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But Dont’a Hightower saved the game.
Without Hightower’s strip sack with 8:31 remaining, the Patriots do not beat the Atlanta Falcons — simple as that. As Shutdown Corner’s Frank Schwab pointed out, it was one of 16 plays the Patriots needed (and got) to win the miraculous game.
But Hightower knocked out the crucial Jenga piece that allowed the Patriots to finally topple the Falcons. And it’s not the first time he made a somewhat forgotten but crucial play to preserve a Super Bowl title. More on that later.
First, the play in LI: The Falcons faced a 3rd-and-1 from the Atlanta 36-yard line. They had run it twice on first and second down for 9 yards. The Falcons wanted to be aggressive there, so they called for a deep ball.
The problem was that Hightower came free on a blitz and Devonta Freeman never picked him up (despite Freeman’s postgame denials it was his guy) and Hightower crushed Matt Ryan. The ball came loose, and the Patriots recovered at the 25. They would score a TD and a two-point conversion two minutes and change later to make it 28-20, Atlanta.
“The Hightower sack was a huge play for us,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “We really needed that.”
The Patriots felt like they had to make it a one-score game to have a chance at that point, and they did so in a stunning flurry. Without that turnovers, even if Ryan’s pass is incomplete or a short-yardage run is stuffed, the Patriots likely were facing having to drive 65 or 70 yards with a little more than eight minutes left just to cut the lead to eight. Instead, they did so at the 6:00 mark.
Their longest play from scrimmage all night was 28 yards; they were chipping away, and the clock was tick-tocking against them. This was the biggest game tilter right here.
One of the hallmarks of New England’s Super Bowl victories under Belichick has been that they’ve been team efforts. Yes, Tom Brady delivered big moments in all five of them, and unsung heroes stepped up in each as well. But Hightower is one of the Patriots’ better defenders, and quite well known as a former first-round pick. And that’s twice now he’s come through with game-saving plays in his two Super Bowl appearances.
The other came on the oft-forgotten play right before Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX. The Seattle Seahawks had the Patriots on the ropes with first-and-goal from the New England 5-yard line with just over a minute left, and Marshawn Lynch appeared to be going in for the game-winning score. But Hightower made an incredible play to power through Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung and somehow bring down Lynch at the 1.
You know how that drive ended. But it never would have happened without Hightower’s superhuman effort on the play before.
There will be plenty of time to speculate about the future of Hightower, who is a free agent after the season and probably wants to get paid market value. He’s not a perfect player, and the Patriots often will sub him out in certain packages. But he played all 49 defensive snaps for the Patriots against the Falcons and delivered the one that allowed New England to finish off their miraculous comeback for the ages.
He can look back and say he delivered when his team needed him most.
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