FOXBOROUGH — By the time they strolled into a mostly empty locker room late Monday afternoon, awaiting the arrival of their families and a trip home to grab some much-needed rest, Jason and Devin McCourty stood in that beautiful emotional interlude that exists somewhere between exhaustion and exhilaration.
Still looking back at the amazing Super Bowl victory the previous night against the Rams, still looking forward to the parade down Boston’s duck-boated streets, these twin-brother Patriots couldn’t stop looking at each other, love shining through their tired eyes.
“Better. Ten times better than the other two Super Bowls,” Devin is saying.
“Better than I could have scripted it,” Jason agrees.
Maybe the brothers McCourty aren’t the most famous of these champion Patriots (hello, Tom Brady) and maybe they aren’t the zaniest or most popular (hello, Rob Gronkowski). But what they represent, what they mean to this team, what they accomplished in winning this title together after nine NFL years apart? No way you’ll find a better story this NFL year.
For Devin, who’d won two previous championships with New England before this ninth season, who’d been drafted a year after his brother but by the winningest franchise in the league, who’d claimed an AFC East title every year on the job and made it to the conference championship game the last eight, what made this year so much sweeter was having his brother by his side.
For Jason, who’d never made the playoffs before this 10th season, who’d been drafted in 2009 by the Tennessee Titans but spent his ninth year in the league with the winless Browns, who’d embraced a March trade to the Patriots as the greatest football gift he could have been given, what made this year so much sweeter was having his brother by his side.
What made it everlasting for Jason? The contribution he ended up making. Remember, this was a player who fought through injury and idleness in offseason workouts and training camp. This is a veteran who found himself playing nearly every snap in the second half of the fourth and final preseason game, time usually reserved for also-rans and long shots.
This is a cornerback who played but five snaps in the season-opening win over Houston, sending a nervous ripple that reached all the way home to their amazing mother Phyllis.
But this also is a smart, savvy, talented, and incredibly hard-working and determined player who was not going to let this opportunity slip away. The course of the season saw him emerge in so many ways, as a leader willing to use his voice — “he’s always been louder than me,” Devin says — as a player capable of doing everything asked of him.
And of course, that was him in the third quarter Sunday in Atlanta, streaking across the back of the end zone, a last-second intersection with wide-open Rams receiver Brandin Cooks preventing a touchdown. A maximum-effort play that left none other than cranky coach Bill Belichick gushing.
With the Patriots clinging to a measly 3-0 lead, the play that ultimately would force the Rams to settle for a field goal absolutely changed the course of the game.
“Oh my God,” Belichick said from his postgame podium, his eyes widening, his head shaking. “That was a tremendous play, a tremendous effort, a great play on the ball.”
Belichick went on to credit some other crucial pass breakups by the secondary, and of course the game-sealing interception by Stephon Gilmore, but then he was back to the McCourty play.
“Oh my God,” he said again. “It was Cooks, right? Cooks just standing there fair-catching the ball in the end zone and McCourty came out of nowhere to make the play. It was a tremendous play.”
For Jason, the moment was pure football instinct, nothing different than he would have done in any game.
“Same way when you’re beat and you’re running and trying to play the hands,” he said. “No different. I just took off. Just an ‘oh [expletive]’ moment, turning and running and trying to get there as fast as I can.
“Luckily I was able to get there in that split-second and be able to make the pass breakup.”
He looked at Devin.
“What did you think?” he asked.
“It was a good play,” his brother agreed. “I turned around, I was like, “Where is [Jared Goff] throwing the ball?’ We got this over coverage, the post is already covered, and I turned around and I said, ‘Oh, oh damn.’
“It was great effort by him. Like he said yesterday, I’m sure he was already running to that play, to be the second guy to help, but then when he saw him open just dropped his head and took off and whatever he had left to get that body to get there, he did it.”
How could he not? The all-out sprint was clocked by the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which concluded that Jason covered 19.5 yards in 2.4 seconds, reaching a top speed of 18.86 mph, to get within 0.8 yards of Cooks at pass arrival after being 19.2 yards away from Cooks when Goff released the ball.
Now and forever, that will be known as precisely the speed required to save a Super Bowl, to secure a childhood dream, to will yourself beyond the limits of your imagination and seize opportunity when it is there.
“It wasn’t until they missed that field goal [late in the fourth quarter], the realization that there was nothing they could do, that we were going to get the ball and take a knee and that was going to be all she wrote,” Jason said.
“Literally standing next to Dev on that field goal block team and that kick goes up and it’s wide left and we just looked at each other. I remember running to the sideline and looking at my family screaming in the stands and realizing that that was it. Super Bowl champ.”
A better story you will not find.