Patriots played like a team under divine protection

  • The New England Patriots celebrate after their overtime win in Super Bowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, in Houston. The Patriots mounted a 25-point comeback to defeat the Falcons, 34-28, in the first ever overtime Super Bowl game. AP

  • New England Patriots' Tom Brady hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. The New England Patriots won 34-28. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • New England Patriots’ James White celebrates after scoring the winning touchdown during overtime of Super Bowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, in Houston. BELOW: Tom Brady hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy following the Patriots 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/6/2017 12:47:23 AM

HOUSTON — On the second day of training camp, Bill Belichick rolled his eyes toward the Heavens and appealed to a higher power.

“Jesus Christ,” he said. And it was good.

Blessed or not, the 2016 Patriots played like a team under divine protection. Beset on all sides by the inequities of NFL discipline and the tyranny of Roger Goodell, New England got past Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension and then so much more. In strict defiance of every obstacle, including a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl 51, they secured a Lombardi Trophy for the fifth time in franchise history.

In a season of persistent setbacks and challenges, New England ran an impossible gauntlet to post 25 unanswered points in the final 23 minutes and 36 seconds of regulation, highlighted by a Julian Edelman catch that combined the unbelievable elements of similar receptions by David Tyree and Jermaine Kearse. They then added six more on a 2-yard touchdown run from James White to seal the win in the first sudden death overtime in Super Bowl history. For the last time in 2016, the Patriots had surmounted a formidable challenge.

This team broke camp with both Brady and defensive end Rob Ninkovich lost to four-game suspensions (Ninkovich for use of a banned substance). Brady’s backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, played five and a half extraordinary quarters before suffering a shoulder injury that sent him to the sideline as well.

Down to the only true quarterback on their roster, the Patriots responded in Week 3 with a 27-0 victory over the Houston Texans on a short week behind Jacoby Brissett, a rookie making his first career start.

Following a victory at Buffalo the day before Halloween, the Patriots sat at 7-1, winning each of the four games Brady had started. Their star quarterback had clearly elevated them to a place in the NFL’s elite as New England won those games by a combined score of 136-71.

All systems were go for the Pats to coast into their 14th Division title in 16 years. The next day, Belichick traded Jamie Collins to Cleveland. For the second time in less than a year, the Patriots had dealt a player widely considered to be their best defender, having moved Chandler Jones to Arizona before the draft. Prior to the Jones trade, Belichick had never traded a Pro Bowl player with time left on his rookie contract. He had now done it twice.

The short-term disruption seemed apparent as the Patriots came off their bye week and gave up a season-high 31 points in a loss to Seattle. Critics wondered if a leaky defense minus Collins would cost New England a shot at a deep playoff run. The Patriots, however, did not lose again and the defense came together, giving up fewer points than any team in the league this season. On Sunday, they allowed just 21 points against league MVP Matt Ryan and the NFL’s No. 1 offense.

In November, the Patriots suffered what seemed to be the worst possible loss short of an injury to Brady. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, the centerpiece of their offense, went to injured reserve for season-ending back surgery after Week 10. Due to an early season hamstring injury, Gronkowski played in just eight games for the Pats. Yet they had found new ways to score, and the offense held up in his absence, proving its potency with the final 31 points scored in the NFL this season.

In a year of persistent obstacles, the Patriots had plenty of opportunities to learn how to quit. Apparently, they never grasped the concept. Their resiliency proved an invaluable trait as they completed one of the most improbable and almost certainly the single greatest comeback in NFL history.

Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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