While it was more decades ago than I care to admit, sometimes recalling playing softball on the schoolyard in grade school seems like yesterday. The games at lunch were so important that on occasion one team or the other might cheat. We had an immediate comeback, “Cheaters never prosper.” The truth is, in real life, in sports and even in Washington D.C. the opposite is often true.

Despite New England’s remarkable victory in Super Bowl 51, I still think of them as cheaters. But the manner in which they came from behind was so historic, I have to tip my cap and even eat a little crow.

To summarize, the game was the first overtime in Super Bowl history; the 28-3 score from which New England rallied, was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. As a result, talk of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as the greatest quarterback and coach in NFL history has gone from speculation to certitude.

Brady has won more Super Bowls than any quarterback in history and the same goes for Belichick as a head coach. What’s more, even though Brady is 39, there’s nothing to say that the Pats won’t repeat again next year. (And tie the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins with 6.)

Certainly the Pats have to be considered among the favorites, especially given that a healthy Rob Gronkowski might return as New England’s tight end. (The rich get richer?)

And yet were the ball to have bounced just slightly differently history could be entirely different. Almost without fail, there’s a moment when luck, good fortune, or maybe fate comes into play. And if so Brady’s current 5-2 Super Bowl record goes to 4-3, not nearly as glitzy as Joe Montana’s 4-0.

There were so many moments like this in Super Bowl 51. Late in the 4th quarter, with Atlanta leading by 8 points and driving, Matt Ryan threw a sideline pass to Julio Jones at the Pats 22 yard line, that defied the laws of nature.

As the replay showed, there was absolutely no room for the ball to slip into Jones’ hands and no way Jones stays in bounds. Actually, Pats’ cornerback Eric Rowe had inside position, and if anything, looked like he was going to make an interception.

After Ryan’s amazing throw and Jones’ amazing catch, all Atlanta had to do was kick a field goal and their lead becomes an untouchable 11 points with 4:40 to play. On the far sideline, the Falcons celebrated. Too early as events would unfold.

The intelligent move for the Falcons at that point was to run the ball three straight times, take more time off the clock and kick a field goal to complete the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. Instead, the Falcons wanted more. And why not? They had led the league all season in points scored so why not stay aggressive.

Following a 1-yard loss on a running play, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (now 49ers head coach) called for a pass. Ryan dropped back in the shotgun and was sacked for a 12-yard loss. This disaster was followed by a holding penalty, and the Falcons went from a first down on the Pats 22, to third-and-33 from the 45. They failed to convert, punted and Brady becomes the greatest of all-time, which I think he is. I’m just saying, fate or call it what you want, can be fickle.

How precarious is history? Two years ago in Super Bowl 49, Seattle was on New England’s 1 yard line, 1st and 10, with Marshawn Lynch, the league’s leading rusher in the backfield and a timeout in coach Pete Carroll’s pocket. If Brady’s comeback in Super Bowl 51 was the greatest in history, and it was, Carroll’s 2nd down play call was the worst in history and it definitely was.

Inexplicably, Carroll called for a pass, which was intercepted. And instead of Seattle winning back to back Super Bowls and Brady and Belichick suffering their third straight Super Bowl loss, well, you know the rest. How Carroll could show his face in public, especially in Seattle is beyond me.

So many things had to go right for the Pats to win and so many things wrong for the Falcons to lose. With 45 seconds left, receiver Julian Edelman makes a spectacular catch otherwise they’re celebrating in Atlanta still.

It was 1st-and-10 from New England’s 36, and Edelman fights off three Falcons defenders — even going through the legs of one of them — somehow scoops up the ball before it hit the ground.

So condolences to the Falcons, Matt Ryan and coach Quinn and congrats to the Pats, Brady and Belichick, who was not only on the “Jimmy Fallon Show” but laughed. Once. Meanwhile I’m wondering if salsa might improve the taste of crow.


Jack also writes “Laughing Matters,” which appears every Friday. He’s at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and jnsmdp@aol.com.