Super Bowl LI had no business being a competitive football game.
The second half should have been boring. It should have made the legions of New England Patriots haters rejoice before yawning and heading to bed.
It should have been dull, with the Atlanta Falcons gliding gleefully to their first championship in franchise history. It should have been easy, because nothing gives you a cozy feeling quite like a 25-point lead.
The Falcons led 21-3 at halftime and then added to that lead with a third-quarter touchdown. With just over 23 minutes left in regulation, they were ahead by four scores. They had given themselves what felt like more than enough cushion and room for error.
But the dam built by that lead didn’t just leak in drips. It collapsed in historic fashion due to untimely self-inflicted wounds. The result was more postseason agony for a fanbase that’s endured plenty of it, and a 34-28 loss in an unexpectedly thrilling overtime game, the first in Super Bowl history.
If there’s a Falcons fan in your life, please give them a hug today. Sunday night's conclusion was the worst sucker punch to the football soul.
The Falcons’ demise was a product of their own making, which is why the longest, coldest winter will come with a few extra spoonfuls of pain.
We’ll get to the specific events that turned the Falcons into the worst kind of NFL trivia question after becoming the first team to lead a Super Bowl by 25 points and lose. First, it’s important to remember just how certain it seemed that red and black confetti would be falling at the end of the evening.
It all feels like a distant memory now, but please recall the opening 30 minutes when the Patriots had no answer at all for anything Atlanta’s offense did. And especially not for running back Devonta Freeman.
The Patriots finished the regular season ranked third in run defense while allowing only 88.6 yards on the ground per game. By the 12:15 mark of the second quarter—when Freeman scored on a five-yard touchdown run for the first points of the game—the Falcons had already collected 85 rushing yards.
At that point, Freeman was roasting a usually strong Patriots front seven and had already gained 71 rushing yards. In hindsight, the seed for the Falcons’ hard fall into the dark regions of Super Bowl history was planted then.
As Jon Solomon from CBSSports.com noted, the Falcons backfield and offensive line were steamrolling the Patriots. Yet inexplicably, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan abandoned the run when he needed it most.
That’s right: Freeman totaled 71 yards on six carries to start the game and was then given just five more carries even as the Falcons stretched out their lead.
They piled on through their usual masterpiece drives that utilized multiple weapons, highlighted by wide receiver Julio Jones and his simply unfair acrobatics. Fellow wideout Taylor Gabriel was included too when he made Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler do a well-executed backward somersault.
The offensive onslaught was expected from the league’s top-ranked unit, which averaged 33.8 points per game during the regular season. The Falcons' defensive pummeling wasn’t so expected, and especially not the five sacks Brady took, three of which were at the hands of defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
And the real stunner was the turnovers generated by the Falcons defense. The Patriots offense turned the ball over only 11 times during the regular season. Then they coughed it up twice in the first half Sunday, one of which ended with six points going the other way on cornerback Robert Alford’s 82-yard interception return.
So yes, absolutely everything was coming up Falcons in the first half, and well into the third quarter too. There was no reason for panic, and instead, the greatest fight of the night seemed to be the one against sleep for the casual Super Bowl viewer.
And yet, remarkably, the Falcons led for nearly the entire game and still lost.
There wasn't one single reason why all that offense and surprisingly stingy defense was wasted. Instead, we can look back on a collection of calamity-filled events.
The spiral began with simply being unable to get off the field. The Patriots had five successful third- or fourth-down conversion attempts during the second half.
And the Patriots weren’t just inching past the chains on those game-altering snaps either. No, they were gaining large, valuable chunks of field position.
|Key Patriots 3rd- and 4th-down conversions in 2nd half|
|Game time||Down and distance||Result|
|6:04, 3rd quarter||4th-and-3||17-yard pass to Amendola|
|4:49, 3rd quarter||3rd-and-8||Brady scrambled 15 yards|
|12:20, 4th quarter||3rd-and-1||25-yard pass to Martellus Bennett|
|7:03, 4th quarter||3rd-and-11||12-yard pass to Malcolm Mitchell|
|3:17, 4th quarter||3rd-and-10||16-yard pass to Chris Hogan|
That’s one blown fourth-down opportunity to give the ball back to a white-hot rushing offense, and three others on 3rd-and-8 or longer.
Those missed opportunities were both maddening and, to some degree at least, inevitable. The Falcons’ defensive stonewalling of Brady wasn’t sustainable, and they would eventually bleed back yards and points. Brady passed for a Super Bowl record-setting 466 yards, and he torched an inexperienced Falcons secondary for 287 of those yards in the second half.
But the Falcons had enough of a lead to endure that defensive regression. The wounds that proved fatal were the self-inflicted ones. And surprisingly, those scars were left by the offense.
The first flesh wound came when Freeman completely whiffed in blitz protection on third down.
At the time, the Falcons still enjoyed a comfortable 16-point lead, and nearly half of the fourth quarter had ticked off. The Patriots needed a dramatic change in field position to breathe life into their historic comeback bid. And Freeman graciously granted that gift when he did so very little to impede blitzing Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower kept barrelling toward quarterback Matt Ryan, knocking the ball loose and handing it over to Brady at the Falcons’ 25-yard line. Five plays later, Brady hooked up with receiver Danny Amendola for another touchdown pass. Suddenly, it was a one-score game after the successful two-point conversion.
Let’s pause to emphasize something once more with feeling: At this point, the game should have been a cure for insomnia, a lopsided drubbing. Instead, the Falcons found themselves in the position of having to avoid shattering embarrassment.
But Atlanta still very much controlled its own fate. And having said destiny in the hands of the league’s newly named MVP is always a secure feeling.
Ryan took his next snap with less than six minutes remaining, and immediately Freeman busted loose for 39 yards after a short pass. Then Jones made a 27-yard catch while going into full gymnast mode.
Already, the Falcons were well into field-goal range and on the Patriots’ 22-yard line. They just needed to run the ball, kill as much clock as possible and then take the three points and a championship.
Instead, for reasons only Shanahan understands, Ryan was asked to drop back and pass on second down. Ryan needed to do anything other than take a sack on the play, and that included putting the ball in the fifth row. But there was Ryan, bizarrely scanning the field when the game situation called for another run, and he lost 12 yards on a sack.
Shanahan will saunter off to become the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers with that as the final, and lasting, memory of his time as the Falcons’ play-caller. It wasn’t the final nail in Atlanta’s coffin, though. That came one play later, when a completion to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu—a completion that would have put the Falcons back into field-goal range—was nullified by a holding penalty.
Just like that, a juggernaut offense moved backward 22 yards during a season-defining moment. Toss in the heroics and/or dumb luck from Patriots wideout Julian Edelman with his catch fueled by David Tyree karma, and the Falcons’ second half was a stark pit of despair next to their triumphant opening two quarters.
The sting of Sunday’s loss will take months to fade, though the rejuvenation of moving into a new stadium next fall will surely help.
Once the healing process is complete, the Falcons won’t be going away. They’re a team with core young defensive pieces on the rise, including 2016 sack leader Vic Beasley and Jarrett, who dazzled under the Super Bowl spotlight. And they now have a dynamic backfield to support an MVP quarterback and an all-universe wide receiver.
The future is still blindingly bright. But the present can’t possibly get any darker after the worst Super Bowl choke of all time.