HOUSTON – And so it came down to this.
The moment that Tom Brady and Patriots fans everywhere had dreamt about the past two seasons, since New England's last triumph in the Super Bowl – a chance to do so again. Yes, Super Bowl XLIX was special, having happened 10 years and Brady and head coach Bill Belichick's last title win. A victory in Super Bowl LI, though, would be even more meaningful, for so many reasons, both on and off the field.
History was at stake for the Patriots, the only team ever to appear in nine Super Bowls. A victory would be the team's fifth, equaling Dallas and San Francisco and trailing only Pittsburgh (six). Five titles, all under head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady, would put them atop their respective categories.
Vindication was also New England's for the taking if they could beat Atlanta. The past two years of angst with the NFL's highest officials would be all worth it if the Patriots could raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy one more time.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan named NFL MVP a night earlier? Fine with Brady, so long as TB12 could take home the sterling silver hardware given to Super Bowl champs.
Who could ever have imagined it would unfold the way it did.
Both teams are defined by their high-octane offenses, but in the first quarter, it was their less-heralded defenses that rose to the challenge. Atlanta and New England played to a scoreless draw after 15 minutes, thanks to big plays in crucial situations by both teams' Ds.
In the second quarter, the Falcons' young, inexperienced, but speedy defenders then managed to make RB LeGarrette Blount do something he hadn't since the season opener at Arizona – lose a fumble. Ripped from his hands by rookie LB Deion Jones, the turnover led directly to Atlanta's first points of the game – an improvised touchdown run by RB Devonta Freeman, whose speed and quickness gave the Patriots trouble throughout the first half.
Atlanta found themselves in familiar position – up multiple scores on an opponent.
Just when their youthful exuberance seemed to be getting the better of them (committing several penalties in the secondary), the Falcon's picked off Brady. CB Robert Alford returned the INT 82 yards unmolested for the second-longest such score in Super Bowl history.
The New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium on Sunday, February 5, 2017.
Confidently talking all week, Atlanta was playing even more so as owners of a 21-3 halftime lead.
The second half saw little improvement by the Patriots at first. But that was only to set up the most improbable, remarkable comeback in Super Bowl history.
"God is great," special teams co-captain Matthew Slater declared. "This is humbling, really humbling. We knew it would be tough, but we just kept believing. We just kept believing."
"Unbelievable," WR Julian Edelman said afterward. "It's the microcosm of our life, our season. Mental toughness, believe, do your job, work hard, and we'd be champions. We broke the cardinal sin, turned the ball over, but we never quit. We never quit."
Leading 28-3, Atlanta appeared to prove just too fast and too determined. Youth doesn't always trump experience, but it certainly did in this case... Or so everyone thought.
Everyone except the Patriots, who somehow rejuvenated when all hope seemed lost.
While the Falcons played brash and buoyant most of the night, and the Patriots seemed sluggish and senescent for most of the contest, Atlanta – despite its early vigor – couldn't outlast the far more seasoned Patriots, led by their ageless wonder of a leader, Brady.
"We knew we had to come out in the second half and play no matter what," explained WR Danny Amendola, who made numerous clutch catches. "They were coming at us with a lot of things. We just wanted to be resilient, mentally tough, and we got it. We never felt we were out of the game."
There were so many big plays on both sides of the ball. LB Dont'a Hightower's third-down strip-sack of Ryan will be remembered as the biggest on defense.
"Man, I'm just doing what my teammates expect me to do," Hightower stated.
Meanwhile, Edelman's miracle grab off a deflected pass – well, let's just say it might make Patriots fans forever forget the name David Tyree.
"That was one of the greatest catches I've ever seen," crowed Brady. "I don't know how he caught it."
Once New England cut Atlanta's lead to 28-20, you could sense that the game was destined for overtime. And when New England won the overtime coin toss, you knew – you just knew! – that Brady would drive his team to a title-winning touchdown.
Fans got what they wanted, and then some. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared on-stage with team owner Robert Kraft, the New England faithful drowned out Goodell's words by showering him with boos as the celebratory confetti continued to fall.
It was exactly the kind of story-book, Hollywood, dream-come-true scenario that leaves you absolutely speechless.
"I ain't got no words, man," Hightower conceded.
"It's an amazing feeling," offered RB James White, who carried the game-winning touchdown. "We have a great group of guys. I wouldn't want to have it any other way with these guys."
"We all brought each other back," Brady declared afterward. "We never felt out of it. It was a tough battle… Everyone rose to the occasion in the second half and overtime.
"This is unbelievable," he admitted, before adding, trophy aloft, "We're bringing this sucker home!"
"These guys played like champions when it counted the most," Belichick told reporters afterward. "They deserved to be champions. They earned it tonight."
When Kraft addressed the crowd, his comments encapsulated the evening perfectly.
"Two years ago," he began, "we won our fourth Super Bowl… I told our fans that was the sweetest one of all. But a lot has transpired during the last two years. I don't think that needs any explanation.
"But I want to say to our fans, our brilliant coaching staff, our amazing players… this is unequivocally the sweetest."
New England entered the 2016 season with a singular mission. It began in Week 1, with a win on the road over the Arizona Cardinals. The Patriots bookended the campaign by defeating another bird-themed opponent wearing red jerseys. How appropriate that it should conclude in Houston, the city that's home to NASA's Mission Control.
Brady and the Patriots were on a mission, in complete control when it mattered most.
And in so doing, all football debates ended Sunday night.
Best quarterback of all time: Tom Brady.
Best coach of all time: Bill Belichick.
Best Super Bowl of all time: LI.
"He's the leader," Amendola said of Brady, "the general, the best ever, and that is the end of the story."