HOUSTON — The story of the most remarkable comeback in football history could be heard simply by listening closely to the postgame soundtrack in and around the team locker rooms — the utterances of joy or pain, the halting comprehension of what had just happened, the confessions of some Patriots players who admitted that, midgame, victory had seemed impossible.
A few Patriots insisted they had no such doubts, and that even when their team trailed by 25 points, they believed an unprecedented Super Bowl victory was within reach. When that bold vision of the team’s optimists came to fruition in a 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons, there was no denying the magnitude of the unprecedented outcome.
“You can’t kill that memory
Such proclamations and exultations came with a cruel proximity to the team the Patriots had just dispatched. Golf carts carried Falcons to and from media sessions, and eventually to the team bus.
On the one hand, the carts’ honking horns evoked the triumphant street celebrations that greet World Cup victories. But the ashen faces of the passengers suggested a pained procession of the dispossessed who couldn’t fathom how a championship that seemed so much within their grasp had eluded them.
Head coach Dan Quinn had just addressed the media. Two years earlier, when he was the defensive coordinator of a Seattle Seahawks team that endured what was then the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in a Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, it had been a difficult but not devastating defeat for a team that had won the championship one year earlier.
This, on the other hand, represented the ripping away of a franchise- and career-defining moment, a potential lifetime of what-ifs stemming from a collapse.
“That’s a hard one in the locker room,” said Quinn. “No place to put that one mentally for us.”
In his remarks, Quinn spoke passionately about his team, its yearlong sense of “brotherhood,” and about his appreciation for what it accomplished and the possibility for moving forward. But on the cart on the way back to the locker room, as he sat next to general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the words stopped. Quinn stared ahead; as his cart passed the Patriots locker room, his head sank, his gaze to the floor.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan trudged glumly around the concourse. A well-wisher tried to lift his spirits. “Great game, Matt!” In return, Ryan offered a weary and unconvincing wave of acknowledgment.
“It’s hard to find words tonight,” Ryan later said.
The Patriots, too, found language an imperfect medium to express their emotions. Their strain was understandable, given the absence of context in which to place what had just transpired.
No team had ever emerged victorious from a Super Bowl in which it faced a deficit of more than 10 points. New England obliterated that mark. Even in the first 270 games of the storied partnership of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, there had never been a comeback as large as the 25-point hole from which the Patriots emerged Sunday night.
By the time Brady arrived in the locker room roughly 45 minutes after the game, he embraced teammate after teammate, thanking them for their contributions while posing for selfies.
Former Patriot Willie McGinest — now an NFL Network analyst, but also a reminder of how championships can bond a player to a franchise forever — engaged in a long embrace with his former teammate, with mutual declarations of love and respect. As Brady emerged and headed to his locker to finally shed his equipment, McGinest shouted, “The GOAT is almost ready!”
Brady proved sheepish in the face of the “Greatest Of All Time” talk.
“Not the GOAT! Not the GOAT!” he insisted.
At his locker, a spent Brady turned to a group of congregating reporters and waved his arms.
“I’m all done,” he pleaded. His teammates were not. One shouted of a midgame sideline conversation, “I told him, ‘We’ve got Tom Brady — we’re going to be all right!’ ”
Meanwhile, the Lombardi Trophy turned into a germ factory, embraced by player after player who posed with the prize while giving it a kiss.
Owner Robert Kraft entered the players’ area to distribute victory cigars. The players eagerly accepted them, though one objected as a reporter snapped a picture. “You want the kids to see that?”
Kraft took time to appreciate the unlikelihood and emotional nature of what his team — and his star player — had accomplished. For an organization that has made championships habitual, this victory nonetheless bore a unique imprint given the size of the comeback and the backdrop against which it played out, particularly for Brady.
“The odds of it happening are infinitesimal,” said Kraft, “but it’s a good example of what can happen with anything in life. When some things happen, and you believe in yourselves, the power of will is pretty strong. But you’ve got to hang together and make sure you have good people around you.
“I knew how emotional it was when it was down the way it was. We had talked at his locker before that it was the first game his mother had been at. She’d been going through a lot. I said, ‘Let’s win this one for her.’
“I was thinking when we were down, when it was 28-3, how he must have felt. But the greater the pressure, the better he performs.”
On Sunday, Brady was not alone. Members of the team relished the opportunity to reconstruct the game’s pendulum swing, to consider where it transformed from certain defeat to improbable victory. Dont’a Hightower’s strip-sack of Ryan and Trey Flowers’s takedown of the quarterback to knock Atlanta out of field goal range both received considerable mention.
But nothing could match the drama of Julian Edelman’s circus catch while sandwiched among three Falcons defenders. That play exorcised demons from another time.
“I flashed back to New York, the one where [David Tyree] had the ball pinned against his helmet,” said running backs coach Ivan Fears, one of the few members of the team who had a sideline perspective on two unforgettable plays separated by nine years. “It was incredible. I had to see it a couple times to realize he actually caught that thing.”
Long, who in eight years had never experienced a single playoff victory — let alone a championship — bullrushed his way into the corner of the locker room where the team’s linebackers and defensive linemen were stationed.
“Get out of the way, reporters!” he shouted, forewarning the group that he was armed with a bottle of champagne and was prepared to use it. His teammates joined him in grabbing bottles of bubbly, and a group of perhaps 10 players danced under the champagne spray. Moments after its conclusion, Hightower rushed into the corner and — in contrast to his game-altering sack — arrived moments too late, incensed that he missed the effusion.
Still, the celebrations inside the locker room represented a beginning rather than an end, as players’ thoughts turned from what they’d done to what awaited.
“We’re going to go crazy,” said cornerback Logan Ryan.
Ninety minutes after the game, many players and coaches had already started navigating to the buses that would whisk them to their next revels. Yet some remained in uniform, still drifting back from the field, savoring their involvement in a career pinnacle.
As the locker room closed to the media at 10:50 p.m. local time, tight end Martellus Bennett passed a pack of reporters.
“How you doing?” he beamed. “I’m a champion. Champion coming through.”
The doors closed.