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Falcons' Super Bowl collapse may rank as worst in sports history

In this photo taken Feb. 5, 2017, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan reacts after losing Super Bowl 51 as the screen flashes New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and confetti flies in Houston. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) GAATJ901
In this photo taken Feb. 5, 2017, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan reacts after losing Super Bowl 51 as the screen flashes New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and confetti flies in Houston. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) GAATJ901
Published Feb. 7, 2017

HOUSTON — It's almost impossible for a football team to come back from a result like this. The hole can be way too deep, the outlook too dark.

We're talking about the Falcons, not the Patriots.

How did Atlanta blow a 25-point lead when no team had ever lost a Super Bowl when ahead by more than 10? The historic collapse may have an impact on the organization for years.

Tom Brady is the best NFL quarterback of all time. The debate ended Sunday night when he led the biggest comeback in the biggest game, beating the Falcons 34-28 in overtime to win his fifth Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LI.

"This is a hard one for us," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said after watching the devastation that comes with arguably the biggest choke in sports history. "There's not a place to put that one."

For nearly three quarters, the Falcons looked younger. They played faster. Their offense was explosive. Their defense was quick and relentless, sacking Brady five times. They led 21-0, 21-3, 28-3 and 28-9, then gave it all back.

Not only did Falcons owner Arthur Blank think the game was over, he went down on the field at NRG Stadium in the fourth quarter expecting to dance.

That was before the Patriots went touchdown, field goal, touchdown, overtime touchdown. Atlanta's defense was on the field for 93 plays. Defenders were gassed.

The Falcons were undone by the G.O.A.T. Not the greatest of all time. The goats of the game — offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Quinn.

For most of the game, the Patriots didn't look like they could stop Shanahan's offense. The Falcons ran the ball at will in the first half, with Devonta Freeman (six for 71) and Tevin Coleman (three for 15) averaging 9.6 yards per carry. But in the second half, they combined for 18 yards on only nine carries.

Even so, when superstar receiver Julio Jones made a remarkable catch while tightroping the sideline at the New England 22 when Atlanta led 28-20, the game should have been strangled away by the Falcons.

If Shanahan orders nothing but for Matt Ryan to take a knee three times, they force the Patriots to use their final two timeouts then bring on kicker Matt Bryant for a makeable field goal and an 11-point lead with likely less than three minutes to play. Bryant was perfect in nine field-goal attempts this season from 40-49 yards.

The Falcons did run Freeman on first down and he lost 1 yard. But on second down, Ryan took a deep drop and was sacked for a 12-yard loss by defensive end Trey Flowers, who beat center Alex Mack.

"We thought we had a good look for the personnel that was in the game," Quinn said. "We trust our guys. When it doesn't work, it's easy to question it."

Even after the sack, the Falcons were probably within Bryant's range, about 52 yards. He was 6-of-8 from 50 yards or longer this season. Shanahan seemed confused where the football was after the game.

"The thought is to get as many yards as you can. We're right on the fringe. It was not an easy field goal," he said.

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So Shanahan called another pass that was completed for 9 yards to Mohamed Sanu. But tackle Jake Matthews was called for holding, pushing the Falcons back to the New England 45, and Ryan fired incomplete to Taylor Gabriel, allowing the Patriots to keep both timeouts.

"Too aggressive? No," Ryan said. "I thought Kyle did a good job. I thought we played the way we play. We always play aggressive and play to win."

The Falcons' possessions in the fourth quarter went punt, fumble, punt, punt. The fumble was lost by Ryan when he was sacked on third and 1 by Dont'a Hightower, and the ball was recovered by Alan Branch with the Falcons leading 28-12 and 8:24 remaining.

There's no question this will be remembered as Brady's great escape. He still needed to drive 91 yards for a touchdown and two-point conversion to send the game into overtime.

Quinn was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator when the Patriots' Malcolm Butler intercepted the pass at the 1-yard line to clinch Super Bowl XLIX. He should know what happens when you get too aggressive with the game at hand.

The Warriors lost the NBA Finals leading three games to one. The Cleveland Indians blew a 3-1 lead to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

This was much, much worse. Maybe the worst collapse of all time. How do you recover from that?


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