There were dozens of game-changing plays in Super Bowl LI. From Devonta Freeman slicing through the Patriots’ defense, to Julio Jones repeatedly contorting his body to make grabs most pros can’t even dream of, to Trey Flowers sacking Matt Ryan.
Still, there’s just one image that really sticks out in New England’s historic comeback: Julian Edelman’s circus catch.
It happened with just over two minutes to play and helped propel the Patriots to overtime, and eventually, a fifth title.
It’s a moment you can watch again and again and STILL not understand how Edelman came up with the ball. From the second it’s tipped, it appears destined to fall into the hands of one of the three Atlanta players surrounding it. Miraculously, Edelman beats all of them to it, holding on as he gets knocked around while trying to keep the ball off the turf.
Watching it live, you could only sum up the collective consciousness of the audience in two sentiments.
Pre-replay: “Ohhhh, it hit the ground, that's not a catch.”
Post-replay: “OHHHH THAT’S THE GREATEST CATCH IN THE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL!!!”
Because we live in a time where there’s a tendency to be a slave to the moment, and a constant need to debate, rank, and argue everything rather than enjoy these instances as they are, we’re forced to reckon with just how good of a play this was.
Almost immediately after Edelman’s grab was confirmed, it was rightfully likened to David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII against the Patriots.
Both will go down as two of the best Super Bowl plays of all time.
But since this is 2017, and because we are bound by both sports and internet law, we have to decide which play is greater. And in this Sophie’s Choice of amazingness, there is only one clear answer:
Eli Manning to Tyree is better.
When the Giants lined up for the Tyree play, they were facing third-and-5 with 1:16 left and trailed 14-10. Manning avoided getting sacked multiple times before scrambling back a few yards and barely getting a chance to set his feet.
He then did one of the most inadvisable things in football, let alone a two-minute drill, by throwing into triple coverage right over the middle of the field. His target was a five-year NFL vet who had made just seven catches all year to that point. And the guy covering him just happened to be Rodney Harrison — a two-time Super Bowl champion and three-time first team All-Pro.
In order to make the catch, Tyree clamped the ball down on his helmet while being pulled backwards to the ground.
The difficulty of the catch, to say nothing of Manning’s escape of multiple sacks, makes this a play unlike anything seen in any Super Bowl.
But there’s one other factor here that makes the importance of this play impossible to top: it helped end the Patriots’ undefeated season.
This play was the football equivalent of Luke Skywalker firing the shot to destroy the Death Star by using the Force. Which makes Edelman’s catch the watered-down, Episode VI destruction of the Death Star by similar, but less impressive, methods.
When they lined up for what would become the defining moment of Super Bowl LI, the Patriots were facing first-and-10, they still had 2:28 on the clock, and two timeouts.
And not to downplay the degree of toughness of Edelman’s catch, but there’s no way to compare the sticky surface on his gloves with the polished surface of a helmet.
But without that catch, the Patriots don’t win their fifth title, Brady doesn’t cement his status as the best quarterback of all time, and the whole region of New England doesn’t get their revenge on Roger Goodell for Deflategate.
This time, the Patriots were on the right side of an instant-classic catch, even if Edelman’s catch doesn’t make up for Tyree’s ruining a perfect season nine years earlier. But it was still a remarkable play that will forever live in Super Bowl lore.