It’s still hard to believe it happened. It’s like a football fever dream Patriots fans expect to wake up from at any moment. Even coach Bill Belichick had to watch the highlights to make sure Super Bowl LI was fact, not a figment of his imagination. Yes, the Patriots did really piece together the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, rallying from a 28-3 third-quarter deficit and a 28-9 fourth-quarter deficit. The comeback was real, and it was spectacular.
A season that started with Tom Brady throwing passes in Brookline while he served a four-game Deflategate suspension, ended in Houston with the first overtime game in Super Bowl history and the most unbridled joy and celebration centered around five rings you can have outside of the Olympics.
Super Bowl LI delivered many memorable moments and milestones. Here are a few leftover takeaways from a game for the ages:
■ The Brady-Peyton Manning debate is buried so deep that years from now archaeologists will have to excavate to find signs it ever existed. With one more masterpiece for his all-time oeuvre, Brady ran away from Manning historically like Robert Alford sprinted past TB12 after he threw a Manning-esque pick-6. Brady rendered any argument about who is the better quarterback as sports debate compost. Manning still had a little bit of a case after he won his second Super Bowl last season and defeated Brady for the third time in their four AFC Championship game meetings.
But there’s no comparison when it comes to the role the quarterbacks played in their teams’ Super Bowl runs, as the two oldest QBs to ever win a Super Bowl. (Manning was 39 years, 320 days last season; Brady was 39 years, 186 days.)
Manning was a caretaker QB last year for the Broncos in Super Bowl 50. He was 13 of 23 for 141 yards with no touchdown passes, an interception, and a fourth-quarter fumble that led to a Carolina field goal that put the game in doubt. Broncos fans were pleading to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands late.
The Patriots put the game in Brady’s hands, and he delivered. In the second half and overtime, Brady was 27 of 36 for 282 yards and two touchdowns on his way to setting Super Bowl records for passing yards, completions, and attempts. That’s more yards than Manning threw for in three of his four Super Bowls. That e-mail Brady sent to his childhood friend in 2014 about Manning’s decline relative to his own has proven prophetic.
■ Now, can we finally admit the 2016 Patriots defense was good? The Patriots defeated two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger and league MVP Matt Ryan in succession to win a championship. There was no shortcut to the seven pounds of sterling silver that serve as pro football’s holy grail.
The perceived weakness of the Patriots’ defense was against the pass. Yet, the two fourth-quarter play calls that everyone is hammering the Falcons for were . . . pass plays. First, there was the third and 1 that led to Dont’a Hightower’s game-changing strip-sack, and then Trey Flowers’s sack that pushed the Falcons out of field goal range. A huge part of the latter play is the excellent coverage that defensive end Jabaal Sheard had on Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman.
It certainly wasn’t perfect for the Patriots against the Falcons’ No. 1 scoring offense. They got chewed up on the ground, and Ryan was an absurd 13 of 16 for 202 yards and two touchdowns for a perfect passer rating of 158.3 after three quarters. But the defense was able to rise up — where have I heard that before? — in the fourth quarter and change the game. The Falcons had scored 30-plus points in six straight games. The Patriots defenders allowed 21 points.
■ Super Bowl LI didn’t deplete Rob Gronkowski’s value to the Patriots. It confirmed it. The Falcons’ game plan was heavily predicated on playing man defense with a safety over the top, while giving help inside on Julian Edelman. That’s not possible with Gronk around. Gronkowski is coming off a season in which a hamstring injury and yet another back surgery limited him to career lows in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.
Still, when Gronkowski isn’t slamming adult beverages at parades and partying with rapper Rick Ross, he is one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the NFL. His contract remains team-friendly. The max he will make in 2017 is $5 million. He is due a $4.25 million base salary, has a $250,000 workout bonus, and can collect up to $500,000 total in per-game roster bonuses. Keep on Gronking, Patriots.
■ Even with all Brady has dealt with and his outpouring of emotion over his mother’s cancer at Super Bowl LI, you know the Patriots’ comeback rankled NFL fans in other cities sick and tired of seeing Brady and the Patriots win. In 16 seasons, the Patriots have gone from Cinderella to the Sith lords of the NFL. Strong the hatred is for the Patriots. It’s a remarkable character arc.
■ The role Deflategate played in motivating Brady this season is debatable. What’s not is that Touchdown Tommy is the greatest quarterback in modern NFL history. (Sorry, Joe Montana.) He is the only QB to go to seven Super Bowls and the only one to win five.
TB12 is now 5-2 in Super Bowls and the two losses, both to the New York Giants, came in situations in which he left the field with the lead late in the fourth quarter. (I know, I know, Brady’s intentional grounding safety in Super Bowl XLVI contributed to that loss.) The reality is that if David Tyree doesn’t make one miracle catch, and if Wes Welker doesn’t mishandle one debatably difficult catch, Brady is 7-0. Instead, the pursuit of six looms.
■ Julio Jones is worth 100 Jonathan Baldwins. Patriots coach Bill Belichick famously advised Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff against sacrificing five draft picks to move up 21 spots in the 2011 Draft to take Jones. He said Dimitroff could stay put and draft Baldwin. Jones is on his way to a bust in Canton. Baldwin was just a bust.
■ It would be nice if NFL senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino used one of his insightful officiating videos to explain why Shea McClellin was flagged for illegal formation after forcing the Falcons to scrap the extra point following their second touchdown . . . It shouldn’t be surprising that James White had a record-setting game. Football Outsiders pointed out before the Super Bowl that no defense had allowed more receptions, yards, or touchdowns to backs than the Falcons . . . After watching this game and what the Patriots have at linebacker, it’s going to be scary if Hightower departs Fort Foxborough.