HOUSTON — Welcome to Atlanta where the players play and the sports teams rip your hearts out.
Of course, this is how it ends for these Falcons.
Up 28–3 against the Patriots with less than 20 minutes in the game, one of the greatest offenses in NFL history couldn’t muster another point for the rest of the game to save its exhausted defense. New England engineered the biggest postseason comeback of Tom Brady’s career—and the largest comeback in Super Bowl history—before sending the game to overtime (also a historic first) and winning before the Falcons could touch the ball again.
In the end, the dynamic Falcons offense may have been hoisted by its own petard as offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan ignored conventional conservative wisdom late in the game and kept trying to get the mile when an inch would have been sufficient.
“There’s always a fine line with it,” Shanahan, the soon-to-be-named 49ers coach, said of balancing play-calling with the clock. “Got a little bit stale for a bit. Had a couple three-and-outs… It’s not about run-pass ratio, what I look at. It’s, did you stay on the field and run your offense?”
Of course, the Falcons did not, and Shanahan will have to replay those decisions for some time. Twice in the final 16 minutes of regulation the Falcons had three-and-outs that featured a failed play one yard shy of a fresh set of downs. Tevin Coleman lost a yard on second-and-one before a Jake Matthews hold on the first three-and-out. Then Matt Ryan—the league’s newly crowned MVP and owner of a perfect passer rating early in the second half, which isn’t an easy feat against coach Bill Belichick—fumbled on a sack that gave the ball to the Patriots almost in the red zone.
Clinging to a 28–20 lead with less than six minutes left, the Falcons had their chance to put the game away. The Patriots had controlled the ball and time of possession but Atlanta could choke out New England here, and it felt like it was going to go that way after the Falcons got two chunk plays, including Julio Jones’s toe-tap catch that eventually ended up as the second-best catch of the game.
With first-and-10 at the New England 22 and less than five minutes left, the Falcons lost a yard on a Devonta Freeman run. No worries, though, because the offense was within range for kicker Matt Bryant, and a field goal would make it a two-possession game. But Ryan went back to pass and got sacked, losing 12 yards and ultimately their shot at attempting what might have been a game-saving field goal.
“Too aggressive? No. I thought Kyle did a good job,” Ryan said after the game. “I thought we played the way that we play. We always play aggressive and play to win, and we had opportunities as players. We had opportunities and we made some mistakes on the field that, at the end of the day, ended up costing us.”
Several Falcons players said similar things after the game. Perhaps the pain of the loss was clouding their logic—or maybe their logic is sound because this is exactly what got them to Houston. They scored 36 and 44 points against Seattle and Green Bay, respectively, this postseason, and they seemed well on their way to reaching that mark again on Sunday night.
“No one was like ‘Hey, let’s try to get out of this game by only winning by three points,’” tight end Austin Hooper said. “Or ‘Let’s try to play the clock game and let this thing run out.’ No. We were trying to do our thing. In the second half they were the better football team.”
And that wasn’t easy to forget after the game. There’s always unique insult to the agony for every Super Bowl loser; the game has become such a production that the postgame can be a logistical mess, often putting the loser in difficult situations. Atlanta DT Grady Jarrett—who sacked Brady three times Sunday night—crossed paths with an elated Brady, both in EZGO golf carts, on his way to the interview room. Falcons owner Arthur Blank hugged a crying child for 30 seconds just beside, but not inside, a curtained-off area labeled private.
To know this loss is to know Atlanta sports. The Braves have set the model and the Falcons apparently took notes over the years. In 1991, the Braves led the Twins three games to two in the World Series, then dropped Game 6 thanks to Kirby Puckett and again lost in Game 7 in extra innings. The Braves won 14 consecutive division titles but only one World Series—the city’s only title.
The Falcons’ own 51-year history is filled with more futility than success. They lost in their previous Super Bowl appearance and had the embarrassment of their high-character safety getting caught in a prostitution sting the night before.
Consider also that the Hawks have never reached the NBA Finals and the Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets, and you’ll understand why this loss is so very Atlanta.
“It sucks for the fans. It sucks for me,” Jarrett said. “It’s tough when you put this hard work in and come out on the short end.”
Sports fans have been treated to some classics in the past year. LeBron’s Cavaliers overcame the 3–1 deficit to win in seven games. Villanova topped North Carolina on a buzzer-beater. The Cubs won in seven games. Clemson-Alabama lived up to its rematch hype. And now we have what could be the greatest Super Bowl ever.
Before the game, the storylines surrounding a Patriots’ win practically wrote themselves: Brady is the greatest. Belichick is the greatest. Is this the greatest sports dynasty ever?
But for Atlantans, they knew that if the end result was a Patriots’ win, it was going to be painful.