HOUSTON — Amid the euphoria following the New England Patriots’ historic victory Sunday night, linebacker Dont’a Hightower was cool, calm and collected as he relived the play that changed the course of arguably the greatest Super Bowl ever played.
That play came midway through the fourth quarter with the Atlanta Falcons leading by 16 points in Super Bowl LI. On a third-and-1 from the Atlanta 35-yard line, Hightower came on an outside blitz, blew past running back Devonta Freeman and smacked the ball out of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s hand.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch pounced on the loose ball, giving the Patriots possession deep in Falcons territory. New England never looked back, scoring two touchdowns over the final six minutes of regulation and another in overtime to win 34-28 and cap the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
“Honestly, it was not a complicated blitz,” Hightower explained. “I was blitzing outside. I think they’d actually run that play once or twice on the previous series. I guess Freeman didn’t see me outside. I guess he went to chip or check-release and just lost sight of me.
“I saw Matt Ryan with the ball in his hand, and I wanted it. So I took it from him.”
Freeman had an even more concise assessment of Hightower’s strip sack, telling multiple reporters the Patriots defensive co-captain “just made a good play.”
The Falcons thoroughly outplayed the Patriots for the first three quarters at NRG Stadium in Houston, leading by as many as 25 points late in the third quarter and taking a 19-point advantage into the fourth.
New England was able to keep Atlanta’s top-ranked offense off the scoreboard for the final 27:33 of game time, however, and the Patriots racked 31 unanswered points during that span.
“You know, I don’t know if (the strip sack) sparked it or it didn’t,” Hightower said. “All I know is coming out of halftime, the defense knew that we had to get a three-and-out or a turnover — something to get moving. We knew that it was really on us to kind of get things moving in our favor, and that’s kind of what happened.
“I love those boys out there that I get to battle with each and every day. A lot of you guys didn’t give us credit, but we weren’t worried about that.”
Thumbnail photo via Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports Images