As Lady Gaga took the stage at halftime of Super Bowl LI, the Falcons were well on their way to capping off a near-flawless postseason run. Up 21–3 and set to receive the second-half kickoff, they were on pace to annihilate New England’s no. 1 scoring defense. With another turnover-less half, they’d become the first Super Bowl–winning team to go an entire postseason without one. And with three blowout wins in three games, they’d be the first team since the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lift the Lombardi Trophy without being challenged along the way.
Of course, that perfect first half was followed up with what might be the most disastrous second half in Super Bowl history, and Atlanta lost in overtime 34–28. A well-oiled machine all year, the Falcons offense sputtered in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Patriots. Matt Ryan and Co.’s ineffectiveness forced Atlanta’s defense to stay on the field for long stretches, and after flying around the NRG Stadium turf in the first half, they tired, and Tom Brady picked them apart.
You don’t blow a lead that big without an impressive performance from the opposing side or without a handful of moments of terrible luck, but you also don’t do it without making plenty of your own mistakes. Thanks to a series of strange strategic decisions, poor clock management, and a lack of execution, the last few pages of Atlanta’s seeming fairy tale turned the story into a nightmare.
Coming into the third quarter, Atlanta was dominating both sides of the ball. The offense had run only 19 plays, but that’s because it was executing with the efficiency that made the Falcons tied for the eighth-highest-scoring team in NFL history. Ryan had completed seven of eight passes for 115 yards and a touchdown for a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had combined for 86 yards and a touchdown on nine carries (9.6 yards per tote). Defensively, Atlanta forced a LeGarrette Blount fumble and confounded Brady, sacking him twice and forcing three New England punts. When Robert Alford picked Brady off with 2:33 left in the half and returned the interception 82 yards for a touchdown, it looked like the rout was on.
The beginning of the third quarter brought more of the same. When Ryan hit Coleman for a 6-yard catch-and-run touchdown at the 8:31 mark, Atlanta pushed its lead to 28–3, and a few New England fans started heading for the exits.
On paper, it was, essentially, over. Atlanta spent most of the third quarter and the early part of the fourth with a win probability of 95 percent or better. All the Falcons had to do was run the ball, squeeze the clock out, and then pop champagne bottles. It would be offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s deserved send-off: After a year of brilliant play-calling had (reportedly) earned him a head-coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers, he could take it easy and just call those trusty wide zones and toss sweeps until the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Instead, Shanahan kept his foot on the gas. After Brady hit James White for a touchdown to cut the lead to 28–9 (Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point) with 2:06 left in the third, the Falcons completely abandoned their run game. From that point on, even with a huge lead, they ran the ball just four more times for 10 yards. Freeman picked up 71 rush yards in the first half … and finished with just 75. And when they did pass, it was rarely to their best receiver; Julio Jones finished the game with four catches … on four targets.
While it took more than two plays to allow New England to erase its 25-point second-half deficit, a pair of play calls in the fourth quarter will replay in Shanahan’s mind all offseason long — and beyond.
The first: Following two Coleman runs to open a drive (the second of which sent him to the bench with an ankle injury), Atlanta faced a third-and-1 from its own 36-yard line with 8:31 left. At this point, the Falcons owned a 99.6 percent win probability. In other words: The Patriots didn’t even have a full percentage-point chance of winning, based on models indexing every play from every game in the recent history of the NFL. But instead of playing it safe and just sending Freeman up the gut on a dive or pitching it outside to him to make a first down in space, Shanahan dialed up a pass … and Atlanta’s perfect turnover record went up in smoke.
The Patriots recovered at the Falcons’ 25-yard line. Five plays and a two-point conversion later, they cut the lead to eight. Yet Atlanta’s win probability was 92.1 at this point. Some of the unthinkable had happened, but not close to all of it.
Now for the second play call that Shanahan will never forget: On the next Atlanta drive, two big plays — a 39-yard gain on a quick dump-off to Freeman and a miraculous catch by Jones — set the Falcons up at New England’s 22-yard line with 4:40 remaining, pushing their win percentage to 98.1. Why? All they had to do here was run into the backs of their linemen two more times, run the clock (or force New England to use its timeouts), then ask Pro Bowler Matt Bryant to kick a field goal to push the lead back to 11.
Instead, Shanahan called up another pass and kept his foot on the pedal. And Ryan did exactly what he couldn’t afford to do in that situation: He took a sack. It pushed Atlanta out of field goal range and set up a third-and-23. A holding call on the next play negated a 9-yard completion to Mohamed Sanu, and the pass on third-and-33 fell incomplete. Despite finding themselves with a first-and-10 from the Patriots’ 22-yard line, the Falcons came up empty-handed and, worse still, used up very little clock.
Aided by a miraculous Julian Edelman catch, New England pounced on Atlanta’s terrible handling of the end of that drive, scored on the ensuing possession, and got another two-point conversion to tie the game and push the win probability in their favor for the first time since the game was scoreless.
With 57 seconds left, the Falcons’ next drive got them only to their own 27-yard line. The game went to overtime, the Patriots won the coin toss, and you know what happened next. Ryan and his league-best offense didn’t get another chance for redemption.
The Falcons ran into a buzz saw in the form of Tom Brady’s second half, and there’s no taking away from the miracle the Patriots quarterback produced: In the final two quarters and overtime, Brady completed 28 of 37 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns in leading New England on scoring drives on its final five possessions. But while Atlanta did average 7.5 yards per play against New England’s stout defense, their strange decision-making and sudden inability to execute kept them off the field and paved the way for Brady’s furious play. All in all, the Patriots (93) more than doubled the Falcons (46) in total offensive plays. The Falcons offense was a model of ingenious play calling and unparalleled execution all season long, but they came up short in both of those categories at the worst possible time. Unfair or not, this group is going to be defined by its one epic failure.