A heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl can stunt any team, especially one as young as the Falcons. Does Atlanta have what it takes to mount its own comeback?
HOUSTON — In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl 51 and the Falcons’ epic collapse, one Atlanta starter suggested that the best coping mechanism might be to start training right away for next season. “I will start training, probably, in two days,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “Because apparently it ain’t good enough.”
The Falcons came off the field at NRG Stadium not quite sure how to proceed after blowing a 25-point lead in their 34-28 overtime loss to New England. It was a stunning end to what had been a dream season, and coach Dan Quinn told his players in the postgame locker room that it would be tough to find a place to put their feelings. “There is never going to be a way to get over the loss,” Quinn shared a short while later at his press conference.
But how does any team, especially a young one such as these Falcons, move forward from such a heartbreaking loss? The players who spoke afterward were all notably gracious in defeat. They paid respect to the quarterback they all agreed was the G.O.A.T, Tom Brady, and referred often to their “brotherhood”—the team creed Quinn brought to the Falcons when he was hired away from Seattle two years ago. But…
“I’m broken inside,” Allen said. “It’s terrible. It’s one of the worst feelings ever. And I am not a guy that forgets very easily. I probably will never forget this. It will always be haunting me.”
Allen was one of seven defensive starters for Atlanta in Super Bowl 51 who has two or fewer years of experience. For much of the game, it appeared the storyline would be the Falcons’ deft assemblage and development of youth and speed, and how that young core would have the potential to be very good for a long time. But the morning after, we were all thinking what two-time Super Bowl champion Justin Tuck tweeted: “I would rather not make the SB than to lose like that. I can’t even imagine what Atl is feeling right now.”
When Quinn was hired by Atlanta, he came in with a rush of energy and created a culture of positivity similar to the one he’d seen Pete Carroll create in Seattle. But this offseason will be the biggest challenge yet for Quinn, akin to what the Seahawks faced after losing Super Bowl XLIX on a goal-line interception. The Seahawks have had some success since then, making the playoffs in two subsequent seasons but losing each time in the divisional round. It seems as though they haven’t gotten rid of all the baggage; it was nevermore clear when, late this season, Richard Sherman reacted badly to the offense throwing on the goal line against the Rams.
First, the Falcons need a break. Then Quinn will have plenty of time to formulate his message heading into the 2017 season, though his postgame speech foreshadowed themes of toughness and becoming stronger. But remember: history has not been especially kind to the losing team in the Super Bowl. The last losing team to make it all the way was the 1991-93 Bills, and 10 Super Bowl losers in the last quarter-century have gone on to miss the playoffs the next season.
“It can break some people, but the team we have, it’s learning,” Allen said. “We understand the successes and the struggles. We didn’t want this to be one of the struggles, but it is. It’s history and in the past now. We’ve gotta learn from it, because we know the feeling now. We’ve been in the game now. We know you can be up by 25 points with a quarter left, and lose the game. Like, that’s crazy.”
One question will define the Falcons going forward now: Can they mount a comeback of their own?
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England. The Patriots were probably the slower and less-talented team in Super Bowl 51, but they can overcome any deficiency because of their quarterback and their head coach. They have some tough decisions ahead in free agency, but the only thing that matters is that retirement isn’t in the plans just yet for either Tom Brady or Bill Belichick.
2. Atlanta. Leading up to the Super Bowl and through the first three quarters on Sunday night, this was a collection of speed and talent that looked unstoppable.
3. Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers answered critics by saying the Packers could run the table in the regular season—and they did, all the way to the NFC Championship Game. But he needs to stop trying to do it all by himself. If there is ever a year for the Packers to break their free agency reluctance, this is it.
4. Dallas. Did a little asking around, and based on conversations I’ve had, the trade value for Tony Romo sounds like it will be around a third-round pick. The Cowboys can use their return to continue building a young core that’s primed to be very good for many years to come.
5. Seattle. There was a lot of talk after the Seahawks’ divisional-round loss about whether or not their championship window is still open. Personnel-wise, it definitely is, as they’ve locked up many of their core players with extensions over the past few years. The team camaraderie, however, has never seemed to be the same since losing Super Bowl 49.
6. Pittsburgh. Some bad vibes floated to the surface recently, from Antonio Brown’s attitude to Ben Roethlisberger seemingly sending a message of frustration by floating the idea of retirement. The Steelers had a deep postseason run, but also looked like a team underachieving for its talent.
7. Kansas City. The Chiefs looked like a team that may have hit its ceiling. How do they get over the hump to be more than just a playoff team, but a real contender?
8. New York Giants. With this front office, this head coach and this quarterback, the Giants should go into next season in a much better place with Odell Beckham, Jr., which is the most important item on the to-do list.
9. Oakland. Derek Carr will be back. The Raiders will be back.
10. Detroit. Matthew Stafford’s play suffered late in the season, ever since he injured the middle finger on his throwing hand. But before that, he looked like a QB about to take a Matt Ryan-like leap.
11. Miami. The Dolphins took notable strides forward in their first year under Adam Gase. Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury lingers, but the team took the right approach of building around its offensive line. This offseason, they need to add some more impact players on D.
12. Baltimore. I thought if the Ravens could get into the postseason as the AFC North representative, they could win a game or two. But the truth is, they’ve made the playoffs just once over the last four years. They’re in the middle of a rebuild.
13. Washington. All signs are pointing to Kirk Cousins’s returning to Washington next season. He came up small at the end of the regular season, but their best option is to bring him back—and to fix the defense.
14. Denver. The Broncos have more work to do this offseason than might be expected from a team that won the Super Bowl a year ago. Quarterback remains a big question mark, but more important might be adding offensive linemen or receivers to help out whoever is under center.
15. Tampa Bay. It was an uneven 2017 season, but the Buccaneers, for the first time in a long time, looked like a team headed in the right direction.
Also receiving consideration:
18. New Orleans
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