MINNEAPOLIS —After everything that had happened in this thousand-yard Super Bowl, the momentous events, the unfathomable pace at which the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots traded big plays, it all seemed like just a prelude. Somehow, the defining moment was still to come in the fourth quarter. It was the quarter that Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, has owned, the quarter in which he has kicked the other team to death. With 2:21 to go, the ball was in his hands — until it wasn’t.
Suddenly, it just wasn’t there.
The table was set. “Everybody knows how deadly Tom is if he has the ball in his hands,” Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount said. U.S. Bank Stadium seemed galactically electric with that knowledge, the glass walls amplifying the voices of over 67,000 fans, the mega-sound system drumming every noise right through your chest with waves of reverb. The crowds rose in sheer, steep walls from the field and writhed in the beams of light from cellphone cameras, all of them waiting to capture another deadly, game-killing drive from Brady in those last two minutes. All of them wondering whether they would witness athletic history, a sixth Super Bowl victory, which would have put Brady in the thinnest of atmospheres, given him more rings than two Mannings and a Roger Staubach combined.
On 54 occasions in his diamond-studded career Brady had come from behind, and eight of those games were in the postseason. His monster finishes were legend. Coming into Sunday night he had thrown for 15 second-half touchdowns in playoff or Super Bowl games, to just two interceptions.
“We get it, [and] we’re supposed to move it and score,” Brady said afterward.
He was poised to make everything that had come before irrelevant. The reams and reams of record-setting yardage on both sides, the high-jumping catches and trick plays and gasp-inducing miscues, all of the epic performances, not the least of which was Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who threw as if his arm was a homing device.
Jake Elliot’s field goal had given the Eagles a 32-26 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. So many teams have led the Patriots. So very, very few can hang on. You just knew Brady wasn’t going to take the deficit lying down, that there would be a withering counterattack led by the quarterback.
And there was. With 9:22 left, Brady found Rob Gronkowski with a lofted throw to the corner of the end zone that made the tight end shimmy with joy. It was Brady’s third straight scoring pass of the half, a lion-like performance that included 505 yards passing, and the extra point gave the Patriots the lead for the first time in the game at 33-32.
But the Eagles responded with that grinding, nothing-but-guts drive to surge ahead again, when Foles found Zach Ertz and the tight end dived desperately over the chalked line. It was 38-33, but the celebrations were tempered with the knowledge that the ball would be in Brady’s hands one more time.
“It was like a heart attack,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “It was bad for all of our health collectively.”
But here’s the thing: If Brady doesn’t have the ball, he can’t hurt you. He’s neutralized. There’s nothing he can do from the sideline but stare into space. And that’s what the Eagles did to him.
On just the second play, the pocket collapsed. Brady reared back to throw — and the ball wasn’t there.
It just disappeared.
His hand was empty.
Defensive end Brandon Graham had charged around the corner and hit Brady’s throwing arm from behind, stripping him. The ball bounced lazily around the turf, at the feet of Derek Barnett, who fell on it. There it was — the deciding play, the determining moment.
“I was just holding the ball trying to get it downfield,” Brady said. “. . . They made one good play at the right time.”
It wasn’t that Brady couldn’t lead the Patriots to a sixth Super Bowl title — and their third in four years — at the age of 40. It was that he never got the chance.
Brady knew it was the determining moment. He sat on the field for a long count, his knees up, his hands resting on them. He looked as if he was in a park, lying in the grass.
After all that had happened, “Someone needed to make a play,” Brady said. “And those guys made it.”
When this colossal event ended, when percussive sounds of victory ebbed and the confetti cleared, the numbers and the final score of 41-33 showed that the Eagles not only had beaten “a dynastic team,” as Long said, but they had done it in the most surprising of all ways, by outgunning Brady and then stifling him when it counted most.
The Eagles did what so many opponents hadn’t: They just plain took the ball, the game and the ring away from him.
“We never really got control. We never really played on our terms and just didn’t make enough plays when we needed to,” Brady said. The most painful part in the end, perhaps, wasn’t so much the losing. It was that he had been taken out of the action.
“If you’re not in the game, you don’t have a chance to win,” he said.