HOUSTON – In the end–and this very well might have been the end of a decorated career–Dwight Freeney was left shaking his head in utter, absolute disbelief.
“Mind-boggling,” he said. “Mind-boggling. We had our opportunities. We basically shut ’em out in the first half. If we make just one more play in the second half, it’s a different story.”
But the story Sunday evening at NRG Stadium was one for the ages.
In either the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history (Patriots version) or greatest choke-job ever (Falcons version), New England wore down Freeney and Atlanta in the fourth quarter, then stunned them 34-28 in the Super Bowl’s first overtime.
“It’s tough to put into words just how bad you feel after a game like this,” Freeney said. “I’ve been on both sides, so I know.”
During an 11-year career with the Indianapolis Colts, Freeney celebrated when they handled the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI and suffered when they were turned away by the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. The third time–Super Bowl LI–was anything but a charm. It was crushing.
Atlanta led 21-0 in the second quarter when Robert Alford returned a Tom Brady interception 82 yards for a touchdown and 21-3 at the half. The lead had increased to 28-3 with just over eight minutes to play in the third quarter and still was 28-9 entering the fourth quarter.
Then, it was all New England. It was Brady at his absolute best.
The Patriots and Brady would secure a fifth Lombardi Trophy. Brady won a record fourth MVP by scoring the final 31 points in arguably the greatest Super Bowl of them all. Their last five possessions: four touchdowns and one Stephen Gostkowski field goal. James White generated the game-winner, a 2-yard touchdown 3 minutes, 58 seconds into OT. Consider Brady¹s handiwork in the fourth quarter and overtime: 21-of-26, 246 yards and one touchdown.
Freeney had faced Brady in three previous playoff games. He knew the enormity of the challenge, no matter the size of the lead. “Tom’s a great, great legend,” he said. “To be able to lead that offense back like that . . . nobody on the offensive side or the defensive side thought that game was over when the game was whatever it was, 21-3 or whatever it was.”
At its peak, it was 28-3. “I told the guys it was going to be a four-quarter fight,” Freeney said, “and it turned out to be a five-quarter fight. No matter what they do, we have to try to respond. We did that. We just didn’t do it enough. We didn’t make that one last play.”
Brady’s late brilliance came at a price. While setting Super Bowl records with 466 yards, 43 completions and 62 attempts, he suffered five sacks and was hit more than a dozen times while throwing. Freeney got to him for a fourth-quarter sack, his 11th in the postseason, tied for fifth-most.
“Hats off to him,” Freeney said.
In the end, Atlanta’s defense wore down, and rightly so. The Patriots amassed staggering edges in total plays (93-46), first downs (37-17) and time of possession (40:31-23:27).
As Freeney walked away from the 231st game of his 15-year career, he was asked if it was his final one. He has contemplated retirement the last few years only to return.
“It’s tough, man,” he said. “I don’t know what the story will be for me after this. It’s great being in this moment. This moment is an amazing moment. Whatever happens after this happens. I don’t know if I’m going to return or not.”
Freeney will stick to his routine. “It takes me a couple of months to get whatever happens at the end of a season out of my system,” he said. “I’ll make that decision not based on emotion. At some point, I’ll just say, ‘Hey, how do you feel? Do you still love this game? Do you still want to go after it?'”
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.