Dont'a Hightower, Trey Flowers save best for last, change course of Super Bowl LI

Mike Petraglia
February 06, 2017 - 3:40 am

Dont'a Hightower causes the fumble that changed the course of Super Bowl LI (Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

HOUSTON - Dont'a Hightower knew his dreams of another Super Bowl ring were dimming fast.

Julio Jones made one of the most incredible catches in Super Bowl history over the outstretched hands of Eric Rowe at the Patriots 22 with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots trailing, 28-20.

It couldn't possibly end like this, could it?

The Patriots had just seized momentum from the Falcons on Hightower's strip-sack of Matt Ryan at the Falcons 25, followed up with a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Danny Amendola and a 2-point conversion by James White to make it 28-20 with 5:56 left in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots-heavy crowd was in a frenzy and they sensed the comeback from down 28-3 was a formality. Then the Patriots' defense allowed a 39-yard pass to an uncovered Devonta Freeman to midfield. Two plays later Jones made his miracle catch.

Then it happened. The Falcons, instead of playing conservative and working toward a field goal that would've all but sealed New England's fate, dropped back to pass on second-and-11 from the Patriots 23 , much to the delight of Hightower.

"Yeah, I was glad he was," Hightower told me when he saw that Ryan and Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan were still going for the jugular through the air.

"This is a great offense now," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said when asked about the Falcons getting aggressive when all they needed was a field goal to ice the game. "They have a lot of weapons. They can get the ball to a lot of different people. For us, we were ready for them to come at us with everything they had. They had a lot of success early doing it. We're kind of along those lines thinking that's what they were going to do."

The Patriots knew full well they needed a stop.

"Oh yeah, I knew. That's my job to know down and situation," Hightower added.

And that's exactly what they got. With the clock ticking perilously under four minutes, Trey Flowers broke through for the fifth sack of the game, a monstrous 12-yard dumping of Ryan at the Patriots 35.

"It was a good play call," Flowers said. "I just went inside on the guard and just kept getting vertical. We knew he always likes to attack the spot and (Matt Ryan) likes to step up in the pocket, so anytime you get some inside penetration, he was right there to get the sack. I was just blessed I had the opportunity to make the play when the time came."

Suddenly the Patriots had a pulse and the Falcons were self-destructing. They panicked. On the next play, the Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews was called for a hold, wiping out a nine-yard gain.

"Huge, that pushes it back to a two-score game," Belichick said. "That was a huge defensive stop. We started off with the kickoff and got them down there at about the 10-yard line. They hit Freeman out in the flat to midfield and then Jones made a tremendous catch. Shades of some of the other ones we have seen before in previous games like this, then we got the sack. We got the holding penalty and we were able to push them back out of field goal range, so that was a huge defensive series for us."

The Falcons punted and pinned the Patriots back at their own 8. Just like Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIII, Tom Brady led the Patriots down the field for the game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion. But the miraculous 34-28 Patriots win in Super Bowl LI doesn't happen without the biggest clutch plays by a defense in the history of the title game.

Make no mistake, the Patriots were getting gashed at times Sunday night, gashed like no other team had gashed them this season. Devonta Freeman had 71 yards the first six times he carried the ball. Julio Jones had his 27-yarder. Tony Gabriel had a 35-yard catch and Freeman had a 39-yard catch in the fourth.

The Patriots allowed big plays all night but the difference was - in the end - that they made the bigger plays when it mattered.

There was none bigger than Hightower's strip-sack of Matt Ryan. That single play changed the course of the Super Bowl and sent the Patriots on their way to Super Bowl history.

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

"I don't know if it sparked it, if it did or if it didn't," Hightower said. "All I know is coming out of halftime, we just knew that we had to get a three-and-out or a turnover or something to get moving. We knew that it was really on us to kind of get things moving in our favor and that's kind of what happened. I love those boys out there and I go to battle with them each and every day. A lot of guys didn't give us credit but we weren't worried about that.  

"Honestly, not a complicated blitz, blitzing outside. I think they had actually run that play maybe once or twice the previous series. (Devonta) Freeman, I guess, Freeman didn't see me outside and I guess he went to chip or check and just lost sight of me. I'd seen Matt Ryan with the ball in his hands and I wanted it, so I hit him and took it from him."  

Patricia has said all season that he believed his defense would come up with the big play when they needed it most. Sunday night, they made Patricia look very wise.

"With this group of guys, I don't think you could be prouder of just a mentally tough unit," Patricia said. "I think just going into halftime and the attitude at halftime, they knew it was going to be two different games – it was going to be a first-half game and a second-half game. They just stayed the course. Just kind of one play at a time, grind it out. In the end, you've got to make some plays in order to kind of turn some things certain way - both sides of the ball.

"Just so proud of these guys for doing that. They stepped up, they understood the situations, they executed at a high level and just kind of stayed the course. Obviously, the defense, those guys played their hearts out, I love those guys. The offense, you've got 12 (QB Tom Brady), you've got that group over there. I mean we're always in it."  

It was Malcolm Butler at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Sunday night, it was Dont'a Hightower and Trey Flowers and group of defenders that would not be denied.  

"I mean, I love our defense. I love those guys. I love our team," Patricia said. "You don't understand, this is a family, offense, defense, special teams, the coaching staff – everybody that helps us. That out there, in both games that you're talking about, that is a full-team effort. That is 100 percent everybody just doing their jobs and going out and executing at a high level. That's the only way you can get that done, so give all the credit to the team."  

The irony for Patricia is that he didn't even get to enjoy the final game-winning drive of Super Bowl LI because he had to have his defense ready - just in case.  

"As far as us, we're kind of in (a) mode. I've got my head down. I'm going through the calls with those guys," Patricia said. "I was sitting with the DBs and making sure we had everything ready to go in case we had to go back out. I didn't until everything was all over. I didn't see any of the overtime."

A defense that was doubted as late as the middle of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI had the very last laugh Sunday night.

"A lot of people didn't believe in this defense," Hightower said. "We knew what we had. Obviously, they have a great offense, obviously came down to the last play. We were able to get corrected out on the sideline and that really helped us. The rest, we just knew we needed a big play. That happened and everything kind of swung with momentum."

"It's crazy," added Flowers. "I still can't believe it. It's going to be amazing waking up [Monday] because this is like a dream. It feels like a dream."