Patriots

Patriots

HOUSTON -- On the field, in the tunnel of NRG Stadium, in the large rooms set up with podiums for post-game interviews. It didn't matter where you asked Patriots players what the biggest play of Super Bowl LI was. They all answered the same way, from what I heard. 

It was Dont'a Hightower's strip sack. 

With 8:31 left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots trailing, 28-12, the defensive captain came screaming off the left edge and drilled Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as he cocked his arm back to throw. 

The football hit the turf, and defensive tackle Alan Branch fell on it, giving the Patriots possession and a short field with a chance to make it a one-score game. 

Momentum swung, and the Falcons were suddenly scrambling. 

"I thought Hightower's sack was a huge play for us," Bill Belichick said. "We really needed that even after our two turnovers offensively in the first half. It's hard to beat Atlanta, who is a very opportunistic and good turnover team. We turned the ball over . . . so to be able to get one back was big."

Atlanta was facing a third-and-one at its own 31-yard line. To that point in the game Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had rushed 16 times for a combined 103 yards, a 6.4 yards-per-carry-average. 

Coleman was injured on the previous play, but Freeman seemed like a more-than-viable option on third-and-short with a chance to burn some clock and at least injure the Patriots' comeback chances if not eliminate them. He'd gashed Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense for much of the night on crack toss runs. 

Instead, the Falcons opted to put Ryan in the shotgun. The Patriots brought five pass-rushers, and it appeared as though the Falcons were well-positioned to block them -- but Freeman looked inside at the snap instead of at Hightower, who was aligned almost directly across from him. 

Hightower buzzed in almost untouched because Freeman didn't whip his head around in time. Ryan was a sitting duck. 

"Earlier Freeman had me in protection and I was a little bit closer to the line of scrimmage so he kind of [saw] me," Hightower said. "I guess this time he didn't. I'm not sure. This time I was able to get by him, and by the time he realized I was there it was a little too late.

 

"I took advantage of the opportunity. That was really kind of the thing. We had to make a play, whether it's going out and being overly aggressive or taking advantage of those small opportunity windows and we definitely did that."

The Patriots needed more than a blown blocking assignment and a punishing hit from a 265-pound linebacker in order to shift the tenor of the game. They needed a little luck as well, and they got it when Alan Branch pounced on the football and it stayed put.

"Honestly, I fell on the ball weird so I was like directly on top of the ball," Branch said. "I didn't really have my hands wrapped around there so I was trying to UFC . . . top-heavy . . . like I was in the top position in the UFC, just try to stay heavy on the ball. 

"And Rob Ninkovich had a smart play. He started punching the ball to where it went into the bread basket and I was able to hold on to it."

Falcons center Alex Mack tried to rip it away, but he knew Branch's recovery was clean. 

"We knew from the start that turnovers were going to mean a lot in this game," Mack said. "To give them that field position and the ball and not be able to . . . It hurt a lot. It gave them a short field with a swing of momentum. Turnovers is really what this game came down to."

Tom Brady was sacked on the first Patriots play after the fumble recovery, but four plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone thanks to a six-yard pass to Danny Amendola. James White's direct-snap two-point conversion made it a one-score game, 28-20. 

The timeliness of Hightower's strip-sack, and the shot of energy it provided the Patriots on both sides of the football, made it perhaps the most important play in a game full of critical ones.

"I think the biggest play of the game was Hightower stripping the football," said Chris Long, who might've sacked Ryan on the play if Hightower hadn't. "Protection breakdown and we just stayed after him."