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Jerry Sullivan: The greatest ever puts on a show to remember

HOUSTON – Roger Goodell simply had to bite down and bear it. The NFL commissioner was forced to present an improbable Lombardi Trophy to Robert Kraft and the Patriots with Tom Brady, the MVP, standing alongside in triumph.

Brady got his record fifth Super Bowl championship, the ultimate payback for being suspended for four games and having his legend tarnished by accusations of deflating footballs. But I'm guessing Goodell was OK with it.

In the end, Brady gave the NFL the best gift of all, the greatest, most thrilling game in Super Bowl history. With the Pats all but given up for dead late in the third quarter, Brady rallied them from 25 points down to a 34-28, overtime win over the Falcons, by far the largest deficit ever overcome in a Super Bowl game.

At the conclusion of an NFL season that suffered from declining ratings early in the year, this was a nice boost for Goodell's league. The NFL is all about business, and gripping Super Bowl show are very good for business.

Brady took care of business so quickly, and with such surgical efficiency, that you could barely believe what was unfolding before your eyes. Brady, who was dreadful for half the game, found his rhythm in the third quarter and put on the most relentless display of clutch playmaking I've seen in a Super Bowl.

Yes, even more remarkable than what he did two years earlier, when Brady rallied the Pats from 10 points down in the fourth quarter against a terrific Seattle defense to win his fourth Super Bowl championship. The margin wasn't as large, but considering the stakes and the drama, it was an even greater comeback than the Bills against the Oilers.

"There was a lot at stake tonight," Brady said. "We played our tails off all year. It's hard to win games in the NFL. To beat a team after being down, 28-3, took a lot of mental toughness for our team. We're all going to remember this for the rest of our lives."

As the clock wound down to two minutes in the third quarter, the Falcons had a 28-3 lead. Writers were burying the Patriots and wondering if this might finally signal the decline of the great New England dynasty. The young Falcons seemed faster and hungrier, as if they were the team with the long championship pedigree.

Brady had other ideas. He went 43-for-62 for 466 yards, all records for a Bowl. He had said before the game that it would come down to the end, like the Pats' other six Super Bowls. But at 28-3, his prediction seemed hollow. Then he went to work. Once he began finding receivers and attacking, it was the precocious Falcons defensive backs who were on their heels.

With 2:06, Brady hit James White with a 5-yard TD pass. He drove the Pats to a field goal with 9:44 to play, making it 28-12. Improbable, but a two-score game with two two-pointers. Then, after Matt Ryan fumbled on a dubious third-and-1 pass call, the Pats began to smell blood.

Brady hit four straight passes, finding Danny Amendola for a 6-yard TD. White rushed for the two-pont conversion on a direct snap and it was 28-20. The Pats got the ball back with 3:30 to go. He threw nine passes in a row, setting up a White TD run to cut the lead to 28-26. Brady calmly hit Amendola for another two-pointer to tie it.

The Falcons were reeling defensively at that point, trying to hold back the force of history and the greatest quarterback of all time (anyone still up for a debate at this point?) at the top of his game. Brady drove his team 75 yards to the winning score in overtime, completing five straight passes at the start of the drive.

"I wasn't thinking much," Brady said of the huge deficit. "I was thinking, 'We've just got to score.' We scored and it was nine. There was a lot of crap that happened tonight. I got hit pretty hard. Then it was then 28-20, then 28-28.

"Another game coming down to the end, how about that?" he said with a smile.

It was hard to imagine it coming down to the end when the Falcons were dominating them early. Brady was awful and out of rhythm. His receivers were dropping balls. Meanwhile, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan, the presumptive league MVP, was making all the big throws and carried a perfect rating into the third quarter.

Never mind 25 points. The Pats had never faced a 14-point deficit in a Super Bowl. No team had ever come back from 14 points to win the Bowl. This was the Patriots, and yet you didn't get any sense that they were capable of  coming back.

"It was everything we didn't want to do in the first half," Brady said, "and great in the second. It was a hell of a football game. They're all special. Tonight, down 25, it was hard to imagine us winning. That's why we play to the end. It's a 60-minute game. At half, we weren't down at all. We knew we could come back."

Until it happened, it was shaping up as a great night for Patriots haters. I could imagine Bills fans watching them melt down for three quarters and wondering if the Pats were finally becoming vulnerable after 16 years, and if Brady, their long-time nemesis, might be about to hit the wall. Wrong.

"He's an assassin," said defensive lineman Chris Long. "He rips people's hearts out."

So how much longer can Brady go? At this point, it's foolish to assume that he's near the finish line of his great career. In 2014, he was asked what it would mean to win another Super Bowl at this stage of his career.

Brady rose up in mock indignation at the question and asked, “This stage? What does that mean? What does that mean? What stage is that?"

The man wasn't kidding. Why was age 37 such a significant milepost, when he was playing as well as ever. Now, at 39, he is redefining what it means to play the game's most important position at an advanced age.

Two years ago, after Brady led what was then the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in Super Bowl history against Seattle, I said the good news for Buffalo fans was that the Bills had hired Rex Ryan, who knew better than anyone how to slow Brady down.

Ryan is gone after two years, perhaps finished as a head coach in the NFL, while Brady soldiers on. The bad news for Bills fans is that 17 years into the drought, their chief nemesis will be determined to get back to this point again.

Brady will turn 40 on Aug. 3. The stage will be set for him to pursue a sixth Super Bowl win, an eighth Super Bowl appearance, a ninth straight AFC East title, a staggering 12th conference championship game in 17 seasons. Brady hasn't missed a game due to injury since 2008. How much longer can he go?

“I think as long as I’m willing to make the commitment to taking good care of myself," he said. "I got a good routine. It has gotten better as the years have gone on. It’s nice to feel better as the season goes.

"To be an older player and have the mental experience and then to also feel great physically, I think it’s a great benefit for me. Hopefully I can keep going. I don’t see any end in sight.”

It showed.

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