HOUSTON -- The red and blue confetti was falling in yet another stadium, commemorating yet another Patriots Super Bowl title, as Tom Brady, the greatest player in NFL history, hunched over in euphoria, exhaustion, bewilderment. He was bent over all the way at the waist, his head seemingly resting on the turf at NRG Stadium, surrounded by cameras in a suffocating circle, as coach Bill Belichick fought through the maze of humanity to find him.
The greatest comeback in NFL history was complete, with Brady delivering the greatest performance in Super Bowl history to cement this Patriots dynasty with a fifth Super Bowl title, all of them coming since Brady became New England's starter in 2001. Belichick's face turned bright red with emotion as he bear-hugged his quarterback, with running back LeGarrette Blount turning first to his coach to tell him he was the greatest of all-time, and then turning to his quarterback and pronouncing the same thing. He's right on both counts.
It was an embrace as shocking as any in NFL history if you contemplate what the league thought of Belichick at the time Patriots owner Robert Kraft traded for him to be his head coach, and what the league thought of Brady as 198 other players were selected before him in the 2000 draft (including six on the Patriots alone). Yet it was an embrace as predictable as any in NFL history if you consider the unprecedented success these two have shared since an injury to Drew Bledsoe thrust Brady into the starting gig two games into the 2001 season.
Even Kraft -- the greatest beneficiary of this tandem -- looked shaken and distraught Sunday as his team limped through the third quarter, trailing hopelessly, settling for field goals on meandering drives, still behind by 19 points with 15 minutes to play. Then, at age 39, with a résumé I already considered unrivaled in NFL history, Brady conjured up the most audacious performance of his Hall of Fame career. He capped a comeback for the ages with a game-tying touchdown drive and two-point conversion with just under a minute to play, and then perfectly executed the opening drive in the first overtime in NFL history to capture a 34-28 victory, his record fifth Super Bowl title and his record fourth Super Bowl MVP.
It was made all the more delicious for him by the fact commissioner Roger Goodell, whose ridiculous "Deflategate" crusade robbed Brady of the first four games of this season via suspension, endured a torrent of boos when he had to hand the Lombardi Trophy to the quarterback and his owner and head coach.
"This is unequivocally, the sweetest," Kraft said while holding the trophy for the fifth time.
By the time Brady stepped on the stage, the roars picked up again, with the best quarterback to ever throw a football thanking the fans and his owner while Brady's kids picked through and played with the confetti at his feet.
"We all brought each other back," Brady said as the world watched in amazement, still shocked by what we had witnessed even if he had authored it. "We never felt out of it."
It was only fitting that this fifth victory on the biggest stage possible came in this manner. First Super Bowl overtime game. Biggest comeback -- after New England trailed by 25 points midway through the third quarter. Most completions in Super Bowl history (43). Most yards in Super Bowl history (466). And while the Pats defense deserves ample credit for bowing up in the second half and slowing a potent attack, and Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan gets an assist with a pass-happy approach that resulted in strip-sack fumbles, holding calls, stop-clocking sequences and saved the Pats some timeouts, this was all Brady. This was unbelievable, even for him.
Brady, whose mother Galynn was healthy enough to watch him play for the first time all season, went 43 for 62 for 466 yards with two touchdowns and one interception Sunday. But it's what he did once his team fell behind 28-3 and got the ball with 8:31 left in the third quarter that was truly stupendous. He would finish the game going 26 for 33 for 284 yards and two touchdowns -- a rating of 122.7 -- while leading an amazing five consecutive scoring drives. Those scoring drives included two converted two-point conversions and totaled 31 points in 26:29 of elapsed time. It made all of us forget about a first half in which the Pats held the ball for 20 minutes and ran 42 plays with basically nothing to show for it and lacked any ability to get the ball downfield. Even worse, Brady's 82-yard pick-six to Robert Alford left the Patriots down 21-0 late in the first half.
The Super Bowl was at its most bleak for Brady, down 28-3 in the third quarter, with Matt Ryan, the would-be Super Bowl MVP at the time and already the regular-season MVP, rolling. And even the Patriots' sputtering, 13-play touchdown drive seemed like a win of sorts for the Falcons, as it bled 6:25 off the clock and ended in a missed extra point (28-9). Then came a meandering, 12-play, five-minute drive that ended with a field goal, which at the time seemed like an absolute victory for Atlanta, with Brady ripping his helmet off his head in disgust before he reached the sideline after a third-down sack. On the ensuing drive the Falcons called a pass on third-and-1, Dont'a Hightower forced a Ryan fumble that was recovered at the Atlanta 25 and the tenor of this game had changed for good.
"We just wanted to get it to a one-score game and put some pressure on them," Patriots mastermind offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, "and make them have to make some plays when there was some pressure on them."
Brady needed only 2:28 to secure eight points, completing four consecutive passes for 30 yards and a touchdown to Danny Amendola. He began splaying the ball to all quadrants, finding single-man coverage on the outside. James White (who had three total touchdowns) converted the two-point conversion on a direct snap, and after Atlanta got knocked out of field-goal range on a sack and hold, there was simply no stopping Brady now. 28-20. One-score game. 3:30 to play.
"He was the same as he always is, calm and collected," Amendola said of Brady's composure in the second half. "He's the leader, the general, the best ever. And that is the end of the story."
Atlanta's defense was gassed (on the field for over 40 minutes in all as the Pats amassed 93 plays on offense), and Brady set in on them like a prize fighter who knew his overwhelmed opponent was staggered and dazed. He smelled blood and picked on the left side, then the right side, working the sidelines. He found Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell and Edelman and White (14 catches for 110 yards) on the drive, with Edelman's stunning, 23-yard catch over the middle -- somehow clutching the falling ball amid legs and arms, and then re-catching it before it hit the ground -- the most memorable of the bunch.
"One of the greatest catches I ever saw," Brady said. "I don't know how in the hell he caught it."
After White scored from 1 yard out, Amendola tied the game by catching a screen pass for another two-point conversion.
Once the Patriots won the overtime coin toss, all 70,000 people here knew it was over. It was just a matter of how long it would take Brady to lead the touchdown score (less than four minutes). He went 5 for 5 on that drive, hitting Amendola for 14, Hogan for 18, Edelman for 15, before a pass-interference call put the ball near the goal line and White ended it with a 2-yard run. Brady went 20 for 26 for 246 yards and a touchdown on his final four drives, including the fourth quarter and overtime.
"Two years ago it came down to [corner] Malcolm [Butler] making the play [to beat Seattle in the Super Bowl]," Brady said, "and this year we're down 25 points. I mean, it's hard to imagine us winning."
It's hard to imagine even Brady pulling this off. It only further cements his legacy.
He now has 15 career Super Bowl touchdowns (most ever) against only five interceptions, and 64 playoff passing TDs (18 more than anyone else) in 34 games (25-9 all-time). He has more Super Bowl completions (207) than anyone else has attempts. Peyton Manning is second to Brady with 155 Super Bowl attempts. This was the 12th 300-yard postseason passing game of Brady's career; the man will have a season's worth of playoff 300-yard games before he eventually hangs up the shoulder pads. Only four times has he failed to throw a touchdown in his 34 playoff contests, and two came in his first two postseason appearances.
"A lot of people want to hate on him," Edelman said, "but that's just because he's at the top, always."
If anything, he is only getting better. Age 40 will be no deterrent. Over the past three regular seasons, Brady has a passer rating of 103.1, surpassing everyone else in the NFL (Aaron Rodgers is second), with 97 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. It is the best three-year period of his career, and includes two Super Bowl MVPs. The Patriots have more cap space than they could use, have one of the cheapest payrolls in the league and the best quarterback of all time is still in his prime.
Belichick blanched when asked about the historical significance of these varied Super Bowl wins, and the quarterback who has been the lone on-field constant.
"Rank 'em wherever you want," he said in his predictably gruff style. "That's your job."
But his tone belied it all. There is nothing to consider any longer. Brady is the best ever. And so is his coach.