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Looking Back on the Malcolm Butler Interception

Four years ago today, New England Patriots Malcolm Butler made perhaps the biggest play in the history professional football.
Malcolm Butler

Four years ago today, the New England Patriots had the lead, but Seattle was on the verge of scoring the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX. Akeem Ayers and Dont’a Hightower just combined to tackle running back Marshawn Lynch at the Patriots’ one-yard line. The clock slowly ticked away, as head coach Bill Belichick decided to bet on his defense instead of calling timeout. All looked lost until undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler jumped a pick route on second and goal, grabbing the interception and instantaneously turning certain defeat into arguably the greatest and most iconic victory in Super Bowl history.

Revisiting the Malcolm Butler Interception

Time is a flat circle, and for a long time, it looked like history was about to repeat itself. Tom Brady erased a 10-point fourth quarter deficit with two straight touchdown drives to give New England the lead with just over two minutes to play. However, Brady and the offense left too much time on the clock. Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense charged down the field, much like Eli Manning and the New York Giants did all those years ago.

The game was all but over when Wilson found Jermaine Kearse down the sideline for a 33-yard gain. For the third time in as many appearances, the football gods spit in New England’s face. The Patriots lost back-to-back Super Bowls on ridiculous last-second catches, and it looked like the trend would continue.

Malcolm Butler deflected Wilson’s deep pass, but it inexplicably bounced off Kearse’s legs and never hit the ground. Kearse snagged it off the rebound, recording the reception and setting Seattle up at their own six-yard line. Butler amazingly had enough awareness to push Kearse out of bounds, but he was only delaying the inevitable. Everyone had seen this movie before, and everyone knew how this story ended.

That is, of course, until Butler flipped the script two plays later. Instead of losing a last-second Super Bowl in Arizona again, Butler gave New England their first championship since 2004. With just one play, Butler put an end to the incessant crowd of Patriots haters screaming about Spygate. Because of Butler’s play, everyone remembered Tom Brady’s heroic fourth-quarter efforts which gave New England the lead in the first place. Instead of yet another tired narrative about missing the latest title, Brady was paraded with chants of “greatest ever” while accepting his fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy.

A Testament to the Coaches and the Player

The fact Butler was in the game at all was a testament to the back-and-forth nature of this instant classic. Kyle Arrington had a terrible game and couldn’t cover up Seahawks wide receiver Chris Matthews. At halftime, New England sent Arrington to the bench, moved Brandon Browner onto Matthews, and put Butler on Kearse. At the time, Butler was clearly at the bottom of the cornerback depth chart. The undrafted rookie played in just under 17% of defensive snaps and was inactive in the AFC Championship Game. Despite this, the Patriots put their faith in the undrafted rookie. Safe to say that decision worked out.

What’s more impressive is that Butler was prepared to be out there in the first place. As wonderfully documented, New England expected Seattle to run a pick play if they made it down to the goal line. The Patriots truly leave no stone unturned, as even the fifth-string cornerback was practicing that route.

Of course, all the coaching in the world wouldn’t matter if Butler wasn’t up for the task. The spotlight wasn’t too bright for the West Alabama product, as Butler held his own in coverage even before the interception. Somehow not letting the overnight fame get to his head, Butler ended up starting the next three years in New England, playing at a near-elite level in 2015 and 2016. While his Patriots tenure ended on a low note, there’s no denying he’s one of the most impactful players in recent Patriots history, and not just for that one play.

Last Word on the Malcolm Butler Interception

The New England Patriots are currently preparing to play in their third Super Bowl since that magical play. It’s crazy to think about now, but at one time it looked like Brady might retire with just three rings and five Super Bowl appearances. Just months before Butler’s magical interception, a “washed-up” Tom Brady was benched in an absolute blowout against the Kansas City Chiefs. For a heartbreaking moment, it truly looked like New England’s hero finally lost his battle with Father Time.

Perhaps this is what sets Super Bowl XLIX apart from the other championships. After 10 years of just missing that elusive fourth ring, the world finally saw Tom Brady and the Patriots dynasty look mortal. For the first time since at least 2009, Patriots Nation needed to acknowledge that this cannot go on forever.

This, as much as anything, made the 2014 season all the sweeter. Brady bounced back from that terrible Kansas City game, showing the world that he’s still got a few seasons left in him. The fanbase never seemed more passionate, as the crowds were notably louder than in seasons past.

The Patriots won their Super Bowl in the most satisfying way possible: by eliminating a double-digit deficit to the best defense of their time before closing the game with an interception which exorcised any demons from Super Bowls past. Most of that core has moved on, but their impact can still be felt throughout Foxboro and in the hearts of Patriots Nation.

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