The Patriots’ unlikely hero of Super Bowl XLIX might have to play the role of superman again.
Rookie Malcolm Butler’s stunning interception in the final seconds of the 28-24 win over the Seahawks saved the day. And there’s a reasonably good chance that Butler, who has emerged as one of the league’s top cover cornerbacks, will be a major factor Feb. 5 in Super Bowl LI.
It might not require another spectacular moment, such as the second-and-goal play from the 1 when he stepped in front of Ricardo Lockette and intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass in the end zone with 20 seconds left. But Butler’s coverage of Falcons star Julio Jones could go a long way toward deciding the Super Bowl.
Even if Jones said he isn’t worried about a potential one-on-one matchup against Butler.
“He’s a great player,” Jones said. “But at the end of the day, I’ve just got to focus on me, and getting me better, and just working with my teammates.”
Butler was an obscure free-agent rookie, the longest of long shots to make a team coached by defensive guru Bill Belichick, but his game-saving play against Seattle turned out to be just the beginning of a terrific career. If Butler can shadow Jones the way he has so many other great receivers, it will give the Patriots’ defense a huge advantage over the Falcons’ No. 1 offense.
Belichick knew the play in the Super Bowl was no fluke, and Butler became his go-to cornerback. “Well, I mean, we put him on [the Steelers’] Antonio Brown in the opener in 2015,” Belichick said Thursday. “We thought he had showed enough going into the 2015 season that he would be our guy that we would match up against certain receivers. He has developed a lot since then, like any player from year one to year three. That’s a big growth period for players.”
Give Belichick credit for seeing the talent in Butler and getting the most out of him, but we shouldn’t be surprised, even if he took the road less traveled to the NFL. Butler went undrafted out of Division II West Alabama, where he’d been a walk-on, but he caught the eye of Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in training camp and made the 53-man roster.
He didn’t have any interceptions in a limited role during his first season and was a late substitution in the Super Bowl after the coaches decided that nickel cornerback Kyle Arrington wasn’t playing well. Butler’s moment came when it mattered most, when he correctly read that the Seahawks, who inexplicably decided not to use star running back Marshawn Lynch so close to the goal line, were going to run a pick play.
Lockette lined up to the right of the formation and broke to the inside as Wilson delivered the pass. But Butler adeptly fended off Lockette, caught the ball in the end zone and lunged to the 2-yard line before being tackled. The Patriots ran out the clock to win their fourth Super Bowl title.
“From preparation, I remembered the formation they were in,” Butler said after the game. “I just beat him to the route and made the play.”
It was the first interception of his career. His emergence convinced Belichick that he would not need to overpay Darrelle Revis the next year and instead could use Butler as his featured corner. Another great move by the legendary coach.
“A long way from West Alabama,” Belichick said. “Not everybody is from Alabama and Michigan and USC and those places, so for some of those guys, even the ones that come from there, it’s still a huge jump.”
And now, on to a second Super Bowl for Butler and on to a dream matchup — literally — against Jones.
In 2012, while in college, Butler sent out a tweet: “I wanna check julio jones . . . lol . . . real talk doe.”
“Dreams do come true,” Butler said Thursday. “That’s not any trash talk or being cocky or anything. I had a vision.”
That vision becomes a reality a week from Sunday. Butler hopes the ending results in another Vince Lombardi Trophy.