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Tom Brady Was Already the Greatest Quarterback of All Time

But a stunning, record-setting Super Bowl comeback against Atlanta left no room for doubt

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

What happened on Sunday night in Super Bowl LI will lead to many books, Mark Wahlberg’s next movie, some babies named Tom or Brady, and a few statues and new street names across New England. It will alter the fortunes of nearly everyone who stepped onto the field at NRG Stadium. It will change the definition of “craziest thing I’ve ever seen” for nearly everyone who watched. People will speak millions of words about what transpired between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons in Houston, but none will be more apt than the summation that Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, provided after the game: “There was a lot of shit that happened tonight.”

That statement not only perfectly describes the comeback that forced the first overtime in Super Bowl history and cemented the Patriots’ 34–28 win, it also aptly represents the coolness that begins with Brady and links everything New England has accomplished in the past 15 years. With the record-setting fifth Super Bowl championship of the Brady–Bill Belichick era on the line, safety Duron Harmon interrupted defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s sideline game planning to tell him not to bother drawing up a defensive plan for overtime; he’d seen the way Brady had operated in the fourth quarter and knew the QB would lead a touchdown drive to end the game on overtime’s first possession. Of course that’s exactly what Brady did, capping off a wild 25-point comeback, by far the biggest in Super Bowl history. Brady didn’t just cement his already strong claim to the title of greatest quarterback of all time; he clinched the title of biggest badass the sport has ever seen.

The greatest quarterback played the greatest Super Bowl game and engineered the greatest comeback and finish. The only surprise is that after a career full of astonishing feats, he was able to find a new way to shock us.

The most consistent NFL team of the past 15 years just won its fifth Super Bowl by being — wait for it — consistent. The Patriots stuck to the plan: on offense, a spread-out attack; on defense, bracket double-team coverage on Julio Jones that looked like no coverage at all. No matter how big Atlanta’s lead got, New England’s plan remained the same. That devotion to a consistent approach is the reason Belichick didn’t have to give a Varsity Blues–style halftime speech. “What did I tell the guys at halftime?” Belichick said after the game. “Same thing we told them in the first quarter and the second quarter. Just kept coaching and just kept trying to get better.” It’s the reason, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, that the Pats didn’t go hurry-up to start the second half. “In football, you have a choice to make,” McDaniels said. “You can decide to say that the game is out of reach and start scrambling. At halftime, we definitely weren’t going to do that.” It’s the reason that special teams captain Matthew Slater called heads in the coin toss to start overtime after doing just that for the past six seasons.

More often than not, when the masses have honored Belichick’s “Do Your Job” mantra, Brady has been able to take it from there. Despite struggling for large chunks of the first three quarters, and despite what the win probability metrics said at any given moment during that span, it was always reasonable to expect Brady to find a way to win. Yes, he threw a pick-six to Robert Alford in the second quarter. Yes, at one point he was 0-for-9 when throwing to Julian Edelman (though two of those plays were negated by defensive-holding penalties). But he never stopped being the greatest quarterback of all time. Even if his offense manages just three points in its first seven drives, he can find a way to score 31 in the final five drives. Even if he posts a 61 passer rating in the the first seven drives, he can still find a way to hit a 122 rating in the last five. Even if all hope seems lost, he can find a way to throw for a Super Bowl–record 466 yards to engineer a ludicrous comeback. Brady made weapons out of unusual pieces: James White totaled 110 yards receiving. Amendola, who has struggled with injuries and posted just 243 yards on the season, had a touchdown and caught the game-tying two-point conversion.

If anything had gone south in the fourth quarter, the talk radio airwaves would have filled with doubters championing the end of the Brady-and-Belichick era and wondering whether the Pats were too old and too slow to keep up with the young and speedy Falcons, who looked unstoppable in the first half. Brady’s heroics ended that debate before it really started. Instead of facing questions about tough roster choices, Patriots owner Robert Kraft got to hand out cigars while players popped champagne and tackle Marcus Cannon relentlessly polished the Lombardi Trophy with his shirt.

After the game, a reporter asked tackle Nate Solder if he believes in destiny. “We don’t believe in accidents,” Solder said. “Here we are.” There are no accidents in New England. Just the plan. And just Brady.

Every Patriots Super Bowl has turned on a play: Malcolm Butler’s interception against Seattle, David Tyree’s helmet catch for the Giants, Mario Manningham’s sideline grab for the Giants, Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning kicks against the Rams and Panthers, Rodney Harrison’s game-sealing pick against the Eagles. When the Falcons jumped to a 21–0 lead, it looked like this bout would violate the fundamental rule that every Patriots Super Bowl must finish in chaotic fashion.

But this game had a signature moment as well: The comeback will be remembered for the play that occurred with less than three minutes to go, with the Falcons still leading 28–20. Brady uncorked a 23-yard pass to Edelman, who was sandwiched among three defenders. The ball was tipped, bobbled, almost picked, bobbled a few more times, including by Edelman, and then somehow caught before touching the ground. “It was kind of a flip of the script there, you know what I mean,” said McDaniels, referencing the remarkable catches the New York Giants made to topple the Patriots in the 2007 and 2011 seasons. “It was one of the greatest catches I’ve ever seen,” Brady said. “I don’t know how the hell he caught it. I mean, I don’t think anybody [does]. I don’t think he does, but that’s the way it goes.”

Edelman’s fellow receiver Chris Hogan said the Falcons were playing fairly simple man-to-man coverage throughout the night, meaning New England’s receivers just had to find some separation. They got better at doing just that as the night wore on and Atlanta’s defenders tired, and by the fourth quarter, that dovetailed with Brady’s increasingly accurate throws. The most epic comeback in football history was on.

Patriots players universally acknowledge that Brady doesn’t falter in moments like this. The opponent can’t change him, and neither can the circumstance. No matter what, he sticks to the plan. After the game, reporters begged players for anecdotes about Brady’s demeanor during the comeback and during overtime. Amendola said Brady had the same energy as always. That may be bad for the narrative, but it was great for the Patriots.

Brady also stuck to the plan after the game, ignoring questions about whether the Deflategate saga made this sweeter and deflecting inquiries about how this Super Bowl win ranks among his greatest. His teammates were more willing to indulge assembled media: Patriots players from Hogan to Rob Gronkowski (whom I spotted in the hallway) were calling Brady the greatest quarterback of all time, unprompted.

They’re right. Brady is the first QB to win five Super Bowls, so logic dictates that it’s extremely unlikely another quarterback will best, or even match, that mark. And if someone does, it’s safe to assume he won’t manage it by erasing the biggest deficit in Super Bowl history. A lot of shit has happened in Brady’s incredible career, but he topped it all on Sunday night.