Super Bowl 51: the second-greatest comeback of all time. This Sunday, we talked about it alongside the greatest: the resurrection of Jesus.
On a day when we celebrate Christ’s comeback victory over death and evil and pain, it seems natural to talk about Super Bowl 51.
One writer described it as, “In a comeback for the ages, Patriots beat Falcons in heart-pounding Super Bowl.”
We all know the story that the writers sent to the presses after the game. But what you may not have thought about is the stories they didn’t write.
In a world with the Internet, gone are the days when sportswriters sent in their stories to be ready only for the morning papers. Sports writers today write their stories while the game is taking place, anticipating the final outcome the entire time.
I found a video on this recently that reshaped how I saw Super Bowl 51, as I looked at it through the eyes of journalists who were preparing their stories as the game unfolded in real time (1).
The headlines that were published, we all know. “Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, and Bill Belichick is the greatest head coach of all time.” “Patriots were well-prepared for this stunning comeback victory.”
But what about the ones that weren’t published?
In the video, writers describe the stories they had mid-third quarter. “The Patriots were outclassed, and couldn’t handle the [Falcons’] speed on either side of the ball.” “Three Big Reasons Why the Patriots Lost.” One described his article as “An obituary to a dream season.”
Then the Patriots started to put points on the board, and they had to begin changing their stories about the blowout. Suddenly, it was tied 28-28, and writers everywhere pushed everything to the bottom of the page or just hit “select all-delete.” But a few just opened entirely new documents, thinking it’d be fun to go back and read the first stories later.
They wrote: “The Falcons pounded the Patriots, abused them, and outsmarted them. They absolutely clowned them.” “The Falcons gave a preview of things to come on their first play from scrimmage, when Devont-a Freeman gashed the Patriots defense for 37 yards.” “The Patriots had been good at limiting that type of play this season, but they hadn’t played a high-powered offense like the Falcons’. It turned out the Patriots defense just wasn’t good enough to win a Super Bowl.” “After methodically marching down the field from their own 25 to the Atlanta 23, it appeared New England could still make a game of this. That’s when Robert Alford stepped in — literally. [He made an interception and ran for the end zone.] Tom Brady reached out in desperation, but came up short. Ultimately, so did the Patriots.” “Brady, despite his status as perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, proved he isn’t a miracle worker.” “When James White and Danny Amendola are your best offensive weapons, you’re in trouble.”
Just as this line is read, the video shows Amendola fighting his way across the goal line for the tying score.
Do you remember the first half of Super Bowl 51?
Any New England fan watching the game that night was writing their own story in their head. We were all thinking about what we’d say to our Patriots-hating friends and family. We were perhaps thinking about what we’d post on the Internet after the blowout. We were sad. We’d had a great season, and we were watching it go down the tubes in a spectacular fashion.
But those stories were never published. Because it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And sometimes, even when it’s just over, something else steps in and re-writes our stories of gloom into a tale for the ages.
Today’s Reign of Christ Sunday, and the Gospel text is the crucifixion.
The headline that never got published: “God Comes to Earth, Preaches Love; Death Defeats God in a Blowout.”
But I’m guessing that you know that that’s not the story that went to the presses, and that’s why we’re here.
Though the Internet is what’s caused sportswriters to write their stories in real time, humans have always looked at circumstances and written our narratives ahead of time. It helps us survive. We anticipate what will happen based on the information that we have right now. And truth be told, in reality, miracle comebacks are the exception, not the rule. Down 28-3 in the third quarter, the Patriots had an 8.4% chance of winning the Super Bowl.
We’re always tempted to say, “Oh, the math nerds were wrong again,” but the reality is that they weren’t at all. The Patriots had an 8.4% chance, which meant that it was still theoretically possible, just unlikely. But sometimes the unlikely thing happens.
Like a 25 point comeback. Like resurrection. Like hope and new life. The only way the chance of victory drops to 0% is if you stop playing.
In the third quarter, down by 25, Julian Edelman looked up at the scoreboard and said, “This is going to be a hell of a story.”
The truth was that a comeback was really unlikely to happen.
But it did. It did because the Patriots believed it could, because some times the football bounced the right way, and because the Patriots weren’t so consumed with the crushing blows and slip-ups of first half that they forgot to play in the second half.
While driving to convocation, I read a sign that said, “Don’t trip over something that’s behind you.”
There’s a lot of stuff going on in all our lives. Most of us have at least one 28-3 scenario in our minds. And if you don’t have one and you need one, let me offer you the state of the church in New England in 2019, when I get told over and over that no one goes to church anymore.
This is true of the church and it’s true of America: we’re not getting the first half back. The points that have been put up on us are not going to be subtracted. There will not come a day when suddenly young families everywhere begin to see church as a staple, the way they saw it in the 1980s. Some will, yes. But not the way they did back then.
America is not going back to the way it was before we all lived in alternate realities with our neighbors, either. We’re not going to get less angry. We’re not going to suddenly get more bipartisan.
But don’t trip over something that’s behind you. We’ve got the whole second half to go.
The thing that I will say and must say every single Sunday I occupy this pulpit is in the front and center today: that the God who came to earth died. Dead-died. He was literally dead and buried. That game was actually over. And yet, here we are, and Christ is among us.
So what are we afraid of? Death? Endings?
Whatever story you’ve already written, whether about your own life, the life of a loved one, the church, the United States of America, or the world, remember the story of Super Bowl 51: “unlikely” doesn’t mean impossible. That an 8% chance of winning still means that if you game out that scenario a hundred times, the Patriots will still win eight of those times. And a 91% chance of victory still leaves the door open for defeat. Just ask the Falcons.
Don’t trip over something that’s behind you. Because today, we celebrate the fact that when Christ was dead and buried, with a 0% chance of victory, God broke into human history and snatched life back from death. The crucifixion doesn’t look like a victory, but it is. It was a victory then, it will be a victory in the ever-after, and, despite what the scoreboard or the news or our lives say about the very real pain we see every day, it is a victory today.
The Patriots were down 28-3, but won Super Bowl 51, and those stories never got published.
Christ’s heart stopped on the cross, but he rose again, and that is why we are here.
“Then the thief on the cross said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
Why, oh why, would we ever look behind us? Do not be afraid. Look to the future, and look to the cross and remember how that story ended, and gather just enough hope to keep playing.
To quote Mr. Edelman himself, your story, and the story of our church, is gonna be one heck of a story. Amen.
1. You can watch that video yourself here.