By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
HOUSTON (CBS) — You have to begin with this understanding: Tom Brady had already done everything there ever was to do in the sport of football. He had won the championships, led the comebacks and set the records.
He was, already, the greatest of all time. And there was no way he could ever do anything that could catch anybody by surprise.
You see, no team had ever come back from a 21-0 deficit in the history of the Super Bowl. No team had come back from a 28-3 deficit. Hell, no team had ever come back from any lead larger than 10 points in the 50-year history of the Super Bowl.
And yet now, play-by-play, one-by-one, Brady and the Patriots fought back to pull off the greatest championship comeback in the history of professional sports.
Tom Brady entered Sunday as the greatest quarterback in the history of football. With an overtime win over the Falcons, he exits Sunday with that title strengthened.
Now, there should be no doubt.
Tom Brady is the greatest there ever was.
“They’re all sweet,” Brady said after winning his record fourth Super Bowl MVP Award. “They’re all different, and this was just an incredible team and I’m happy to be a part of it. It’s just a great group of coaches and teammates and we overcame a lot of different things and it’s all worth it.”
Brady completed 43 of his 62 passes for two touchdowns with a pick while throwing for a Super Bowl-record 466 yards. But while the stats are the stats, the story is much more. Again, you must understand: Nobody does this. Nobody leads that comeback, on that stage, again. Not like that.
Nobody except for Tom Brady.
“He was the same as he always is: cool, calm and collected,” said receiver Danny Amendola, who caught eight passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. “He’s the leader, the general, the best ever. And that is the end of the story.”
Brady has now won his fifth Super Bowl on Sunday night, putting him in a quarterbacking class of his own and passing his childhood idol, Joe Montana, in the process.
Already the owner of four Super Bowl titles, of three Super Bowl MVPs, of nearly every meaningful postseason passing record, Brady now has an unprecedented fifth title and fourth MVP Award to help settle any debate.
And if you ask any of his teammates, even down 28-3, there never was a doubt.
“I never doubt our team, man,” safety Devin McCourty said. “We just keep playing. … I’m proud to be on this team.”
Malcolm Mitchell, who became the first rookie to ever catch a pass from Brady in a Super Bowl, said the focus never shifted.
“One play at a time,” said Mitchell, who caught six passes for 70 yards. “That was the motto on the sideline. It’s one play at a time.”
Some of those players were more memorable than others — like, for instance, Julian Edelman’s catch off a deflected pass that was tipped upward and then bounced off the shin of a Falcons defensive back before Edelman somehow emerged from a pile to make a bobbling fingertip catch.
It was the Patriots’ answer to the David Tyree catch nine years ago.
“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.”
Edelman knows: “We made a decent play.”
Four plays later, after three completions for 40 yards, the Patriots were in the end zone. The score was improbably — impossibly — 28-26. It was a remarkable comeback, but still, it was not complete.
Needing to convert their second straight two-point conversion, Brady threw left to Amendola, who scrapped his way into the end zone.
The game was tied.
But, again, still, the job was not done. A 25-point comeback to force overtime is one thing. But it’s not much without a win.
And so, in the first overtime in Super Bowl history, here’s what Brady did:
Complete to James White, gain of six.
Complete to Amendola, gain of 14.
Complete to Chris Hogan, gain of 18.
Complete to White for a loss of three.
Complete to Edelman for 15.
Five-for-five, 56 yards, in field-goal range but wanting more, wanting the win. And that all came after Brady had taken five sacks, most of them heavy shots from a fierce Falcons front.
“Oh, man,” Trey Flowers said. “We knew … well, I think I had a feeling when Julian caught that ball, you know, that unbelievable catch, man. I just knew, if we go to overtime, we’re gonna get it. We’re going to win and be the champs. So once we got the ball [on the overtime coin flip] and they put the ball into Tom’s hands, it was game over.”
Brady threw to the end zone to Martellus Bennett. The pass fell to the turf, but so did a yellow penalty flag. Pass interference. First-and-goal from the 2-yard line. After an incompletion, Brady handed to White, who did the rest.
History was made.
Of course, the defense played as large a role as Brady’s offense in the comeback. Trey Flowers had 2.5 sacks. Dont’a Hightower forced a fumble. They forced Atlanta to punt after the Falcons started a drive at the New England 41-yard line and drove as far as the 32-yard line.
It was, in every sense, a total team victory. And it was the greatest football game ever played.
“We all brought each other back,” Brady said. “We never fell out of it.”
What’s most remarkable about what Brady’s done this season is that at age 39, he’s played arguably the best football of his career. Though Roger Goodell prevented him from playing the first four games of the season, Brady was utterly dominant from the moment he stepped on the field in early October. He set an NFL record for the best touchdown-to-interception ratio by throwing 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions while leading the team to an 11-1 record.
It was the single greatest season of quarterbacking by a man his age. And along the way, he set a new record, winning the most games by any quarterback in history. He’s currently at 208 victories, with the closest active quarterback being Drew Brees at 137.
There’s also the fact that he did it with the backdrop of DeflateGate. Being in the national crosshairs two years ago, a lesser man might have crumbled. And when Brady threw two interceptions in that game, the doubters were armed and ready to pounce. But Brady has made his name by thriving under pressure, and he went on to author arguably the greatest fourth-quarter performance in Super Bowl history, and he did it against a historically ferocious defense to boot.
In 2015, he once again performed under unprecedented conditions after having fought the league and the commissioner in federal court, he still went out and led the league with 36 touchdowns while finishing the season with a passer rating above 100 for just the fourth time in his career.
Then, after eventually dropping the fight with the league and accepting his suspension, he performed as masterfully as he ever has in his life.
He also had real life issues to deal with, as it came to light this week that his mother had been battling cancer for 18 months. She was unable to attend any games all year, but she was in attendance on Sunday.
In the postseason, despite an off night against the Texans in the divisional round, he opened by completing 63 percent of his passes for 671 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions in two Patriots victories, won by an average of 19 points apiece.
Then came Super Bowl Sunday, when the 27th-ranked scoring defense and the 28th-ranked passing defense waited for him. He struggled early. He threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
And then he made it all go away, yet again, by authoring a comeback that was unbelievable even by his own standard.
“There’s no doubt,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said when asked if Brady is the greatest to ever play. “You know, I hate to say it, but, there are people who have a little jealousy toward him. And I understand that. But now, after this performance tonight … and you know what? I spoke to him in the locker room before the game, and I said, we’ve got to win this one from your mom, because I know how important his mom is, and she’s been going through chemotherapy and radiation, and this is the first game she’s come to. She came here. And I just saw her, and it was really cool.”
Now, as Kraft stated, there is no doubt. Oh sure, you can have the fun barroom conversations of which quarterback you’d like to have in a given moment. Maybe it’s not Brady — maybe it’s still Montana, maybe it’s John Elway, or Troy Aikman, or heck, maybe it’s even Eli Manning. But that’s a subjective thing.
When it comes down to it, when it comes down to measurables and accomplishments, there’s nobody else who’s ever been on Tom Brady’s level. And nobody’s on any path to get anywhere close for the foreseeable future.
He’s erased all doubt, any question. And he discarded anybody who sought to discredit his accomplishments for one reason or another.
Tom Brady is the greatest there’s ever been, and perhaps there ever will be. With a fifth Super Bowl title, and a fourth Super Bowl MVP, nobody can ever say otherwise.