HOUSTON -- In sports, everything always seems obvious in retrospect. We discuss great games for decades afterward, dissecting them bit by bit, running every big moment through our minds, locked into what we know happened, what we all saw go down.
For the rest of our lives, for as long as professional football exists, we will talk about what Tom Brady did to bring back the New England Patriots from a 28-3 second-half deficit to win Super Bowl LI, scoring 31 consecutive points and breaking just about every Super Bowl record that he didn't already hold. But we will retrofit the experience of watching him do it knowing that he actually did it. Every highlight we watch, we know the ending.
So it's important, before it evaporates forever, before we rationalize what happened, before it quickly cements itself as history, to remember, to write down as fast as we can, that there was no way this was going to happen.
How many times was this game obviously over? It was over when Robert Alford took a Brady pass back for a pick-six and made Brady look impossibly old and feeble in an "attempt" to tackle him. It was over when the Falcons' Tevin Coleman scored on a six-yard touchdown catch halfway through the third quarter to give Atlanta that 28-3 lead as an "ATL! ATL! ATL!" chant echoed through NRG Stadium.
It was over when the Falcons forced the Patriots to kick a field goal with just 10 minutes left in the game despite being down by 19 points.
It was over when, even after a brutal Matt Ryan hit and fumble with eight minutes left that allowed the Patriots to get within one score, Devonta Freeman revived a stunned Falcons team with a 39-yard catch-and-run from their own 10, putting the Falcons at midfield with an eight-point lead with five minutes left.
It was really over when Julio Jones made one of the most jaw-dropping catches you have ever seen -- or at least would ever see for the next 90 seconds of game time -- putting the Falcons in comfortable range for a field goal that would give them a two-score lead.
It was over here, absolutely, it was over here:
It was so over that the president, whose fandom of the Patriots turned the game into just more of our political bloodsport, left his viewing party early. It was so over that the political scientists, the ones you spent an evening screaming at a few months ago, popped back up again with their formulas, invented just to break your heart.
99.6% for ATL at one point, per ESPN. IDK much about these football models, but that's much crazier than Trump/Clinton pic.twitter.com/eOdAwwOPp8- Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) February 6, 2017
But there have been thousands upon thousands of times a team had 99.6 percent odds to win, and you never noticed or cared or even thought about it because that team won and it was obvious and unremarkable that they did. It is easy now to point at each of those moments and scoff at that fool who thought it was over, to mock our assumptions. But again: That's letting what happened influence what was happening. You're already letting yourself fade into the future. Never count out Tom Brady, you can say now, he's always going to find a way to win. But you weren't saying that when it was going on. No one was. Brady just looked old and Bill Belichick looked lost and the Patriots looked desperate and defeated, and Atlanta -- oh my god, poor, poor Atlanta -- was dancing and pinching itself because what was happening couldn't possibly be real.
This is the Atlanta thing, of course. Atlanta fans, who have gone through Jim Leyritz, who have gone through Game 6 with the Celtics, who have gone through the 2012 SEC Championship Game -- they have tasted this hemlock before. Atlanta fans are fatalistic, but this Georgia resident has found that they are not self-defeating sullen sorts like Boston fans used to be, back before manna began constantly landing on their head. The reason this was the most Atlanta way to lose is that every time Atlanta fans have their hearts broken, they are surprised: They really, truly believe this was the time it was going to work out. This is buoyant, even sort of inspiring. They not only keep putting their hand back on the stove, they don't doubt for a second that it's no longer scalding. They think this is the time it works out.
The difference this time -- this horrible, horrible time -- is that we were all right there with them. Forget the stove being hot. None of us even thought the stove was still there. I have seen many, many heartbreaking losses in my lifetime: the 2011 Rangers, the Scott Norwood miss, the Bartman game. This honestly might have been the worst. I don't know how they're going to go on.
But already we're starting to lose it. We're sketching the narrative of what happened -- Brady's insane comeback! Atlanta team chokes again! -- and forgetting what it felt like in the moment. It all felt done. I know you're not going to believe me, future humans of 2031, when you talk about Tom Brady and the Patriots and their most amazing Super Bowl win of all. You're going to think we all knew Brady was going to do it, because Brady always does it. But that is not what we thought. That is not what anybody thought. You have to believe me. I swear, it's true.
You've seen this a million times, future people.
You've seen it as often as I, sitting here typing just minutes after it happened, have seen the David Tyree catch from Super Bowl XLII, or have seen the Willie Mays catch, or have seen the video of the moon landing. It's old hat to you. It's inevitable to you. But man, trust me, in the moment it was impossible. The catch. The comeback. The championship. All of it. It was impossible. It was over. It was done.
So listen to me here, and listen to me good. This is going to happen again. There's going to be something that is going to blow your mind when it happens, that will shatter the plane of reality so suddenly and so completely that you won't be sure it it'll ever be put back together again. But it will. The shock will dissipate, and you'll reassemble the world with that impossibility as now a certainty. Then it will happen again. And you'll get back to reassembling.
Those moments, when everything we thought we understood, we thought what we knew for certain, is blasted apart … that's the reason we watch sports. It's disorienting and heartbreaking and exhilarating and infuriating and so gloriously human. It's the rush we're always chasing. We watch so that we can see the impossible can become inevitable.
Already, I find myself adjusting, slowly accepting that Tom Brady somehow brought back the Patriots from a 28-3 deficit to win his fifth Super Bowl -- that really did happen -- and by tomorrow morning, with some sleep, I will talk myself into thinking it was always meant to be this way. But it wasn't. It wasn't meant to be. It was just a physical thing that happened. Could have gone down a million different ways. It just went down like that. It happened. I was looking right at it.
And someday, I am sure, I will actually believe it.