-- HOUSTON -- Julian Edelman's eyes never left the ball. This is crucial, because if they had, the whole thing could have turned out differently. An inch -- maybe less -- in any direction, and that football hits the ground, and then who knows? At a point when the New England Patriots still needed a half-dozen more miracles to pull off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, there was no inch they could afford to surrender.
"It's one of the greatest catches I've ever seen," Tom Brady would say an hour or so later, after the Patriots defeated the Falcons 34-28 in overtime Sunday to win Super Bowl LI. "I don't know how he caught it. I don't think he does either."
He didn't seem to. But if he had an explanation, it was rooted in the concept of determination. The avatar of the comeback was Edelman's lunging catch of a fourth-quarter Brady throw that was tipped in the air by Atlanta's Robert Alford and looked a lot more like an interception than anything else for most of its life. Down 28-3 in the third quarter, down 19 points in the fourth, the Patriots had to outlast their opponent. They had to strain harder than the Falcons, reach a little bit farther, make sure they were stronger and more determined when it mattered most.
"We've got these stupid hills in Foxborough that we have to run, basically until we left," Edelman said. "And we all bitch and complain about it, but we do it. We put in the conditioning, we put in the work, and we knew it could wear on them if we kept at it."
They kept at it, all right. The Patriots talk about having faced and overcome adversity in the past, but this was a sheer wall of it that looked impossible to scale.
"Down 25 points, it's tough to imagine us winning," Brady said.
But they just kept running that hill, no matter how bleak it looked. They scored their first touchdown and missed the doggone extra point, leaving them down 19 with a quarter to play.
"Added a little extra intrigue to the way the scoring had to go," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
Regardless, the mission was to keep scoring. And they did. A field goal, a Falcons fumble, a touchdown, a two-point conversion and now the deficit was eight, which is doable to come back from. The greatest quarterback of this or any era piloted his offense toward midfield, and with 2:28 left on the clock, he dropped back from his own 36-yard line and found his favorite receiver, the diminutive bearded Edelman, almost open behind Alford and in front of two safeties.
"I saw the ball, ran to his hip, and I knew it I could tip it in the air, even if I couldn't get it, one of my brothers would," Alford said.
So he leaped, and he did get his hand on the ball, which then hung in the air in one of those slow-motion sequences that seem to change games and careers and legacies. Alford fell to the ground, but his momentum carried him beyond where the ball was now falling in a straight line. Edelman, behind him, kept his eyes on the ball and lunged, as did Falcons safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Edelman's right foot hit the ground, then his left, and he sprinted to the ball while still in the air. So he did get there first, but not by much.
"The ball popped up in the air, and all three of us went for the ball, but we all went low," Allen said. "And because of that, it landed on our arms and our legs and started doing a lot of things."
The first thing the ball hit as it fell was the inside of Alford's right knee as he was sliding away from it. Alford didn't feel that, but he saw the replay moments later on the big screen and shook his head.
"It was just hanging up on my leg, and I was like, 'Aw, I wish I could have just moved my foot,'" Alford said.
The next thing the ball hit was Edelman's red-gloved right hand, then the similarly clad left, as he stretched his 5-foot-10-inch frame as far as he could to try to grab the ball before it hit the ground.
He wasn't home yet. The tangle of four bodies produced calamity, and as they all rolled around together, Alford's right foot descended and hit the ball again, jarring it loose from Edelman's grasp. And then ... the ball levitated. Froze right there in midair as Edelman's hands separated and then clasped it again.
The listed combined weight of the four players trying to get that ball is 783 pounds, and all of it seemed to press for a moment on the ball, threatening to pop it loose. But Edelman held it. And as the officials signaled it a catch and Falcons coach Dan Quinn reached for his red challenge flag, Edelman ran toward his sideline hollering, "I got it! I got it!"
"And I'm like, 'You didn't catch that,'" Allen said. "But when you end up looking at the replay, he made a pretty great play."
"I knew I had a good grip on it," Edelman said. "I didn't know if a piece of the ball was touching, and I don't know what the dang rule is about a catch. But I was pretty sure I caught it."
A replay review did two things -- confirmed the catch and cost the Falcons their final timeout. More still had to happen, of course. A touchdown, another two-point conversion. An overtime coin toss. Another Brady touchdown drive. But that moment, in which the football turned pinball and Edelman saved it just in time, was the one in which it felt like the Patriots couldn't be stopped.
"We've been on the other end of a few of those," Brady said, and, of course, he's right.
David Tyree. Mario Manningham. Jerome Kearse. Julio Jones just a few minutes prior. The gravity-defying, drive-sustaining miracle Super Bowl catch doesn't happen for the Patriots. It happens to the Patriots.
"Yeah, it was kind of a flip of the script there," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "I think in some of these types of games, you need a play or two like that to go your way. When it went up in the air, all I could do was hold my breath, thinking it might be picked off."
It was not. By the slimmest of imaginable margins, it was instead a 23-yard Edelman catch. The Patriots were at the point where they couldn't afford to take their eye off the ball for even a second. Edelman didn't. So a short time later, the ball he had his hands on was a shiny silver one that was part of a trophy. And the only people fighting him for that one were his giddy teammates, once again champions.