It was the very definition of mental toughness - the ability to work hard and respond resiliently to failure and adversity; the inner quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals.
Yes, the New England Patriots were a mentally tough team. But there was also a sprinkle of foo-foo dust in this mix too, just for good measure.
Super Bowl XLIX will be remembered for several plays, a few different big moments, and of course it will be remembered as New England's 4th World Championship in their 8th appearance. Only three teams have managed more wins in the Super Bowl era, and no other organization has been to more Big Games. But in the discussion of those big plays and big moments surrounding the 49th NFL Big Game, one trait should rise above the rest in describing these Patriots.
This team had mental toughness. It can't be underrated, nor can it be overstated. Having the ability to ignore the noise of obvious early season on-field short comings, and late season media-inflated off-field stories and headlines is hard to accomplish...but a necessity in order to get where you hope to go. And every team's desire is to be the last team standing at the end of the year, of course. The Patriots certainly have managed, perhaps as well as anyone ever has, to focus on getting to the finish line first.
And Tom Brady's journey is a perfect example in leading the way. TB12's ignoring the noise of distraction has become a masterful craft over the past 10 seasons...the time between winning his last championship and his next one. For a decade, it's always been "can you win another one?" with seemingly precious little time to enjoy the previous one. Throw in the early season questions over his diminishing skill set, and it makes his arrival to this point a memorable exercise in perseverance.
True grit, perhaps? Absolutely. That's one area where Brady's gas tank has always remained full, even as the ebb of time inexorably marches onward toward the gauge reading "empty." It isn't yet, and having won a 3rd Super Bowl MVP honor is proof of that.
But in order to win the ultimate prize, all championships come with seminal moments. This season was full of big plays - literally satiated with opportunities for success or failure on a single snap of the ball. After the Kansas City Monday Night Debacle, it was "on to Cincinnati" that formed the rallying cry for much of the year. And during the Big Game itself, the moments that could turn fame and probable fortune into failure pummeled our senses like so much of the recent snowfall in the Northeast.
Malcolm Butler's game-saving interception of Seattle's Russell Wilson will be remembered as one of the Biggest Plays Ever in one of the Biggest Games Ever. But that it came in a split-second following one of the most-questioned decisions in a Big Game Ever (pass the ball, or hand it off to Marshawn Lynch?) is mind-boggling in scope. It was epic in its execution, epic in its eventual result...and epic in its ability to be second-guessed.
Good fortune, maybe? What about luck? Of course, luck plays a factor in big moments for both sides. But there's a saying about luck, both good and bad - it's when preparation meets opportunity. In this case, a prepared Malcolm Butler jumped the route run by the Seahawks' Ricardo Lockett and Russell Wilson provided his opportunity for success. That the moment of opportunity came in the aftermath of Jermaine Kearse's incredible bobble-catch two plays earlier (with Butler as the primary defender) to set Seattle up for a win of their own simply defies the laws of probability. Visions of the New York Giants' David Tyree and Mario Manningham immediately flashed into Patriot-consciousness.
This time, it was meant to be. Call it luck. Call it good fortune. Call it skill, stupidity, being in the right place at the right time or simply having mental toughness and ignoring the noise. It was all of these things, and maybe none of these things.
This time, being mentally tough - which these Patriots were - just wasn't enough. This time, destiny required a small sprinkling of foo-foo dust to finish the job. Just for good measure.
Nitpicking a Super Bowl win?
Of course. It's what we do in New England. As I'm fond of reminding those who question the sanity of such a decision...true Patriots once nitpicked over when the Colonists finally defeated the Red Coats in 1783. Should'a happened much earlier than that.
Getting defensive on adjustments - Give plenty of credit to Seattle receiver Chris Matthews. His previous play of note this season was recovering a botched on-side kick attempt against Green Bay to help put the Seahawks in this game. But Matthews' three first half catches (for 100 yards), after not having a single reception this season, and a big Ricardo Lockette catch came against Kyle Arrington. Seattle's goal was to go over the top, and they got outstanding play from unlikely sources. While Arrington's coverage wasn't poor, the big plays necessitated a change-up...which the Patriots did by eventually moving over a bigger Brandon Browner to match up with bigger receivers after another Matthews grab led to a Seattle field goal in the 3rd quarter. Man coverage in the secondary was near-perfect in the first half, but not perfect enough.
Squeezably soft first-half finish -** The five-play, 80 yard drive at the end of the 2nd quarter by the Seahawks took all of 29 seconds. There were 31 left on the clock when it started. To play as well as they did in the first 29 minutes and 29 seconds of the 1st half...and then to brain-cramp as badly as they did in the last half-minute...defies logic. And further description.
Line 'em up, knock 'em down - The offensive line was a WIP (Work In Progress) throughout the entire season. And with center Bryan Stork missing the AFC Championship win over the Colts, it's somewhat understandable if an assignment or two or three were missed, as continuity up front is a huge key to offensive success. Seattle's Michael Bennett was more than a pain during the game...he was a force, and a big reason for the lack of a consistent running game. A 3rd and 1 on the first play of the 4th quarter failed to gain a first down, applying more pressure to the eventual comeback attempt. Expect the offensive line to be a major focus of off-season attention.
Nitwit of the Week
Here is where the term "mental toughness" really comes into play. When the tide turned from what looked to be a fantastic finish for Seattle into a stunning stop for the Patriots, Seahawks' linebacker Bruce Irvin decided to take things a bit further.
Team photographer, Keith Nordstrom, offers his best photos from the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, February 1, 2015.
After getting into a shoving match with Rob Gronkowski and Ryan Wendell, Irvin proceeded to get himself tossed from the Super Bowl after throwing Michael Hoomanawanui to the ground. He later apologized to fans, saying he was reacting to teammate Michael Bennett being hit, but also added "if it happened again, I would go protect my teammate. That's just how it is."
So you're sorry, but you'd go and do the same thing over again? Didn't work out too well the first time, did it Bruce? The Patriots' attempt at taking a knee in a sportsmanlike fashion to end the game was met with shoving, pushing and pulling...which escalated into Irvin's ejection. Seems to me it was nothing more than a lack of mental toughness on one side of the field, as compared to the other.
Fate, Fortune and Pure Chance
The list of possible stars for SB XLIX is an endless one. Seattle was the defending champion, and they have a roster full of talented players who can keep them among the NFL's elite for the foreseeable future. While the Seahawk players were initially very vocal of the decision to throw the ball on the goal line at the game's end, and undoubtedly crushed by the result...it should be noted they also had their share of unlikely heroes play well.
Chris Matthews would have been a strong candidate for the Seahawks' MVP had the game not turned on the inexplicable pick. An undrafted rookie free agent burning the Patriots' secondary for four catches, 109 yards and a touchdown? What about the play of Bennett, the cat-quick defensive lineman who seemed to be a factor in every Seattle stop? Richard Sherman, who was targeted just once by TB12 and allowed a six-yard reception...did so with an elbow that apparently will need Tommy John surgery in the off-season.
Want more? Jeremy Lane, who began much of the pre-game hype by saying Rob Gronkowski "wasn't that good," intercepted Brady in the 1st quarter before breaking his arm in gruesome fashion at the end of the play. Doug Baldwin magnificently used the back judge as an obstacle to bump off coverage from Darrelle Revis and catch a touchdown pass from Russell Wilson that looked to give Seattle an insurmountable advantage in the 3rd quarter.
The finish was fantastic. It would have been fantastic either way, even if the Seahawks had scored at the end to win it. Maybe we'd be second-guessing the Patriots for not allowing the score earlier in order to get the ball back - or for not calling a time out with the ball at the one yard line? Fate and fortune are fickle cousins...as the Patriots have learned from their own past.
New England is 4-2 in Super Bowls. They're likely one play away from being 3-3. In the previous three wins, each was decided by a mere three points...so a case can be made for a play or two, either way, being the difference. They're also likely one play away in each of their two losses from being 6-0, with one team (in 2007) that could have been regarded as the best of all-time...if fate hadn't stepped into the picture.
Fate? As Anton Chekhov once wrote, "fate treats me mercilessly, like a storm treats a small boat." Ride it out, and eventually, it can turn. The Patriots have learned that, and perhaps the Seahawks will as well.
John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots' stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" during the season on Patriots.com Radio for a 14th year - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball for the past 26 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.
Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster