Two weeks ago tonight, Tom Brady’s 384 yards and three touchdowns guided the New England Patriots past the Pittsburgh Steelers in a decisive 36-17 victory, sending New England to its seventh Super Bowl since 2001. As the New England lead went from an early 3-0, to a healthy 17-9 margin to a 33-9 blowout by the end of the third quarter, the Gillette Stadium crowd transformed into a rip-roaring, rollicking picture of vengeance, gleefully belting out the words to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” before descending into an umpteenth spiteful chant of “Where is Roger?,” a dig at the man who dared to slight New England and will hear about it as long as he lives.
Every story about the Patriots of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick begins and ends with Deflategate: a textbook example of the Ideal Gas Law used against a football team for dubious reasons, resulting in a suspension leveled against a star quarterback, causing righteous outrage among an entire region of the country. Two summers ago, Deflategate captivated a nation split between hatred for a football team and the knowledge that, upon examining the evidence, the football team was railroaded by Roger Goodell. In New England, Goodell’s accusation that the Patriots of deflating footballs in a game they had won 45-7, based on shoddy and circumstantial evidence—the ball boy brought the bag of balls into the bathroom for 90 seconds and Tom Brady destroyed his phone!—sparked immediate outrage from owner Robert Kraft on down. When the initial judge ruled in favor of Brady, and the Patriots started 10-0 behind an MVP-caliber season from the quarterback, the entire region was vindicated. Then came the AFC title game, where Brady was made to look like a rag doll and the Patriots fell to the eventual-champion Broncos. Then came the ensuing summer, where NFL appealed the initial Deflategate ruling and won—not on the grounds that New England had deflated the footballs but on the grounds that it didn’t matter, that because of the CBA, Goodell could suspend players with or without evidence that they had done anything wrong. Instead of feeling vindicated, Patriots fans felt like Andy Dufresne. For the next season, they did the football version of funneling money into bank accounts under the name Randall Stephens while simultaneously using a rock hammer to chip away at the cement wall of a prison cell. Their Super Bowl LI victory—cementing Brady as the greatest quarterback of all-time, Belichick as the greatest coach and New England as the greatest dynasty—was the metaphorical crawl through 500 yards of shit, ending in freedom.
Their comeback, from 25 points down with 8:31 to go in the third quarter, was the greatest in Super Bowl history. Julian Edelman’s 23-yard catch with 2:28 to go in the fourth, initially off the hand of Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford, then hit back into the air by a diving Edelman and bouncing off the foot of Alford, suspending itself into the air for an agonizing split-second that will live forever before settling into the receiver’s hands, was the greatest in the history of the sport. All that happened in between—and all that happened after—will go down in history as well. The drive commandeered by Brady at 28-3 that brought back some of New England’s hope. The doinked extra point that took it all away again. The ensuing Atlanta 3 and out. The 25-yard catch and run by Martellus Bennett on third down to put New England in field goal range and the 33-yarder by Stephen Gostkowski that snaked through the right upright—when everyone in America turned to the person beside them, saying that, just maybe, the Patriots had it in them.
From then on, the Falcons were on death row, waiting for the executioner to come and come he did, in the form of a disastrous Matt Ryan fumble that accelerated the inevitable. Once New England capitalized on the turnover and scored, the Super Bowl became a game of chess that Dan Quinn couldn’t win. On their first 2-point conversion, the Patriots snapped the ball directly to James White—sugaring the fake by having Brady act like the snap was over his head. It was the same play they ran in Super Bowl XXXVIII—another 2-point conversion to put New England ahead of the Carolina Panthers 29-22, 13 years ago in the same stadium. The play was on tape, but not recently enough for Quinn and the Falcons to be ready for it and White coasted in to make it a one-score game. When they got the ball back, Quinn bungled the clock in a manner that would make Andy Reid smug, throwing the ball on 2nd and 11 with 3:56 to go in the game with Atlanta well within field goal range. Trey Flowers sacked Matt Ryan; ultimately forcing a punt when the MVP’s third down pass went for only nine yards. Then came a 91-yard drive to tie it, a drive where New England got to third down just once, where Edelman’s catch was entered into the scrapbook of history, where Tom Brady proved the last holdouts wrong, tying the game with a 2-point conversion pass to Danny Amendola.
The Falcons had a chance to score again in regulation, but the game was over. Even with the overtime coin toss still to come, along with another Brady drive that will go down in history, it was over.
New England’s 17-year dynasty is one of improbabilities. It started with a hit that injured their quarterback, whose backup ended up being the greatest ever. Its first playoff victory happened because of a little-known rule and an impossible kick through a foot of snow without which Tom Brady would have likely returned to the bench the following season. Cemented by an improbable interception in Arizona and an impossible catch in Houston, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady exited NRG Stadium the undisputed greatest player in football’s history, William Stephen Belichick as its greatest coach and the New England Patriots as its greatest dynasty.
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 Brady also offered the NFL printouts of any relevant text messages, which they refused and which they had anyway because the “co-conspirators” turned over their phones.