Prior to kickoff for Super Bowl XLIX, the only people who knew who Malcolm Butler were his family and die-hard Patriots fans. Alas, all eyes were on him as he stepped in to intercept Russell Wilson at the one-yard line to seal a Super Bowl win for the Patriots. It was a Cinderella story–or at least it seemed that way.
Fast-forwarding from that famous interception to now, calling that moment a "Cinderella story" seems disingenuous. At the time, it was a largely unknown rookie making a huge play to win a Super Bowl. Now, it looks like a very good player making a great play.
Plenty of players make huge plays in sports history among a career of general anonymity. Butler made that play to end his rookie season and has taken off since then. He's the Patriots best cornerback, a first teamer on the Pro Football Focus All-Pro squad, and a second teamer on the AP's All-Pro team.
Butler's outstanding year, in which he tallied 4 interceptions and 16 passes defended, was a large part of why New England's defense was so good this season. They allowed a league-low 15.6 points per game and the 8th fewest yards per game.
Now, in his second Super Bowl, Butler will face a much different beast than the one he encountered two years ago.
That Seahawks team was very good, driven by their defense with Marshawn Lynch and the running game ghost riding alongside. A large part of Seattle's offensive firepower came from the bruising running back.
Butler was a bit player in that game until that final play. Now, he'll take a starring role against a Falcons team whose dynamic offense leads the way. They scored the fourth most points in NFL history (540), led the league at 33.8 points per game, were third in the league in passing yards and fifth in rushing yards.
When it comes down to it, limiting Matt Ryan's lifelines is the only chance the Patriots have to slow down the Falcons. That will start on the perimeter with Butler. Much of the focus will be on Atlanta's star receiver and real life Avenger, Julio Jones, but he's hardly their only weapon.
Mohammed Sanu was the team's second leading receiver with 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns. Taylor Gabriel also had a breakout year, hauling in 35 balls for 579 yards and six touchdowns. This Falcons receiving corps is stacked.
While Butler won't shadow Jones in a best corner vs. best receiver showdown, he'll still have a large responsibility in slowing down the Falcons offense.
If Butler can lock down whoever he's covering, that takes one of Ryan's weapons away, while allowing the rest of the defense to focus on slowing down their biggest threat, Jones.
In the Patriots' two playoff games, Butler has been instrumental in holding DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown to a combined 13 catches for 142 yards and no touchdowns. Over the course of the regular season, the Patriots allowed just four 100-yard receivers.
New England will need their defense to be at their very best against the NFL's top offense, and much of that will revolve around their No. 1 corner. If Butler plays well, eliminates the receiver he's covering and can generate a turnover or two, it gives the Patriots a much easier road to victory. He came up with one giant play to win them their fourth Super Bowl, and now it'll be up to him making plays for four quarters to help them win their fifth. All eyes are once again on Malcolm Butler.
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