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The Atlanta Falcons Somehow One-upped the 28-3 Choke Job

Sunday’s shocking loss to the Cowboys may not have had the same stakes as Atlanta’s infamous Super Bowl debacle, but by some metrics, it was even worse

AP/Ringer illustration

What do you even do if you’re a Falcons fan right now? Three and a half years ago, when Atlanta famously blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, it was a 1-in-333 choke job. With six minutes left in the third quarter and the Falcons up by 25, ESPN gave Atlanta a 99.7 percent chance of winning, which is the type of game a team should blow only about once every 20 years. Just 52 games later, the team had an even worse loss:

The Cowboys beat the Falcons on Sunday, 40-39, in what can only be called a generational choke job. Under the current 16-game schedule, NFL teams reach 1,000 games after 62.5 years. The Falcons as a franchise have played only 857 games in their entire history—including playoffs—stretching back to 1966. With a 99.9 percent chance of winning in the fourth quarter, the Falcons’ loss is one of the most improbable results—with a one in 1,000 chance of happening—in NFL history. In fact, given that the Falcons had zero turnovers, 0.1 percent might be too high:

How the hell did this happen? The Falcons actually retained 99.9 percent odds to win the game for three consecutive plays, hanging onto a nine-point lead with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter, all the way to a Dak Prescott incompletion on second-and-7 with 2:33 remaining. Then things started to unravel. After a few short gains for the Cowboys, Prescott hit Michael Gallup for 38 yards, setting up Dallas on the 5-yard line. A few plays later, Prescott punched it in with his legs for the touchdown.

Still, Atlanta had a two-point lead, and 1:49 left on the clock. Modern NFL kickoff rules make onside kicks nearly impossible to recover when the other team is expecting it. The Cowboys had no timeouts. A relatively routine onside kick recovery would have ended the game instantly. But then this happened:

Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein hadn’t had a successful onside kick since 2014, and this doesn’t look like a good effort. He places the ball on its side, then lightly taps it toward the 45-yard line. It’s not really clear what the strategy was. The ball has to travel 10 yards before the kicking team can touch it, but the Falcons seemingly didn’t realize that they can touch it whenever they want.

What makes this even more head-scratching is that the Falcons have recovered their last three onside kick attempts with kicker Younghoe Koo. In an era of unsuccessful onside kicks, they are virtually the only team that has proved successful at recovering them. Perhaps the Falcons special teams is so accustomed to recovering their own onside kicks that they forgot the rules for opponents’ tries. But even that seems wildly improbable. ESPN doesn’t have a fancy probability model for this, but the chances of at least five Falcons forgetting that they can touch the football must also be something like 0.1 percent.

After the recovery, it took Prescott and the Cowboys offense just two plays to get into field goal range, and it was on—what else?—a blown coverage:

A couple of Ezekiel Elliott runs helped the Cowboys run the clock down to :05, and then Zuerlein hit the 46-yard field goal to punch Dallas’s ticket to a 1-1 record. The Falcons fell to 0-2. Prescott finished with 450 yards passing and a touchdown through the air with another 18 yards and a whopping three scores on the ground. Rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb had 106 receiving yards, Cooper also hit the century mark, and Elliott had 89 rushing yards and a touchdown.

The ending was hell for the Falcons, but the beginning was trying for the Cowboys. Dallas fumbled three times in the first quarter of the game, and Atlanta raced to a 20-0 start. It looked like a Cowboys team that came into 2020 with high hopes behind a stacked offense, solid defense, and new head coach was in complete disarray.

The improbable comeback may have saved the Cowboys’ season—and doomed the Falcons. Even with a seventh playoff spot, teams that start 0-2 have around only an 11 percent chance of making the postseason. The Cowboys, at least, play in the putrid NFC East—but Atlanta has to contend with the Saints and Buccaneers in the NFC South. Their road to the postseason is looking incredibly narrow.

On the flip side, the Falcons have shown that they are the masters of making improbable events happen. Maybe sometime soon one of those events will break their way.