HOUSTON -- As newly crowned NFL MVP Matt Ryan flipped a swing pass to Tevin Coleman, and the Atlanta Falcons running back effortlessly skipped into the right corner of the end zone with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, most of the 70,807 fans at NRG Stadium and tens of millions of television viewers worldwide did the unthinkable.
With the Falcons converting an extra point to take a 28-3 lead, and the 39-year-old Brady having thrown a horrific pick-six and looking besieged and scattered, it was time to start pondering an outcome that could well have signified the end of an era. To that point, Atlanta had outplayed and outcoached the Pats, and the Falcons looked to be faster, more potent and heading for an '80s-style Super Sunday blowout victory.
If you were one of those people who gave up on the most savage football player the sport has ever known and the remarkable organization for whom he is the standard-bearer, well, don't feel badly. At least one of the proud men on Brady's own sideline was right there with you, and he likely had a whole lot of company.
"I can't be the only one who had some doubts," Patriots defensive end Chris Long conceded in an ebullient locker room, long after he and his teammates had completed an astounding comeback and somehow secured a 34-28 overtime victory in the greatest Super Bowl ever played. "I'm not gonna lie: At some points, it was looking pretty grim. We played bad, and I thought, This hole might be too big. But it's the toughest football team of all time. It's gotta be. And this quarterback is the greatest of all time. And this was the greatest Super Bowl of all time. And I was there. I had a role."
If you didn't watch this game, and you suspect that Long, a ninth-year veteran who signed with New England as a free agent last March, might be guilty of having uttered some overly exuberant hyperbole -- well, I'm here to tell you that the man's conclusions seem pretty rational to me. Granted, I have some experience in the perceived-over-the-top decree department. While writing 12 consecutive Super Bowl game stories for Sports Illustrated (including the recently annotated Super Bowl XXXVIII story from Houston 13 years earlier), and another six for Yahoo! Sports before joining NFL.com, I became semi-notorious for declaring Super Bowls to be the best ever, most recently after the Patriots' stunning escape act against the Seattle Seahawks two years ago.
So yes, I'm aware that I'm living down to my own caricature -- but I don't care, because I'm still having trouble believing what we just witnessed on the biggest stage in American professional sports, and I've never seen anything like it on a Super Sunday.
As someone who grew up rooting for, and later covering, the incredible Joe Montana, I've always maintained that the sublime quarterback's penchant for summoning magic in the most desperate of moments was what set him apart in the greatest-of-all-time quarterbacking conversations.
Well, what I watched Brady do in this game, his seventh Super Bowl and fifth Lombardi-hoisting walk-off, was the very definition of magic.
This was Brady's masterpiece, and I'm not talking about the numbers, though 43 for 62 for 466 yards and two touchdowns is a gaudy statistical submission.
What I'm talking about is a HOW THE HELL DID HE WIN THIS GAME? flurry of near-perfection when anything short of that would have doomed his team to defeat.
As halftime performer Lady Gaga was completing a resoundingly resplendent set that featured an epic surrender to gravity, Brady was sitting in the Pats' locker room wondering how he could fight back from a 21-3 deficit that was eight points greater than any team trailing a Super Bowl had ever been able to overcome.
After the Falcons' lead grew to 25 at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter, legendary New England coach Bill Belichick began behaving in a manner that conceded the obvious: The Patriots needed every possible opportunity to try to do the near-impossible, and most of those opportunities had to be converted.
That meant everywhere was four-down territory. Sure enough, Brady, on fourth-and-3 from his own 46 with 6:04 left in the third quarter, was able to connect with slot receiver Danny Amendola for a 17-yard gain.
It meant that after Brady threw a touchdown pass to running back James White to complete that scoring drive, Stephen Gostkowski, who had just clanged his extra-point attempt off the right upright, would attempt a semi-surprise of an onside kick that he derailed by touching the ball before it traveled 10 yards.
"It was tough, but I know this: In the second half, it just kinda felt like it was going to the next possession," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels assured me during the jubilant postgame celebration on the confetti-drenched field. "We never felt, Oh s---, we're out of it. We had to make a LOT of critical, one-play conversions to have a chance, and we executed in those situations.
"Tommy's confidence inspires belief, so it didn't shock me. He's the best. I can't measure everybody going back years and years, but I know this: He didn't quit at all. And we don't quit. We don't quit!"
And the Falcons, against all odds, couldn't close. It was still 28-12 with 8:31 left in the game when linebacker Dont'a Hightower's strip-sack of Ryan in Atlanta territory gave Brady and the Pats proof of life. And even after New England cut the lead to 28-20, Ryan quickly drove the Falcons back into field-goal range, securing a first down at the Pats' 22 with 4:40 to go. On the verge of making it a two-possession game once again, Atlanta appeared to be in control.
And then, in a surreal sequence similar to the heartbreak Falcons coach Dan Quinn endured against the Pats two years earlier as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, it all unraveled. Atlanta offensive coordinator and soon-to-be-hired San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, after a brilliant afternoon of attacking Belichick's defense, got dubiously aggressive after running back Devonta Freeman was stuffed for a 1-yard loss on first down, leading to a sack of Ryan and a holding penalty that took his team right out of field-goal range.
"He tears people's hearts out," Long said. "Remember the scene in 'Indiana Jones' where the guy rips the other dude's heart out? That's what I think about when I see Tommy. He Indiana Joneses people."
Brady also got some help, reversing a trend in the process. Having suffered consecutive Super Bowl defeats in the wake of semi-miraculous catches by New York Giants wide receivers David Tyreeand Mario Manningham (and nearly losing a third after an equally unfathomable reception by Seattle's Jermaine Kearse two years ago), the quarterback was blessed by the brilliant hands of top receiver Julian Edelman on an epic 23-yard completion with a little more than two minutes to go in regulation.
Brady's throw over the middle was deflected by cornerback Robert Alford, whose 82-yard interception return for touchdown had given the Falcons a 21-0 lead late in the first half. As Edelman leaped into a mass of three Atlanta defenders, he somehow managed to cradle the ball just before it grazed the turf, using Alford's leg as a buffer.
Brady marveled to his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, as they sat at their lockers long after the game: "I saw Jules dive for that and there was no way... but it f------ didn't come out! How did he catch it? I don't even know."
The play, which survived the Falcons' final replay challenge, gave the Patriots a first down at the Falcons' 41, setting up White's 1-yard scoring run with a minute remaining in regulation, and Brady's game-tying two-point conversion throw to Amendola.
"Once we got there," McDaniels said, "there was no question we were gonna take it down and score a touchdown in overtime."
In Brady's case, there was a compelling reason. As CSN New England's Tom Curran reported last Tuesday, Brady's mother, Galynn, has been dealing with serious health issues for the past 18 months, which has obviously been a major source of stress for the Brady family. Galynn was able to attend Sunday's game, making her son's incredible performance that much sweeter.
"You don't give up when you have Tommy in your system," Patriots owner Robert Kraft told me as he celebrated with his players in the winning locker room. "He's the best -- and this was for his mother."
I've known Galynn Brady for a long time, and she's an unfailingly sweet, understated and understandably revered woman. And while I'm fairly sure that she and the other members of the Brady family haven't been very happy with me over the past two years, given some of the strong opinions I've voiced about the deflated-ball scandal that led to the four-game suspension served by the quarterback to start the 2016 season, some things are bigger than football, and like many others, I've been sincerely sending heartfelt thoughts Mrs. Brady's way.
And so, on the most Super Sunday of all, it felt necessary to make that clear. As one of the most amazing athletes I've ever had the pleasure of watching emerged fully dressed from his postgame shower about 90 minutes after completing the ultimate mic drop, I looked him in the eye and congratulated him, and he looked me in the eye and said thanks, and we had a brief conversation that reminded me why I've loved covering him for the past 16 years.
I told Brady that what he'd just done was one of the most unbelievable things I'd ever witnessed, and that I was happy for him -- and that I understand that some things are more important than football and am pulling for him and his loved ones as they confront the challenges that truly matter.
He could have rightfully blown me off, or given me a cursory nod, but instead, he thanked me and gave me a heartfelt handshake that let me know he really meant it. He then left me with three words that evoked memories of less-strained times and made me grateful that he'd gotten this shot at redemption -- and converted in a way that was truly magical.
"Take care, babe," Brady said, smiling like an exhausted warrior celebrating a bittersweet and taxing triumph.
I've covered so many of his great moments, including five Super Bowl victories. Both of us understood that this one had been the greatest of all -- end of story.