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Super Bowl LI Recap: The Falcons’ Collapse Didn’t Happen All at Once

Atlanta blew a 25-point lead by letting the Patriots mount an incremental — and devastating — comeback

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This piece was updated after publication.

There were sights — the tears and the thousand-yard stares — that would have seemed unthinkable even an hour earlier. Eyes were red. Hugs were given. Most attempts at consolation fell short. In the wake of their heartbreaking 34–28 Super Bowl loss to New England, the Falcons looked like a team that had not only let a championship slip away, but also had allowed it to happen in the most soul-crushing way imaginable.

Outside the team’s locker room, owner Arthur Blank held the sobbing young son of an Atlanta staffer. Inside, backup quarterback Matt Schaub comforted an equipment manager who couldn’t help but cry. For the Super Bowl, teams use makeshift changing rooms, small, cramped spaces that turn into piles of shoulder pads and duffel bags. A half hour or so after the final whistle, amid the Falcons’ mess, most people remained silent. Rookie safety Keanu Neal sat in a chair two stalls down from Schaub, his padded pants still on, gazing off into the distance.

Jalen Collins (Getty Images)
Jalen Collins (Getty Images)

“I don’t really know what to feel,” fellow safety Ricardo Allen said. “I’m broken inside, because this is not us. I’m kind of numb to the feeling. It’s terrible. It’s one of the worst feelings ever.”

Before New England stormed back from a 28–3 hole in less than a quarter and a half, the largest deficit any team had overcome in the Super Bowl was 10 points. Before Sunday, the biggest comeback that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had ever mounted was 24 points. In every way, the first overtime game in Super Bowl history was unlike anything we’d ever seen. The flip side of moments like the one Brady enjoyed in NRG Stadium — lifting the Lombardi Trophy for the fifth time and leaving no doubt as to who is the greatest quarterback of all time — is another team’s pain. This time, the Falcons were the ones on the wrong end of history, a result made especially devastating by their two-plus quarters of utter dominance. “No doubt that was a tough one for us,” Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s a hard one in the locker room. No place to put that one mentally for us.”

When Matt Ryan connected with Tevin Coleman for a 6-yard touchdown to extend the Falcons’ lead to 25 points with 8:31 to go in the third quarter, it appeared to be a poetic finishing blow. The way Atlanta isolated its speedy running back against edge rusher Rob Ninkovich in space was reminiscent of the matchup-exploiting football New England has played for a decade and a half in the Belichick era. Ryan closed out the third quarter with 13-of-16 passing for 202 yards and two touchdowns; with his unit moving the ball at will and a surging defense wreaking havoc on Brady and Co., it felt as if the Falcons were a younger, faster version of the Patriots.

Then, just as Atlanta’s Super Bowl dreams started to merge with reality, everything changed. As second-year defensive tackle Grady Jarrett — who piled up three sacks and looked to be bound for MVP honors before the Falcons’ self-immolation began — noted afterward, the unraveling was incremental, a collection of factors that, when combined, was enough to spin the game out of Atlanta’s control. It started harmlessly enough, with left tackle Jake Matthews wrestling linebacker Dont’a Hightower — the quiet key to New England’s surge — to the ground on a second-and-1 with 1:39 remaining in the third quarter. That holding penalty torpedoed Atlanta’s drive, handed the ball back to Brady, and led to a New England field goal that cut the lead to 16. “We just did something to get us off schedule a little bit and put us behind the chains — penalties and just mistakes,” Ryan said. “And so I don’t think it was one thing or another. It was a couple things here and there.”

On the Falcons’ ensuing drive, it was Hightower again making a play for the Patriots, this time tearing untouched off the right side and stripping Ryan before he could throw on a third-and-1. Atlanta had run a similar concept twice earlier in the half with running back Devonta Freeman picking up Hightower in each instance, but this time he misread the assignment, freeing Hightower to break into the backfield unimpeded. “I saw Matt Ryan with the ball in his hand, and I wanted it, so I hit him and took it from him,” said Hightower, smiling, an uncut cigar resting beneath his right hand at an interview podium after the game. Five plays after the fumble, Brady found wide receiver Danny Amendola for a 6-yard touchdown.

Still, the Falcons were firmly in control. Leading 28–20 with less than six minutes remaining, they seemed to summon the iconic sequence necessary to keep Brady — and unfathomable anguish — at bay. It came in the form of Julio Jones performing an act of sorcery along the left sideline, leaping over cornerback Eric Rowe and somehow managing to tap his feet inbounds to secure a 27-yard reception that put Atlanta in field goal range. “You never feel good until those points are scored and the game is over,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said of Jones’s catch. “But Julio made a hell of a play to get us down there, and I was feeling pretty good.”

The series of plays that followed is one that Shanahan and everyone in Atlanta will replay in their heads for quite some time. On first-and-10 from the 22-yard line, Patriots safety Devin McCourty stuffed Freeman for a 1-yard loss. Rather than run the ball again on second down to bleed the clock and ensure the Falcons would stick in field goal range, Ryan dropped back to pass. The pressure generated by defensive end Trey Flowers — lined up inside on the play — was immediate, and Ryan was crushed for a 12-yard loss. “We knew [Ryan] liked to attack the spot and step up in the pocket,” Flowers said. “So any time you can get inside penetration, he was right there [for me] to get the sack.” Ryan’s final line (17-of-23 for 284 yards with two touchdowns) from Sunday was excellent, but his most crucial figure may have been five — the number of times he was sacked, a season high.

At the game’s most important moment, Shanahan decided to maintain the mind-set that had transformed Atlanta’s offense into the league’s highest-scoring unit. Only instead of helping the Falcons put a win away, it came back to bite them. “The thought is to get as many yards as you can,” Shanahan said of his choice to throw on second-and-11. “We were right there on the fringe. It was by no means an easy field goal.”

When asked about the call after the game, Ryan relayed a similar sentiment. The drive had opened with the bold call to throw a play-action leak out to Freeman on first-and-10, which produced a 39-yard gain. In a way, every subsequent decision was an extension of that approach. “Too aggressive? No. I thought Kyle did a good job,” Ryan said. “I thought we played the way that we play. We always play aggressive and play to win and we had opportunities as players.”

Jones’s catch, which felt like a lock to become the next great image in the annals of championship lore, would go down as a beautiful footnote. And Atlanta’s failure to finish off that drive — after Flowers’s sack, Matthews was flagged for another holding penalty, forcing the Falcons to punt — opened the door for the Patriots to make some magic of their own. With 2:28 left in the fourth quarter, wideout Julian Edelman corralled a telekinetic snag for a 23-yard gain, delivering a haymaker unlike anything the Falcons’ young defense had experienced. “That thing hit hard,” Jarrett said. “Growing up, you watch the Super Bowl, and it’s always that moment where you’re like, ‘Damn.’ And as I’m watching on the field, when I saw him catch it, I said, ‘Man, damn.’ It just felt like a whole momentum shift.”

With that, a defense that was physically exhausted became emotionally drained as well. Atlanta had scored so quickly in the first half — one of its touchdowns came five plays after a fumble recovery; another came on an 82-yard pick-six — that by the end of regulation, it had run only 46 plays. New England had run 85. It’s no mystery why the Falcons defense (and especially their pass rush, which had tormented Brady for much of the game) was running on empty during the final stretch. “I think for sure we ran out of gas some,” Quinn said.

Allen says that as the game wore on, it became clear how in-tune Brady, who finished with a Super Bowl–record 466 passing yards, really was. “Ah, man, he was on fire at that point,” Allen said of the start of overtime. “We were going to go out there and compete, but we knew he was on his game.” When the Pats won the coin toss and got the ball to start the extra frame, an air of inevitability took hold. An implosion that started as a few tiny cracks had morphed into a full-scale calamity.

Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady (Getty Images)
Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady (Getty Images)

The Falcons should take solace in the fact their defense played its best three quarters of the season against a Brady-led attack that rivaled their own in nearly every major category. Atlanta started seven players in their first or second seasons, and better days should be ahead with Quinn at the helm. On the other side of the ball, the main cogs should return, but with coordinator Shanahan set to be named head coach of the 49ers, there’s a chance this version of the offense was a shooting star we won’t see again. “This is the first time I’ve had this feeling,” Shanahan said. “I think it’s tough for everybody. It’s as tough as it gets. It’s not just me.”

Those are questions for tomorrow, though. As the Falcons shuffled around the locker room and changed out of their uniforms in silence, thoughts of where they go from here mattered less than their shared agony. “We care for each other,” Neal said, “so we’re just grieving.”

Asked about how long the sting of this loss will last, Allen exhaled. “I’m not a guy who forgets very easy,” he said. “I probably won’t ever forget this. It’ll always be haunting me.”

The Starting 11

A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from the Super Bowl.

1. James White is the real MVP. Brady took home his fourth Super Bowl MVP award thanks to his record-setting effort, but as the quarterback said on Monday morning, the honor really should belong to White. Just as it did against the Seahawks two years ago, New England leaned heavily on its pass-catching back to carry it to a title. White was targeted a ridiculous 16 times (six less than the entire Falcons team combined) and finished with 14 catches for 110 yards. He added 29 yards and two scores on the ground.

The Patriots love to use White in a variety of ways, and his versatility was on full display Sunday night. From all the snaps he spent lined up as a wide receiver to the work he did on routes out of the backfield, he was the focal point of the passing game as New England mounted its comeback. White providing Brady with simple completions played a major role in the Pats’ ability to maintain drives and double the number of plays that Atlanta ran.

2. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett’s terrific performance will be lost to history. The 6-foot, 305-pounder finished the game with three sacks, and very nearly recorded another on the first play of the Patriots’ game-tying, fourth-quarter drive. If Atlanta had held on to win, Jarrett likely would have become the third defensive lineman — and first interior lineman — to be named Super Bowl MVP.

What may have been most impressive about Jarrett’s outing is that each of his sacks happened under different circumstances. The first involved him looping from his defensive tackle position on the right side all the way to the left edge, around two of his Falcons teammates. Given the amount of time it took, it probably qualifies as a coverage sack, but slow-developing stunts like that are designed with that outcome in mind. Because Atlanta often flooded the defensive backfield with at least seven men in coverage, it was content to use twists and other games as a way to create pressure.

Jarrett saved his best move for his final sack. He combined a gorgeous inside-out stutter step with a quick swim move to roast right guard Shaq Mason. A former fifth-round pick (something that still makes no sense), the 23-year-old Jarrett is starting to put his entire game together, and it’s finds like him that make Atlanta’s defensive future so bright.

3. Let’s acknowledge for a second that Alex Mack played in the Super Bowl on a broken fucking leg. In the two weeks since the NFC title game, two things about Atlanta’s All-Pro center became clear: (1) He was obviously hurt, as the Falcons kept holding him out of practice, and (2) there was no chance in hell that he would miss Sunday’s clash against the Patriots. News leaked over the weekend that Mack’s “ankle” issue was really a cracked left fibula suffered in the 44–21 win over the Packers; when he pulled off his sock in the locker room following that matchup with Green Bay, Mack had a yellowish bruise on the lower part of his shin. It turns out that the team’s decision to yank him late in that game was more than a precaution.

The fact that Mack not only played in the Super Bowl, but also helped to anchor a ground game that gashed New England during the first half is patently absurd. Both of Freeman’s big runs to set up his 5-yard score early in the second quarter involved cutbacks made possible by Mack sustaining blocks in the middle of Atlanta’s offense. He played a major (if quiet) role in the Falcons turning into the league’s most prolific unit this season, and his impact was felt until the very end.

4. Patriots defensive tackle Trey Flowers had a monster second half, and it was about much more than his game-swinging sack. Along with Hightower’s pivotal strip of Ryan, Flowers’s sack that knocked Atlanta out of field goal range late in the fourth quarter is one of the plays that will get mentioned first when people piece together how New England came back to win. But the second-year defensive end’s work against the run was just as vital to the Pats’ efforts.

Trey Flowers (Getty Images)
Trey Flowers (Getty Images)

On a second-and-1 with 1:30 left in the third quarter (a play that also featured Hightower drawing a holding penalty on Matthews), Flowers dropped running back Tevin Coleman for a 1-yard loss. It was the first of two plays Flowers made in second-and-short situations that kept Atlanta from picking up first downs and staying on the field. Getting to Ryan was key to New England climbing back in the game, but just as important was its success limiting the run down the stretch — especially after the Pats were hammered on the ground during the first and second quarters.

5. The 36-year-old Dwight Freeney put on a master class in pass rushing in the Super Bowl. Freeney spent the entire first half using speed rushes as a way to lure New England left tackle Nate Solder into committing to the edge, leaving him vulnerable to the patented Freeney spin move that Solder had to know was coming eventually.

On the Pats’ second-quarter drive that ended in cornerback Robert Alford’s 82-yard pick-six, Freeney successfully hit the spin move twice, bothering Brady both times. Whether it was with counters, speed, or power, he was a consistent force against New England. If Sunday was Freeney’s final game in the NFL, I’m not sure he could have ended with a better showing.

6. The Pats are the kings of situational football, and the design and execution of their two-point conversion attempts reinforced that. After slicing Atlanta’s lead to 28–18 with Amendola’s 6-yard score in the fourth quarter, the Patriots drew within one possession by snapping the ball directly to White in the backfield, a staple of Belichick’s playbook since the days of Kevin Faulk. Using a back who’s primarily a receiving threat on what is supposed to look like a botched pass play is vintage Belichick black magic, and it’s enhanced by Brady’s status as football’s most overqualified Ed McMahon. No quarterback has ever been more game to sell the gimmick; his feigned panic on this two-pointer was more of the same.

New England’s excellent design continued on its second two-point try, this time to tie the game at 28 near the end of regulation. With three receivers to the left, Amendola quickly motioned inside before the snap, pulling nickel corner Brian Poole into the collection of bodies toward the line of scrimmage and allowing the Patriots to best exploit the Falcons’ man coverage near the goal line.

7. The Falcons’ loss doesn’t mean we should forget what Taylor Gabriel did to Malcolm Butler.

This is important, people.

8. New England did what Atlanta expected against Julio Jones: relentlessly double-teamed him and dared the Falcons’ other receivers to beat it. The Patriots didn’t mess around when it came to providing extra help on Jones, who often had three defenders drift into his orbit. Atlanta did a great job all fall of moving Jones around its formations, but in consistently lining him up inside on Sunday, it was able to pull even more defenders in his direction, opening up lanes elsewhere on the field. Tight end Austin Hooper’s 18-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter was made possible in part because Jones took both safeties with him as he sprinted up the middle of the field, freeing Ryan to place his throw in the sea of green he had to the inside of Hooper’s seam route.

9. While few may remember the call, Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 from his own 46-yard line with more than six minutes left in the third quarter might have saved the game. I’m not sure exactly how many coaches would have punted in that situation, but I’m willing to bet that it’s more than a few. Brady’s 17-yard strike to Amendola on that play kept New England’s drive afloat and, in the end, was one of the primary reasons that a comeback was even possible.

10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: One more time, let’s celebrate a catch that looks completely CGI’d.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part II: Edelman matches, swinging a Super Bowl and a season.