Hightower sack sparks Super Bowl comeback
It was surreal watching Dont’a Hightower kiss the Lombardi Trophy Sunday night after the Lewisburg native’s fourth quarter sack led to a change of momentum and ultimately the fifth Super Bowl title for the New England Patriots, who stormed back from 25 points down to win Super Bowl LI 34-28 in the first-ever overtime finish.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’t take long to give the Marshall County High School legend and 2007 Tennessee Titans Class 3A Mr. Football Lineman of the Year credit for coming up with the most important defensive play of the game, saying in a postgame interview with ESPN’s Chris Berman, “The Hightower play was the key play, without that I don’t think we would have had enough possessions or we get it done fast enough.”
And let’s thank the Atlanta Falcons a bit too, who instead of trying to run the football and eat the clock when leading 28-16 got greedy and paid for it when Hightower busted through the line on a third-down blitz, sacking the reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan to force a fumble and set the wheels in motion for the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
“I saw Matt Ryan with the ball in his hands, I wanted it so I hit him and took it,” Hightower said in a post-game interview. “Man, I'm just doing what my teammates expect me to do. Matty P (Patriots’ defensive coordinator-Matt Patricia) put me in position to make the play, all I did was go out and execute."
Ryan stated after the game that he should have thrown the ball away, but Hightower was in his face way too quick for the Atlanta quarterback to do anything except try to protect the ball and he couldn’t as the jarring hit knocked the ball loose and Alan Branch recovered the fumble.
The strip sack fired up New England, who scored a few plays later and the inevitability that followed stamped the Patriots, Belichick and Brady with no doubt all-time greatest tags.
It was the second Super Bowl title and the fourth major sports championship ring for Hightower, who won two national championships under another legendary coach in Nick Saban at Alabama.
Hightower, who entered Super Bowl LI as questionable on the injury list with a shoulder injury ended up playing all 46 defensive snaps for the Patriots and said about the improbable comeback win, “"I ain't got no words, man. Ain't nobody believed in us. We don't care nothing about that. We're the champions, man. Ain't nobody going to take that from us. We're the champions."
On the offensive side of the ball, four-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady kept the team focused in the comeback and ended up completing 43-of-62 passes for a Super Bowl-record 466 yards.
Brady’s biggest completion of the game turned into one of the greatest catches in the 51-year history of the championship game when Julian Edelman made a cat-like snag with 2:28 remaining in the game.
Four plays later, the Patriots scored to trail by two points and when Danny Amendola hauled in the two-point conversion pass from Brady the game was tied and the rest is history.
"That is the best catch that I've ever seen in person, hands down,” Hightower said of the Edleman circus grab. “I thought, I couldn't even tell, 'Did he catch that?' Incredible, man. Really incredible."
Hightower was a first-round draft choice in 2012 by New England and in his five years with the team, the Patriots have a 62-18 regular season record with five consecutive AFC East titles and conference title game appearances with two Super Bowl wins.
The off season could be a difficult period for Hightower, who has earned over $15,000,000 million dollars in his career and is scheduled to become a free agent this year, but most sources close to the Patriots seem to think that Hightower will be franchise tagged, meaning he will be protected from free agency by prohibiting any other clubs from entering into negotiations with him during the NFL Free Agency period.
“I guess part of that is up to me, and part of it’s not,” Hightower said. “We’ll see what the future holds. I’m going to enjoy tonight, celebrate this, and I’m sure there’ll be a couple days or a few weeks and that’ll be going on.”
I’m sure Hightower doesn’t want to leave New England and the Patriots should keep him.