The Atlanta Falcons choked during the biggest moment in franchise history.
There's no other way to describe the team's Super Bowl LI loss to the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium in Houston. After leading by 25 points with 18 minutes left to play, Atlanta allowed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, as the Patriots roared back with 31 unanswered points to emerge with a 34-28 overtime victory.
An inevitable argument occurs after a slim margin decides any major contest: Did the winner earn the victory, or did the loser give it away?
The Falcons handed the Patriots another Super Bowl title courtesy of mental mistakes, penalties and a porous defensive effort when they desperately needed a stop.
Instead of being crowned champions, the 2016 Falcons will be nothing more than a footnote in NFL history. When future generations reflect back on Tom Brady and his accomplishments, they'll see he holds the Super Bowl records for the most career victories of any quarterback (five) and single-game passing yards (466).
What team did Brady play to break those records? The Falcons.
If this year's Falcons squad is remembered, it'll experience similar derision as the NBA's 2015-16 Golden State Warriors and MLB's 2016 Cleveland Indians.
This is now Atlanta's fate, and fans around the league won't let the franchise forget its failure.
Head coach Dan Quinn, his staff and players have no one to blame but themselves. While there are times when a team builds a lead before running into a buzz saw, this isn't one of those cases. The Falcons were the team to beat, but they didn't look like the same squad during the second half or overtime.
Everything started to fall apart with 8:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. Atlanta still held a 28-12 lead and possessed the ball. On 3rd-and-1 from the Falcons' 36-yard line, offensive coordinator—and future San Francisco 49ers head coach—Kyle Shanahan called a pass play. Running back Devonta Freeman didn't recognize linebacker Dont'a Hightower, as he blitzed off the edge, until it was too late, and the defender got a clean shot on quarterback Matt Ryan.
The hit caused a fumble, as the NFL's Twitter feed captured:
Matt Ryan is SACKED. And FUMBLES! @Patriots ball! #SB51 #Patriots https://t.co/o1lgQktgrI2017-2-6 02:40:23
"I saw Matt Ryan with the ball in his hands, I wanted it so I hit him and took it," Hightower said, per Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper.
Five plays later, Brady connected with wide receiver Danny Amendola for a six-yard touchdown. Running back James White converted the two-point conversion to bring the Patriots within eight points.
Even so, the Falcons still held a 28-20 lead with an opportunity to close out the game. The offense failed to do so a second time.
After Ryan and Co. orchestrated a drive all the way to the Patriots' 22-yard line—including an astonishing tip-toe catch along the sideline from Julio Jones—the following happened:
- Patriots safety Devin McCourty stopped Freeman for a one-yard loss.
- Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers sacked Ryan for a 12-yard loss.
- Ryan connected with wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for a nine-yard gain, but the play was called back due to a Jake Matthews holding penalty.
- Now out of field-goal range, Ryan failed to connect with wide receiver Taylor Gabriel on 3rd-and-33.
- Matt Bosher punted the ball to Julian Edelman with 3:38 left to play.
Atlanta potentially could have sealed the game with a field goal on that drive. Instead of going up 11 with only three-and-a-half minutes remaining, the Falcons went backward.
"You always want to run the ball," Shanahan said, per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure. "You don't want to just run the ball and make your guy take a 50-yard field goal."
Matthews told reporters he thought the Falcons would "extend our lead and win it" in the second half, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold. But his mistake became one of the crucial reasons why that didn't happen.
Meanwhile, Brady's magnificence was never more apparent. As Pro Football Focus noted, his strong second-half performance should have come as no surprise:
Pro Football Focus @PFF
Tom Brady gets even better in the second half of games... https://t.co/lgEwuX5hOr2017-2-3 02:03:01
That said, no one could have been prepared for what he pulled off Sunday.
During the fourth quarter, Brady completed 16 of his 21 pass attempts for 196 yards and a touchdown. He also got the team into scoring position with five straight completions to start overtime.
Early in the contest, the Falcons created pressure with their defensive front. Quinn's group didn't need to blitz to make Brady's life uncomfortable. In fact, the unit managed 17 quarterback hurries on the night, according to Pro Football Focus.
When those defenders were breathing down Brady's neck, the quarterback started to display happy feet and wasn't his typical calm self. Once he settled, though, the game took a dramatically different turn.
Atlanta's defensive backs made life difficult for Brady's favorite targets, too. As the game wore on, he chose to rely on alternatives.
White led the team with a Super Bowl-record 14 receptions for 110 yards. He also scored the game-winning two-yard touchdown in overtime.
With Edelman and Amendola garnering most of Atlanta's defensive attention, rookie Malcolm Mitchell emerged as a major X-factor. The fourth-round pick grabbed six receptions for 70 yards, including an 11-yard snag on New England's game-tying fourth-quarter drive.
The Patriots' offensive depth allowed the Brady to finish 43-of-62 on the night. The quarterback took what was available and made the best of the situation en route to his record-setting fourth Super Bowl MVP.
"He's the best ever," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the game, per Legwold. "There's no flinch in Tom."
Brady wasn't named the league's regular-season MVP, though. Ryan was.
The Falcons quarterback couldn't have played much better than he did Sunday (aside from that critical fumble), as he went 17-of-23 for 284 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His performance just wasn't enough when playing against the greatest quarterback ever to step onto a football field.
"That's a tough loss," Ryan lamented afterward, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "Obviously very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done, hard to find words."
This loss is going to sting for a long time. Depending on how the Falcons perform over the next few years, the pain may never disappear.
Even so, there are still reasons for hope.
Ryan is only 31 years old and remains in his prime. The offense isn't just built around him, either. Wide receiver Julio Jones won't turn 30 for another two years. Freeman and fellow running back Tevin Coleman are still on their rookie contracts. First-year tight end Austin Hooper caught a touchdown Sunday and became a big part of the offense as the season wore on.
Defensively, the Falcons field a young and exciting unit. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who sacked Brady three times during the biggest game of his life, is a legitimate building block. Edge defender Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks during the regular season. The rest of the defense is young, and it swarms to the football.
Early in the contest, rookie Deion Jones looked like the favorite to win MVP after a tackle for loss, deflected pass and forced fumble. Fellow first-year linebacker De'Vondre Campbell put pressure on Brady. This year's first-round pick, Keanu Neal, led the team with 13 total tackles. Fourth-year cornerback Robert Alford snagged the first pick-six Brady has ever thrown in the playoffs.
Defensive back Desmond Trufant will also be back next season after he landed on injured reserve in November with a shoulder injury. He's Atlanta's best defender, and he missed the team's final 10 games.
Right now, the Falcons' exciting future isn't much of a consolation prize. The team is hurting, and it should be. But this shouldn't be the organization's only chance to claim a title. The Falcons are too young and talented not to make it back.
Plenty of teams choke yet still find a way to win. The Falcons handed Super Bowl LI to New England, and the Patriots capitalized.
The only way to wash out the taste of such a devastating loss is by bouncing back and playing for another Super Bowl next year. The Falcons are talented enough to do so if they don't let this crushing defeat define who they are.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.