HOUSTON — This wasn't just another in Atlanta's lengthy series of Hard Knocks and Epic Collapses. This was the absolute worst. This was the game that, with 17 minutes and seven seconds remaining, could not be lost. It was.
No team in the Super Bowl's first 50 installments had led by 11 points and not won. The Falcons led by 25 and lost. For three quarters, they played so well on this biggest of stages that these fingers were composing a tone poem to Dan Quinn and his Brotherhood and Kyle Shanahan and his unstoppable offense and Matt Ryan as the architect of this franchise's deliverance. That bit of verse has been shredded, along with a starving city's hopes and dreams.
Officially, the Falcons lost 34-28 on James White's 2-yard touchdown run on the first series of the first overtime of any Super Bowl, but this game was gone when the Patriots guessed right on the post-regulation's coin toss. ("Heads," they called, and so it was.) By then, the Falcons' young and swift defense had seen it legs turn to jelly.
Those defenders had given a brassy account of themselves against the great Tom Brady, sacking him five times and watching Robert Alford take one of his passes 82 yards to put the Falcons ahead 21-0. With the defense going above and beyond anyone's expectations, this team should be flying back to Hartsfield-Jackson with the Lombardi Trophy buckled into first class. Alas, there will be no triumphant return, no parade down Peachtree. There will be only this pejorative question:
How does a team capable of playing that well choke so badly?
I'm sorry. I hate that word. I rarely use it, largely because I don't think it often applies. But how else can we describe this? You're up 25 with barely 17 minutes to go. You've got the NFL's best offense, the NFL's most valuable player. You need one more drive, one crummy field goal, to put this to bed. And the raging offense, as they say in horse racing, spit the bit.
Even after the Patriots bled out a field goal to close within 16, only 9:48 remained. The Falcons handed the ball to Tevin Coleman twice. On third and 1 with 8:31, Shanahan called a pass. Ryan was sacked by Dont'a Hightower and lost the ball. The MVP did the one thing he couldn't do. Soon New England was within eight points and the Falcons had to move. And they did. Until they stopped.
Ryan threw off a play-action to Devonta Freeman, who was alone in the left flat. Two snaps later, the outrageous Julio Jones made the most outrageous catch of his life, which is saying something, to move the ball to the Patriots' 22, easily within Matt Bryant's field-goal range. Had the Falcons run the ball three times and let Bryant swing his leg, they'd be champs.
But no. Ryan dropped to throw. Trey Flowers burst up the middle and shoved center Alex Mack, playing with a broken leg, into Ryan. The sack moved the ball back to the 35. Then Jake Matthews was flagged for holding. The clinching field goal was never attempted. The Falcons punted instead.
The Patriots, who'd been undone in a Super Bowl by David Tyree's helmet catch, conjured up a reasonable facsimile on their tying drive. Brady threw over the middle for Julian Edelman. Alford tipped the ball. Edelman grabbed it inches above the turf. Feeling it slip, he re-grabbed it. Quinn challenged the call, lost the challenge and his final timeout to boot. The Patriots tied the score on White's 1-yard run and Danny Amendola's 2-point conversion at 0:57. The Falcons took the ball with 52 second left and managed but first down.
Mercifully, overtime went fast. The Patriots needed only eight plays. The Falcons' defense had nothing left. Their offense was outgained by 202 yards and ran 46 plays to New England's 93. The offense had two chances to kill the game and whiffed. Ryan lost the ball and took a sack. As glorious as his season and his team's bold run to within sight of a championship were, you cannot paint a smiley face on a year that ends with a lost 25-point lead as the whole world watches.
I'm sorry. I really am. I'm not trying to be unduly negative. I just don't know how anybody who cares about the Falcons can ever square this loss. They were an eyelash from maybe the biggest moment in Atlanta sports history, and they wound up watching Belichick and Brady being handed yet another trophy.
Afterward Quinn sought to talk — yes, again — about his team's Brotherhood, but this loss will put even the strongest bond to the test. Not trying to be melodramatic, but this is the sort of flop that can scar a franchise. The Braves of the '90s never got past the Jim Leyritz home run, and that was in a non-elimination World Series game. This was the game with Roman Numerals and Lady Gaga. This was the Falcons' game, and they blew it. They blew the most Atlanta game ever.