It was nearly the highlight of a Super Bowl-winning drive. But two snaps later, after a 4-yard run by Marshawn Lynch took Seattle to the 1, the Seahawks ran one of the most infamous plays in Super Bowl history.
One of the most amazing catches in Super Bowl history occurred late in the fourth quarter last year in Houston. Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons bobbled the downfield pass but managed to contort himself while falling and cradled the ball before he, and it, struck the ground.
The play was shown several times on the Fox telecast, and the announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman marveled at Jones’s skill, concentration and body control. That implausible sideline reception, the best of Jones’s decorated career, positioned the Falcons, who were leading by eight points with a little more than four minutes remaining, for a victory-sealing score that never came.
Instead, the New England Patriots completed their comeback from a 28-3 deficit with a game-tying acrobatic catch from Julian Edelman that matched Jones’s artistry and — reasonable minds can certainly disagree here — that very well may have exceeded it.
The Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory catapulted Edelman’s reception into the pantheon of clutch plays. But it also consigned Jones’s effort to a peculiar niche in Super Bowl lore, one where spectacular moments are eclipsed and erased by the greatness of others.
Two years before Jones soared above New England cornerback Eric Rowe, Jermaine Kearse nearly willed the Seahawks to a late win over the Patriots with a deep sideline grab that strained credulity.
“If we had won the Super Bowl and you probably had the best catch, that would have been awesome,” Kearse said in October. “Now it’s kind of like a forgotten play.”
Ricky Proehl, Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald also made signature plays that were devalued by the game’s outcome. Proehl, improbably, endured the reversal of fortune twice.
At least he had already won a Super Bowl, so had Kearse. Moss never got a ring, and Fitzgerald, like Jones, is still waiting.
“I really thought it was enough to be able to propel us to victory,” Fitzgerald said, recalling his 64-yard, go-ahead touchdown for the Arizona Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Steelers with 2:37 left in Super Bowl XLIII. “For probably, say, five minutes in actual, real time,” he added, “I thought I was going to be a Super Bowl champion. And then, I wasn’t.”
In retrospect, Kearse said, the craziest thing about his shake-the-sleep-out-of-your-eyes catch for Seattle in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was not the catch itself. It was his reaction afterward.
“I just walked back like nothing happened,” Kearse said. “I do laugh about that.”
What actually happened, as viewed by thousands of incredulous onlookers at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and millions more around the world watching on television, was a ball that, after leaving quarterback Russell Wilson’s right hand at the New England 45-yard line, did the following:
Traveled about 35 yards before striking Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler’s hands as he and Kearse fell backward.
Caromed, on its descent, off Kearse’s left groin, then his right, as he lay supine.
Clanked twice off Kearse’s right hand as Patriots safety Duron Harmon, nearly kicking the ball, leapt over him.
Nestled, finally, in Kearse’s right hand on a third effort.
Cradling the ball, Kearse turned onto his left side and got up, before Butler shoved him out of bounds at the 5 to stop the clock with 1:06 remaining. Kearse said he never heard the crowd erupt. Nor did he notice Harmon, who on Wednesday said that he still regrets not being able to stop Kearse from making the catch.
Kearse maintains he would have scored if he had been facing the end zone and not the sideline. Instead, he just headed back toward his teammates — no celebrations or gesticulations, not even a fist pump.
“How did I catch it? It’s like — honestly, I don’t know,” said Kearse, repeating a question he has been asked hundreds of times in the last three years. “I mean, it’s not like a normal catch. I remember seeing the ball bounce around and I just tried to grab it. I couldn’t even explain to you how I caught some other catches. There’s been balls that I caught where you look at the picture and my eyes are closed.”
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NBC cameras focused on two men in different states of disbelief: Seahawks owner Paul Allen, who gaped, and Brady, who shook his head. The Patriots still led by 28-24, but they had been burned in two other Super Bowls by spectacular late receptions — both by Giants, Mario Manningham in Indianapolis in 2012 and David Tyree in Glendale in 2008 — and in that moment, it seemed eminently possible that it could, would, happen again.
But two snaps later, after a 4-yard run by Marshawn Lynch took Seattle to the 1, the Seahawks ran one of the most infamous plays in Super Bowl history. Rather than hand the ball to Lynch again, they called a pass play.
Kearse lined up to Wilson’s right. As the Patriots’ Brandon Browner jammed Kearse, receiver Ricardo Lockette slipped inside. Butler rushed forward from the end zone, swooped in front of Lockette at the goal line and intercepted the pass, securing the Patriots’ victory and condemning the Seahawks’ coaches to endless second-guessing.
And relegating Kearse’s catch to a footnote.
With the Seahawks, he forged a reputation for shining during the postseason. So much so that when Kearse, now a Jet, sat down for an interview on the topic last fall he asked which great catch he’d be talking about.
Kearse had a sense, though, that it was not the contested ball he had snared for the go-ahead touchdown, on fourth and 7 from the San Francisco 35, in the final quarter of the NFC Championship Game four years ago. Or another 35-yard score, this one in overtime with Tramon Williams of the Green Bay Packers draped over him, in the NFC championship the following year, granting Seattle the chance to defend its Super Bowl title against New England.
No, he was asked to talk about the hardest catch — the one that, in the end, didn’t matter.
“If we would have won, I think it probably would have been the best Super Bowl catch ever,” Kearse said. “But we lost.”