and helpless.
It felt over. Well, almost over.
The Falcons gave a preview of things to come on their first offensive play from scrimmage when Devonta Freeman gashed them for 37 yards.
The Patriots were able to put the clamps on the Falcons for the rest of the opening 15 minutes. Problem was, Brady and the offense couldn’t sustain any momentum.
The one drive the Patriots showed life came at the end of the quarter, when a pair of passes to Julian Edelman — the second one for 27 yards on the first play of the second quarter — gave them a first down at the Atlanta 33. LeGarrette Blount, however, fumbled on the next play and the Falcons took advantage.
Matt Ryan led a surgical five-play, 71-yard drive that ended with Freeman’s 5-yard zip around left end. He went in untouched. Ryan, the former Boston College star, hit Julio Jones for 19 and 29 yards before Freeman went the final 29 yards on three carries.
It marked the first time the Patriots had trailed in a game since Week 11 against the Jets.
After another three-and-out by the Patriots, the Falcons set up shop at their 38 after a 38-yard punt from Ryan Allen.
Ryan, looking every bit the league MVP he was voted Saturday night, went back to shredding the Patriots defense. He hit Taylor Gabriel for 24 yards and Jones for a toe-tapping 18-yarder. Two plays later, Ryan dropped a beautiful 19-yard pass into tight end Austin Hooper’s hands in the end zone to double the lead to 14-0.
The Patriots appeared poised to finally stop the hemorrhaging on the ensuing possession but again a turnover proved to be a killer.
After methodically marching from their 25 to the Atlanta 23 — aided by three defensive holding penalties — it appeared New England could still make a game of it.
That’s when Robert Alford stepped in. Literally.
The cornerback cut in front a Brady pass intended for Danny Amendola and was off to the races for an 82-yard Pick-6 — with only a helpless and airborne Brady in his way.
It was a waste of an 11-play drive for New England.
The Patriots did mount an 11-play, 52-yard drive on their next possession, but it stalled when Martellus Bennett was called for holding, negating a White catch and run that would have put the ball inside the Atlanta 5.
Though Stephen Gostkowski would finally put the Patriots on the board with a 41-yard field goal, it was without a doubt the hollowest 3 points of the 2016 season.
Ryan was superb over the first 30 minutes, hitting on 7 of 8 passes for 115 yards. Brady was 16 of 26 for 184 yards and took two sacks. It was Brady’s first multiple-sack game since Week 8 against Buffalo.
“We were down, some had some doubts [at halftime], we’re only human,’’ said Patriots defensive end Chris Long. “But we had enough guys pulling us along. Duron Harmon walked in and said, ‘This is going to be the best comeback of all time.’ And we completely believed that. And it was.’’
Nate Solder was a little more blunt.
“I felt like I played like total poop,’’ he said.
After trading three-and-outs to start the second half, the Falcons extended their lead to 28-3 when Ryan hit Tevin Coleman with a 6-yard swing pass touchdown. Gabriel was the star of the drive, hauling in catches of 17 and 35 yards.
Brady, who set a Super Bowl record with his 43 completions, rallied the Patriots when he got the ball back, driving 75 yards in 13 plays, capped by a 5-yard strike to White. Gostkowski doinked the extra point off the right upright and it was 28-9.
Gostkowski drilled a 33-yard field goal to pull the Patriots closer at 28-12 on the team’s first possession of the fourth quarter, and two plays later, Dont’a Hightower got the ball back when he strip-sacked Ryan to hand the Patriots the ball at the Atlanta 25.
“Biggest play of the game,’’ said Long.
Brady fired a 6-yard TD pass to Amendola and White scored on a 1-yard run to make it 28-20.
The tying drive — Edelman’s incredible 23-yard catch the key — went 91 yards, matching New England’s longest drive of the season. White finished it with a 1-yard run and Amendola caught the 2-point conversion. It was 28-28.
Ryan got the ball back and for the first time all night, he looked frazzled and overwhelmed, woefully misfiring on a third-down pass.
Once the Patriots won the OT coin toss, it was over.