HOUSTON — It’s OK. You can admit it.

There was no way the New England Patriots were going to win Super Bowl LI on Sunday night.

Not when they were down by 25 points – 25 points! – in the third quarter and showing little evidence of being able to stop the Atlanta Falcons.

No team had ever come back to win a Super Bowl from a deficit greater than 10 points. Who believed they could come back?

The Patriots.

Yes, athletes always say you play to the final whistle, but when the Patriots say that, it doesn’t sound as much like a cliche as it does a mantra. So it was in the locker room at halftime, with Atlanta leading New England, 21-3, that the Patriots began to regroup.

Safety Duron Harmon, riding a stationary bike to keep his body loose during the extra-long halftime, let everybody know that “the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history” was about to happen. And it did.

The Patriots scored 31 consecutive points to stun the Falcons, 34-28, in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. And they never doubted it.

“I’m sure a lot of TV sets turned off or turned to something else,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We just kept fighting.”

Head coach Bill Belichick said Monday, “There was never any doubt in anyone’s eye.

“We didn’t have control of the score, obviously, but we felt that we moved the ball, we made some stops on defense, we made some plays on defense. It’s 21-3 at the half. But if we hadn’t given up that third-and-10, if we hadn’t given up an interception for a touchdown, it’s a 10-3 game and it looks a lot different.

“But we did, and Atlanta made those great plays. So we had to find ways to overcome that. But we didn’t feel like we weren’t competitive in the game, we just weren’t competitive in the score.”

So the Patriots looked at what Atlanta was doing – on offense, the Falcons were running to the outside more than expected; on defense, they were playing more man-to-man coverage and dropping a player into the middle – and made adjustments.

And while Atlanta still led 28-9 after three quarters, Belichick still saw good things happening.

“We thought that there were signs that we were gaining control of the game,” he said. “We still weren’t gaining control of the score.”

Then the Patriots scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, tying the score with 57 seconds remaining.

How did they do it? The stats hold a key.

New England ran 93 offensive plays to Atlanta’s 46. (During the season, the Patriots averaged 67.7 plays per game; Atlanta averaged 62.)

The Patriots held the ball for 40 minutes, 31 seconds. The Falcons, despite averaging 7.5 yards per play Sunday, had the ball for only 23:27.

Atlanta’s defensive players insisted they didn’t get worn down, but their head coach, Dan Quinn, thought otherwise. “I think for sure we ran out of gas some,” he said Sunday night.

And, perhaps because of fatigue, Belichick noticed the Falcons playing more zone defense in the fourth quarter. That opened up the crossing routes for James White, who set a Super Bowl record with 14 catches for 110 yards, and Danny Amendola, who caught eight for 78.

Still, the Patriots needed to start making plays. And they did, in every phase of the game.

They had got a 33-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to cut it to 28-12 with 9:48 left to play. On Atlanta’s next series, Dont’a Hightower blitzed from the left side of the defense, blowing past running back Devonta Freeman, and not only sacked Matt Ryan but forced a fumble that was recovered by New England’s Alan Branch at Atlanta’s 25.

Even at that point, victory seemed unlikely for New England. According to a win probability chart by ESPN, the Falcons still had a 98.2 percent chance of victory. But the strip sack gave New England life.

“I think we needed a play like that somewhere along the line in this game and that was the time we got it and the time we needed it,” said Belichick. “I’m not sure we could have won without that play last night. You could probably say that about 50 plays last night but that’s got to be there at the top of the list.”

Five plays later, Tom Brady threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Amendola, and then White took a direct snap for a two-point conversion rush to cut Atlanta’s lead to 28-20 with 5:06 left.

Then the defense stepped up after Atlanta’s Julio Jones made an incredible leaping, twisting catch for a first down at the New England 22. At this point, a field goal would have ended the suspense. But on first down, McCourty came out of nowhere to tackle Freeman for a 1-yard loss. Then on second down, rising star Trey Flowers sacked Ryan for a 12-yard loss. A 10-yard holding penalty wiped out a completion and forced the Falcons out of field goal range. After a punt, New England got the ball back on its 9 with 3:30 left.

Brady was magnificent. Julian Edelman made a catch for the ages. After a Falcons defender tipped the ball into the air, he twice finger-tipped it one inch off the ground while being hit by two other Atlanta players.

“I think to win a game like this, you’re probably going to need a few plays like that,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “You have to make all those plays right when you fall behind by 25 points.”

That led to the tying score. Then the Patriots won the overtime coin toss, and you knew it was over. You knew they would win, and they did when, capping off a 75-yard drive from the 2-yard line, White took a pitch around right end, planted his right foot and ran straight through two Atlanta defenders for the first overtime game-winning score in Super Bowl history.

“That’s what you dream about as a kid,” said White. “Honestly, it’s all very surreal right now.”

For him and a lot of folks. New England’s fifth Super Bowl title will be best remembered as a team that never gave up.

“We never felt we were out of the game,” said Amendola. “We wanted to keep fighting, keep going, keep believing. And that’s what we did.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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