BOSTON (CBS) — Before the Patriots could even think about mounting a historic fourth quarter comeback in Super Bowl LI, they needed a momentum-shifting defensive play – preferably a turnover. It certainly didn’t feel like the kind of night where the Patriots defense would pull off the kind of play they needed, but Dont’a Hightower made the most of his opportunity when he closed in on Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter.
Hightower got a hand on the football before Ryan could move his arm forward, forcing a fumble that defensive tackle Alan Branch recovered to keep the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes alive with the score at 28-12. The Patriots made an incredible series of plays on offense to tie the game and force overtime, which led to the team’s unstoppable game-winning drive, but the team’s historic comeback would not have been possible without Hightower’s game-changing play.
In describing his forced fumble, Hightower kept it simple.
“I’d seen Matt Ryan with the ball in his hands and I wanted it, so I hit him and took it from him,” said Hightower.
The Patriots played mostly solid defense in the second half after being burned for 21 points and a handful of big plays down the field by the Falcons. The group forced a much-needed three-and-out from Atlanta to start the third quarter, which at the time was crucial to keeping the team’s hopes alive in the game. Hightower knew that even with Brady turning in an expectedly heroic performance in the second half, the defense still needed to do their part to make the comeback possible.
“All I know is coming out of halftime, we just knew that we had to get a three-and-out or a turnover or something to get moving,” said Hightower. “We knew that it was really on us to kind of get things moving in our favor and that’s kind of what happened. I love those boys out there and I go to battle with them each and every day.
“A lot of guys didn’t give us credit but we weren’t worried about that.”
Hightower added another Super Bowl-saving play to his resume for the Patriots. He tackled the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX on the play before Malcolm Butler’s famous interception. His forced fumble was the Falcons’ first turnover of the postseason – and for the Patriots, it could not have come at a better time.