HOUSTON, TX — The champagne was on its way to the locker room.
You could essentially hear the entire state of Georgia burst in jubilation when Tevin Coleman‘s six-yard touchdown catch gave the Atlanta Falcons a seemingly insurmountable 25-point lead with 8:31 left in the third quarter of the 51st Super Bowl.
Matt Ryan pumped his fist in celebration. Arthur Blank, who bought the Falcons 24 hours before New England won its first Super Bowl in February 2002, was grinning ear to ear. Dan Quinn, coaching in his third Super Bowl in the last four years, seemed poised to give the city of Atlanta its second professional championship (Braves, 1995) in 179 combined seasons spread out over six teams (Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Thrashers, Dream, Flames).
But a funny thing happened on the way to the podium to receive the Lombardi Trophy.
No, it was not revealed that Miles Gloriosus and Philia are long-lost siblings.
Instead, the Falcons fell victim to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Insert Tom Brady. Claimed the greatest quarterback of all time by many pundits prior to this game, Brady cemented himself to that title in the final 27-plus minutes of action.
The comeback itself featured a little bit of everything. There were long, articulate scoring drives, a fourth-down conversion, a turnover, a missed extra point, questionable play calls, a miraculous catch and (for the first time in Super Bowl history) overtime.
Leading 28-3, the Falcons forced Brady and company into a fourth and three with 6:04 left in the third quarter. But Danny Amendola‘s 17-yard catch moved the chains and kept hope alive. Four minutes later, James White‘s five-yard touchdown catch started New England’s improbable march to another title.
Following a Stephen Gostkowski field goal that made the score 28-12, the Patriots needed two touchdowns and two 2-point conversions just to tie the game. A tall task that needed football’s best quarterback to get it done.
Atlanta punted on the first play of the fourth quarter and Brady took New England on scoring drives of 72, 25 and 91 yards, respectively. Amendola’s six-yard touchdown catch preceded a two-point run by White that made it 28-20.
Then, with 210 seconds left in the game, New England started inside its own 10-yard line needing to drive the length of the field. Brady hit Chris Hogan, the hero of the AFC Championship game, for a third-down conversion to start the possession. Three plays later, Julian Edelman somehow hauled in a tipped pass over the middle of the field for 23 yards that certainly looked destined to either be intercepted or incomplete.
Three straight completions moved the Patriots to the one-yard line, where White would finish the drive with a scoring plunge. Amendola converted a screen catch on the two-point try and somehow New England forced overtime after Atlanta’s win probability had reached 99.7 percent in the second half.
New England won the coin toss for the extra period and the end was near. With momentum wearing blue, red and white, Brady completed his first five overtime passes for 50 yards and White delivered the game-winner with a two-yard touchdown run that brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Foxboro for the second time in three years.
Brady set some Super Bowl records along the way, too, including completions (37), pass attempts (62), passing yards (466), largest comeback (25 points), MVP awards (4) and wins by a quarterback (5), snapping the three-way tie he had with Hall-of-Famers Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.
Brady is now tied with defensive end Charles Haley for most Super Bowl wins by any player in NFL history. Haley won five over a 14-year career with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
But it wasn’t just Brady’s greatness that propelled Bill Belichick to his head-coaching record of five Super Bowl titles. Atlanta must shoulder a portion of the blame.
The debate has sparked over social media following the thriller as to whether the Patriots won this game or the Falcons choked. One can make the case for the former or the latter, due to the second-half blunders by the Atlanta offense and coaching staff.
Following White’s touchdown catch that made it a 19-point game, the Falcons recovered an onside kick and were granted an extra five yards on an illegal touching penalty by New England.
Atlanta started the drive at the Patriots’ 41, then gained nine yards on the first play of the possession. A holding penalty, a dropped pass, a sack and a delay of game followed, respectively, and the Falcons lost 24 yards in 90 seconds and were forced to punt.
On Atlanta’s next possession, they went three and out, but not in the typical punting fashion. On 3rd and one, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who orchestrated the league’s highest-scoring offense and turned Ryan into an MVP, opted for an empty backfield and a pass play instead of running for a first down. Ryan took a five-step drop (again, needing just three feet to move the chains) and was 12 yards from the first down when he was sacked and stripped by linebacker Dont’a Hightower, giving possession back to the Patriots when Alan Branch recovered.
This was the second time Hightower delivered a game-changing defensive play in the Super Bowl. Two years ago, he stopped Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line, the play before Malcolm Butler‘s game-winning interception. Hightower became the fifth Alabama alumnus to win two Super Bowls.
And, of course, the biggest Falcons’ folly occurred on their next drive. Devonta Freeman‘s 39-yard reception gave Atlanta great field position, and an acrobatic sideline catch by Julio Jones moved the Falcons into field goal range at the New England 22.
Common knowledge would say that you should just run the ball three straight times, kick a field goal and start celebrating.
After all, Falcons’ kicker Matt Bryant missed just one kick from 30-49 yards away during the regular season. The 41 year old could’ve came on, nailed the field goal (in a dome stadium with zero wind) to give Atlanta an 11-point lead and basically tie a bow around the club’s first Super Bowl title.
Start planning the victory parade, right?
Following the 27-yard catch, Atlanta once again moved backwards in an attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Freeman lost a yard on a first-down run, Ryan was sacked, a holding penalty negated a nine-yard reception by Mohamed Sanu and an incompletion forced the Falcons to punt on 4th and 33.
The rest is history. New England capped off a run of 31 unanswered points and the Falcons watched as confetti rained down from Houston’s Reliant Stadium, adding another chapter of the Patriots’ 21st-Century dynasty.
Usually it’s easy for any losing team to pay a visit to Captain Hindsight and ponder what they could have done differently to win a game.
For the Falcons, it’s more than easy — basic, effortless, elementary– to explore the shoulda, coulda and wouldas that went into this catastrophic collapse that might as well be turned into season two of the “Series of Unfortunate Events” drama on Netflix.
Feature Photo: “Truth or Not”
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