The sonic boom heard around the world around 10pm Sunday night was everyone collectively jumping off the Atlanta Falcons bandwagon. The Falcons lost Super Bowl LI 34-28 in overtime to the New England Patriots.
It was nice that for about a week in their entire 51-year existence that the Falcons were the golden boys of the league and sports pundits. The Falcons were winning the “popular” vote because of politics ironically (Patriot owner Robert Kraft and QB Tom Brady voted for Donald Trump) and for the serial cheating scandals that have followed the Patriots since their first Super Bowl trip of their dynasty in 2002 to two years ago. All accusations have been substantiated but the league never did anything about them, only giving Brady a four-game suspension to begin this season, yet nothing regarding the Super Bowl outcomes. Even this year there were two controversies that people pretty much ignored for unknown reasons.
First, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanihan’s playbook disappeared for 30 minutes at media day and later in the week drones were caught flying over the Falcons’ practice. Nothing to see here, right? Another Patriot-gate to be brushed under the rug once again, but I digress.
For the better part of three quarters the Atlanta Falcons were the toast of the league as they held a 25-point lead over the favored Patriots. Then things went bad. Very bad.
There were a lot of reasons to doubt the Falcons in the Super Bowl. They deserved to be there. They played lights out the last month of the season and made mincemeat out of teams more favored to make the big game. But these were the Patriots. They’ve been to seven Super Bowls since the 2001 season. Many wondered if the Falcons were paper Falcons, looking good on paper but crumpling when it came time to play.
For almost three quarters of Super Bowl LI they were the toast of the town. But alas, the house of cards on which the Falcons were built caused them to tumble. Don’t get me wrong; I think the Falcons should have won this game. But a few things that were actual liabilities reared their ugly head at the wrong time.
Atlanta’s biggest liability coming into the big game was defense. This is a defense that has grown leaps and bounds since week one. However the last month of the season and through the playoffs they played well above their experience and thanks to an offense that was scoring at will many of the points the defense surrendered were during junk time after the game was already decided. Why did Atlanta lose after being ahead 28-3 midway through the third quarter?
The defense was gassed.
For almost three quarters the Atlanta defense played way over their heads. Tom Brady looked every bit of 39 for a majority of the game until Atlanta ran out of gas playing the fourth quarter on fumes. The Atlanta defense did everything and more you could ask as they sacked, hurried and hit Brady and then the interception. For a while there Robert Alford’s pick-six of Brady looked to be the icing on the cake. But then something happened – nothing.
The Atlanta defense that was moving the ball at will against the number one defense in the league shut down. They got cold both literally and figuratively. From a real time perspective the Atlanta offense was off the field for more than an hour. The last time Matt Ryan and company were on the field in the first half was at the 8:48 mark when they extended their lead to 14-0 on Austin Hooper’s 19-yard touchdown reception. The Patriots on the next series attempted to mount a drive of their own but that’s when Alford intercepted Brady’s pass returning it 82 yards to stun the crowd in Houston taking a 21-0 lead with just over two minutes to go in the half. The Patriot mounted a drive late settling for a 41-yard field goal to make the score 21-3 at the half.
The Falcons offense that had been off the field for half the second quarter compounded b an extended halftime show featuring Lady Gaga cooled any momentum the offense had. After exchanging punts to open the second half the Atlanta offense seemed to find a rhythm as they extended their lead to 28-3 on Tevin Coleman’s six-yard run.
But then the Patriots woke up and the Falcon defense that had sacked Tom Brady five times son the day and intercepted him once were on their heels.
Slowly at first the Patriots began to claw their way back into the game before tying it with less than a minute in regulation. The defense that was considered a liability going into the game were no longer able to stop the Patriots even conceding two two-point conversions, the latter tying the game.
And while the many have had fun at Atlanta’s expense, some might think deservedly, there are six plays that defined the game or if one of them played out differently we would be cheering on the world champion Falcons instead of all the bandwagon fans jumping off at the same time.
Three defensive plays and three offensive plays defined Atlanta’s meltdown and any single one of them having another outcome would have changed the outcome of the game.
While New England was struggling to fight their way back in the game three identical penalties by Atlanta changed to course of the game. On three straight third down plays the Falcons appeared to stop the Patriots forcing a punt. On these three consecutive third down plays Atlanta was flagged for defensive holding keeping the drive alive. The Patriots finally scored and many of us were beginning to get nervous.
Into the fourth quarter and the Falcons recover an onside kick and are in great position to add to their lead. After a first down Matt Ryan is sacked for a loss. On the next play Ryan completes a pass to Devonta Freeman to get down to the Patriot 26 yard line. However a flag was thrown and Jake Matthews was guilty of a hold moving the ball back ten more yards and moving the ball out of field goal range. If there were a different outcome on either play the Falcons more than likely would have kicked a field goal and most likely would have won 31-28. And the sixth play I spoke about was a strip sack of Ryan. I was surprised the play wasn’t reviewed as it looked as if Ryan’s arm was moving forward making it an incomplete pass instead of a fumble.
So the Falcons lost in what will go down as perhaps the greatest meltdown in pro sports. Being a lifelong Falcons fan who until the last ten years or so wasn’t used to success find great satisfaction in the fact the team not only made the big game but also for 59 minutes led. Sure there is plenty of would of could of and should of to go around or make excuses or even find reasons to jump off the proverbial bandwagon I take great solace in knowing the Falcons did something this season 30 other teams were unable.
People may want to blame Ryan for the loss. It seems the marquee quarterback is always to blame. Ryan’s BQ rating for the Super Bowl was over 144, literally 50 points higher than Brady’s. Then there’s fingers pointed at now former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanihan who many thought took his foot off the gas after the half. That and the fact his mind was in San Francisco where he’ll be head coach next season and was just going through the motions.
Despite all the negativity following the loss the Falcons have nothing to be upset about. The core of the team is young on both sides of the ball and the defense that was considered a liability coming into 2016 grew by leaps and bounds before everyone’s eyes and will continue to improve. The offense was potent before Shanihan and will continue to be so. The future in Atlanta looks bright.
– Dave Weinthal
Enigma's mobile Concert Calendar!