Before Tom Brady uncorked his jumping, twirling, hurricane of celebration three years ago, the Patriots’ quarterback was a picture of dejection on the sideline.
Brady had completed 37 passes and thrown four touchdowns against Seattle during Super Bowl XLIX back in Phoenix on Feb. 1, 2015. He had brought New England back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter against Seattle’s vaunted defense, giving the Patriots a 28-24 lead in the closing minutes. But as Brady returned to the bench and watched the Seahawks march on their final drive into a game-winning position at the 1-yard line, it appeared the reality of a third heartbreaking loss in as many consecutive trips to the Super Bowl was beginning to set in for New England’s quarterback.
Everyone, of course, knows what happened next. Instead of handing the ball to cannonball-disguised-as-running back Marshawn Lynch near the goal line, the Seahawks put the ball in the hands of quarterback Russell Wilson, whose would-be touchdown pass was intercepted by Malcolm Butler on the goal line. The play secured Brady’s fourth Super Bowl title, and he added his fifth a year ago with another fourth-quarter comeback, this time against the Falcons.
The swing of emotion that night in the desert represented an underrated truth about the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearances, one overshadowed by their stunning consistency. In the unprecedented run of success spearheaded by Brady and coach Bill Belichick, New England has done more than collect a wheelbarrow full of Lombardi Trophies. They have infused a drama that had largely been missing from the biggest spectacle in American sports.
Of the 13 Super Bowls in NFL history decided by four points or less, the Patriots have played in six. The average margin of victory across 51 of the NFL’s championship games entering Super Bowl XLII in Minneapolis on Sunday is 14.1 points. The average margin of victory in the seven Super Bowl games the Patriots have played in behind Brady and Belichick: 3.3 points.
For much of the NFL’s Super Bowl history, the long build-up to the big game — and the grand spectacle surrounding it — often failed to match up with the on-field product. Just ask the Broncos, who have been on the wrong end of three of the five biggest blowouts in Super Bowl history. Before the Patriots reached Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, the smallest average margin of defeat across any decade of Super Bowl competition was 11 points in the 1970s. That margin peaked at an average of 22 points in the 1980s. Even in the 1990s, as parity in the league began to increase, the margin was 14 points per game.
The commercials became more entertaining than the game.
But with his first game-winning drive in the fourth quarter against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Brady and the Patriots began to write a new chapter in Super Bowl history, one defined by edge-of-your seat excitement. And the drama came in all fashions. In victories over the St. Louis Rams (2002) and Carolina Panthers (2004), New England blew sizable fourth-quarter leads, only to have Brady lead the Patriots into position for Adam Vinatieri to kick game-winning field goals. In 2005, it was an interception by Rodney Harrison that thwarted a would-be game-winning drive by the Eagles.
Even when New England produced one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, authoring an undefeated regular season in 2007 and marching into a Super Bowl matchup with the heavy-underdog New York Giants on Feb. 3, 2008, the title game brought suspense. Brady was thwarted by the late-game heroics of Eli Manning in a 17-14 Giants victory, and New York’s quarterback would repeat the feat four years later when he guided the Giants to another narrow upset of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
The drama only ramped up in the Patriots’ latest Super Bowl runs. Two years after Butler’s game-saving play against the Seahawks, the Patriots were staring at the prospect of being blown out in Super Bowl XLI against the Falcons. But trailing 28-3 and down by 19 points in the fourth quarter a year ago, Brady turned on the magic. New England, aided by curious Atlanta play-calling, overcame the massive deficit and won the game 34-28 in overtime, representing the largest margin of victory in any of their title-game trips.
One thing is clear as the Patriots prepare to face the Eagles on Sunday. You’ll want to save some refreshments for the fourth quarter.