Even when they trailed by four scores, even when so many things all needed to go right for the Patriots, it seemed plausible to think Tom Brady would bring them back one more time in a Super Bowl.
And so he did, leading New England to the tying score just inside the final minute to force overtime and erase the big lead the Falcons got out to with a scorching first half.
That the Patriots scored on their first possession in overtime only felt like a last bit of paperwork before someone handed Brady a Lombardi Trophy for the fifth time in his career.
No other quarterback in NFL history has more than four.
Now Brady, named Most Valuable Player for Super Bowl LI, truly has no peer.
From his first Super Bowl win following the 2001 season, which he capped with a field goal drive, to the one that tied him with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw that required a memorable defensive stop to ratify the go ahead touchdown pass he threw with two minutes left, Brady has always seemed to deliver late when the pressure was highest.
As if there had been any doubt, Brady was even handed the trophy from Bradshaw, who happily declared the quarterback drafted in the sixth round from Michigan to be the greatest.
“We all brought each other back, Brady said. "I think this team resembled a lot of teams from the past."
One new twist this year was that Brady was suspended for four games to begin the season. It was for his role in a scheme to deflate game balls below the legal pressure in an AFC title game. But with a chip on his shoulder (and some added rest), the 39-year-old Brady only seemed to thrive.
The scandal was called Deflategate, and it never seemed to leave the headlines. The whole affair turned New England fans against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. But if Brady had any animosity toward the commissioner, though, he didn’t show it. Cameras showed the two shaking hands before the trophy was presented.
Patriots fans booed and jeered over Goodell’s short presentation speech. And owner Robert Kraft acknowledged the fans' ire, saying this win was the sweetest.
Brady didn’t want to get into it, saying only: “This is all positive man, it’s unbelievable.”
Perhaps especially hard to comprehend for the Falcons, who seemed on their way when they scored early in the third quarter to make it 28-3. They never scored again.
In overtime, they never even touched the ball.
James White wound up scoring the touchdowns that broke Atlanta’s heart.
The running back punched it in with 57 seconds left in regulation, then just barely got the ball over the line to win it.
"We knew we had a shot the whole game," White said. "It was an amazing comeback by our team. It's surreal right now. You couldn't write this script."
The Patriots turned the game around after Ryan fumbled on a blindside sack by Dont’a Hightower. Brady led the Patriots down the field for a score and they converted the 2-point conversion with six minutes to go to make it 28-20.
The Falcons nearly kicked a field goal to ice it, but a sack and a penalty pushed them back out of field goal range and they had to punt.
"There's nothing you can really say," Ryan said. "That's a tough loss, obviously very disappointing, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done."
After the Falcons got out to a 21-0 lead on Alford’s stunning 82-yard interception return for a touchdown, the Patriots got on the board with a late field goal before halftime. Then the Falcons took a 25-point lead on Ryan’s second TD pass of the game and a rout suddenly looked possible.
To everyone but the Patriots, maybe.
“Down 28-3 they never looked back. They just keep competing,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve got great players and they just keep competing for 60 minutes — or longer.”