Two of the NFL’s most successful franchises over the past decade meet Sunday, and the echoes from an epic game still reverberate for both teams.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the aftermath of his Detroit Lions letting a double-digit fourth-quarter lead slip away in a disappointing 2020 Week 1 loss, coach Matt Patricia was asked if there was something about his coaching that led his teams to struggle to close out games.
“I don’t think so,” said Patricia, the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator. “I think I have probably one of the biggest plays in the fourth quarter in the history of the NFL where I think I did a pretty good job.”
That play — Malcolm Butler‘s stunning interception of a Russell Wilson pass at the goal line with 20 seconds to play to stop the surging Seattle Seahawks from winning Super Bowl XLIX — is timely to revisit this week, along with its aftermath.
The Patriots (1-0) visit the Seahawks (1-0) on Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), which marks the second meeting since that unforgettable night in Arizona six seasons ago.
That Patricia mentioned the play, and what it represents, is ironic, as few others participating in the game who are still in the NFL have had a desire to do so.
Former Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, now in his second season as the Miami Dolphins‘ head coach, called out “Malcolm go!” to insert Butler into the game before his interception. His ability to take charge and his words, forever part of New England football lore, elevated Flores’ profile as a coach on the rise.
“About 2014, those were all great memories, great times, but really my focus is on what’s going on down here in Miami,” Flores said.
Patriots captain Matthew Slater, in his 13th season the team’s longest-tenured player, echoed a similar theme.
“I don’t think this week is a time for myself or anyone else who participated in that game to look back and become nostalgic,” he said.
Fair enough — the play also resurfaced leading up to the Seahawks’ 31-24 victory against the Patriots in Foxborough on Nov. 13, 2016. But such a historic moment will always provide a flashpoint to assess its aftermath whenever the Patriots and Seahawks meet.
Since that game on Feb. 1, 2015, the Patriots have advanced to three Super Bowls, winning two. The Seahawks haven’t been back.
“At that particular point, it had been 10 years since the Patriots won the Super Bowl. I feel like people basically forget that fact,” said former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, now an analyst for ESPN. “And you get to the point where you’re right there to finally win one again, and they’re at the 1-yard line and the thought comes to you, ‘This might not happen.’ I was pretty sick thinking about it as the game was winding down. And boom! It all erases instantly. If we lose that game, I don’t know. … But we win and everyone was like, ‘The Patriots are back.'”
The result cost the Seahawks, whose first season as a franchise was 1976, the chance to cement their place in NFL history with back-to-back championships — one of the hardest feats to accomplish in the sport.
“It’s really difficult to describe how difficult that moment was for Seahawks fans. There isn’t a sports history in Seattle of getting close and having it ripped away. It’s not like Red Sox fans going through ’75 and ’86 and having it ripped away,” said Mike Salk of KIRO-AM 710 ESPN in Seattle. “The only real moment like that is the 2005 Super Bowl against Pittsburgh, but that had a clear enemy in the referees — a bunch of bad calls in one game. We didn’t play the sound of [Butler’s interception] for months, because people would just turn off the radio.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, however, couldn’t turn anything off. Accepting it was the first step to move forward.
“We had to get to the truth of what happened and make sure we get on the same page, and then with the truth move forward,” Carroll said this week. “There was a grieving process that you had to go through. It was such a dramatic win for them, and we had to deal with it. So we did.”
Of course, the call of Butler’s interception was played non-stop in New England, marking the start of the second wave of Super Bowl titles.
“The clock is ticking, ticking, ticking, and in my head, I’m thinking they’re going to score here with no time left on the clock. They’re going to run the football. I didn’t think for a second they would throw the ball,” Ninkovich recalled. “Sure enough, the ball was snapped, I kind of did a little giddy-up skip to make sure it was a pass and just saw the ball coming out really fast. It came right over my right shoulder. Literally as I turned around, I saw Malcolm catch the ball and I was like, ‘Oh my God. We won this game!'”
Perhaps former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady summed it up best when he said, “Thank God for Malcolm Butler.”
They were saying something much different in Seattle.
“That was sort of an interesting experience for the fans to learn how to process it, to figure out who the goat is, and who is at fault,” Salk said. “Nationally, I know the storyline is that Pete is at fault. I know very few people in Seattle who blame him. Most people, and I put myself in this category, blame [coordinator] Darrell Bevell [who is now in the same position with Detroit].
“Throwing is not the problem. Throwing a slant over the middle with a 5-10 quarterback to your fifth wide receiver was the problem.”
The Patriots are 63-18 (.778) since that game, the best record in the NFL. The Seahawks are 51-29-1, the fifth-best mark.
“I hate learning the hard way, but sometimes you have to,” Carroll said.
The furthest the Seahawks have advanced in the playoffs since the Super Bowl loss is the divisional round.
Though infrequent opponents, there is mutual respect between the Seahawks and Patriots, with New England coach Bill Belichick calling Seattle’s 2016 win against his team “as competitive a game as we’ve ever played.”
Of Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick had said the morning after the game: “Can’t say enough about the Seattle Seahawks. That’s a great football team. Well coached, and I have tremendous respect for Pete and the entire organization. Obviously it was a game that came down to the final seconds — a yard separated the two teams.”
Added Slater: “You have two organizations that have had a lot of success and provided a lot of stability over the last decade-plus. Two coaches that have really got the culture in the way they want it with their teams. They are built a certain way. They play to their strengths. They remain true to their identity and as far as who they are as a football team. That always makes for a great matchup — well-coached teams with disciplined players who love to play ball.”
The Patriots who remain from Super Bowl XLIX are safety Devin McCourty, Slater, running back James White and wide receiver Julian Edelman. For Seattle, Wilson, tight end Luke Willson, defensive end Bruce Irvin, and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain.
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“Pete and [general manager] John [Schneider] didn’t turn everything over right away. They invested in some of their guys, tried to keep the band together a little bit longer after the Super Bowl,” Salk explained. “It didn’t not work — they’ve been in the playoffs every year but one — but it’s hard to say it’s worked. Over time, it wore thin with some really big personalities. Like Earl Thomas. Richard Sherman. Those relationships got strained.”
The pain of Butler’s interception challenged the chemistry of the Seahawks’ locker room, with Sherman still referencing the play two seasons later after a game in which Seattle threw a pass at the goal line.
“Now it finally feels like they’re ready to move in a new direction. It’s become Russell’s team in a way it was not then,” Salk said. “They invested in just Russ and Bobby Wagner, and everyone else is on their way. They’re just now starting to replace some of those players with similar skill sets and personalities. That’s why [safety] Jamal Adams is here. You have to find that Kam Chancellor type.”
In New England, Brady’s departure as a free agent this past offseason ushered in the most decisive change since Super Bowl XLIX. While Butler’s interception sparked the Patriots’ second run of Super Bowl titles, the 2020 season feels like another new beginning for New England with Cam Newton under center. That revamped attack will be making its national television debut Sunday night in Seattle.
Running back Shane Vereen, who had 11 receptions in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks, said the Patriots’ new beginning has a familiar look in terms of success.
“With the change at quarterback this offseason, I’ve had so many questions, ‘Are they still going to be the same?’ And I’m like, ‘They’re going to be fine,'” said Vereen, who is retired and calling college football games for Fox Sports.
“When I left New England, everyone was asking me, ‘How is it different there?’ It’s not a secret. It’s responsibility, accountability, doing your job, showing up ready to work, practicing hard, and then preparing. I think that’s the biggest difference I saw from the other organizations I played in. The preparation in New England was just, bar none, so good. So I wasn’t surprised.”