Atlanta Falcons: 3 Keys To Super Bowl LI Collapse

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) leaves the field after being defeated by the New England Patriots 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Seals-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) leaves the field after being defeated by the New England Patriots 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Seals-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons had it, up 28-3 in Super Bowl LI, a game no team had ever come back from more than 10 down to win. Until the New England Patriots on Sunday night, that is.

When Tevin Coleman caught a short pass from Matt Ryan and scampered into the end zone to give the Atlanta Falcons a 28-3 lead with 8:36 remaining in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI Sunday night, it was just assumed the Falcons were on their way to their first championship.

A 25-point lead in the second half of the Super Bowl had to be safe, right? After all, no team had ever come back from more than a 10-point deficit to win the NFL’s big game at the end.

But the danger signs were there, even amid the giddiness that came with having such a huge lead over the NFL’s 21st century Evil Empire, the Patriots, in the Super Bowl for the seventh time since the 2001 season and the ninth time as a franchise.

The Falcons’ defense, not a noteworthy group to begin with, spent 19:35 of the first half on the field as New England ran off 42 offensive plays to just 19 for Atlanta’s vaunted offensive unit.

The weight of being asked to stop Tom Brady and company over and over and over again was too much to ask of Atlanta’s young, developing defense. The group just wore down having to spend so much time on the field against the savvy Brady, who led the Patriots to a 34-28 overtime victory.

New England scored 31 straight points after falling into that 28-3 hole. The Patriots ran 93 offensive plays to just 46 for the Falcons and had the ball for 40:31, compaired to just 23:27 for Atlanta.

Of New England’s 10 longest plays of the night, six came in the fourth quarter and overtime, as the Falcon defenders ran out of gas.

Atlanta made some key stops and got some breaks, holding the Patriots to a field goal late in the first half on a drive that was prolonged by three defensive holding penalties against the Falcons. Later, the Falcons were gouged for 72 yards in 12 plays by the New England offense, but stiffened when they had to, forcing another field goal.

They also caught a break when Stephen Gostkowski hit the upright on an extra point attempt after New England’s first touchdown and still led 28-12 with 9:44 remaining in the fourth quarter.

There were three critical moments that contributed to the collapse by the Falcons Sunday night.

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) forces a fumble by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the fourth quarter during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) forces a fumble by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the fourth quarter during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

1. Devonta Freeman’s Missed Block

Of the Atlanta Falcons’ talented tandem of running backs, Devonta Freeman is considered to be the better pass blocker.

After Tevin Coleman left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent ankle injury, Freeman replaced him and the Falcons set up in a shotgun formation on third-and-1 from their own 36-yard line.

Middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower blitzed from the right side of the Falcons’ formation and Freeman just flat-out whiffled on the block attempt.

The miss proved costly.

Hightower got to Ryan from the front side as Ryan was taking the ball back to throw, hitting the NFL MVP and forcing a fumble that was recovered at the Falcons’ 25 by defensive tackle Alan Branch.

Five plays later, New England was in the end zone on a 6-yard pass from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola and a direct snap to James White on the two-point conversion cut Atlanta’s lead to just 28-20 with 5:56 remaining in the fourth quarter.

It set the stage for a two-play sequence that was the next key.

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers (98) sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers (98) sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

2. Matt Ryan’s Ill-Timed Sack/Jake Matthews’ Hold

Up by one score the clock winding down to less than four minutes to go and the ball well inside field goal range thanks to a magnificant grab by Julio Jones, the only job Matt Ryan had was to protect the three points.

Out of the shotgun on second-and-11 from the New England 23, Ryan tried to evade defensive lineman Trey Flowers instead of sending the ball to the sidelines and it cost the Falcons big–a 12-yard sack that pushed the ball back to the Patriots’ 35-yard line.

While still within the range of kicker Matt Bryant, the distance was no longer close to a sure thing and a miss would put the Patriots in excellent field position.

The point wound up being moot.

On the very next play, Ryan connected with Mohamed Sanu for a 9-yard gain to get most of the lost yardage back, but left tackle Jake Matthews attempted to put a saddle on defensive end Chris Long and take him for a ride.

The hold was obvious and it was called, pushing Atlanta out of range for the field goal that would once again give them a two-score lead. Instead, the Falcons punted and hoped their weary defense could hold on for another 3½ minutes.

It was a gamble that failed, in part because of the third key.

iFeb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) makes a catch during the fourth quarter against Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford (23) during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

iFeb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) makes a catch during the fourth quarter against Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford (23) during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

3. Robert Alford’s Tip Goes Horribly Wrong

Robert Alford nearly sewed up Super Bowl MVP honors just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady threw a risky pass deep over the middle and Alford went up looking to make his second interception of the game.

Alford’s first pick came in the second quarter and it was a huge one, returned 82 yards for a touchdown that put Atlanta up 21-0. But the fourth-year cornerback, a second-round pick from Southeastern Louisiana in 2013, mistimed his jump and instead of catching the ball merely popped it into the air.

In the middle of three Atlanta defenders, Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman grabbed the ball, bobbled it inches off the ground, grabbed it again and got it under control.

The play was ruled a catch on the field, a 23-yard gain that moved the ball into Atlanta territory. Falcons coach Dan Quinn challenged the call, but the replay booth confirmed the catch.

That cost Quinn not only his final challenge–not a big deal at the 2:03 mark of the fourth quarter and the booth about to take over all replays–but more importantly, his final timeout.

The Patriots finished the 10-play, 91-yard drive with 57 seconds remaining in the fourth period on a 1-yard run by James White. Brady connected with Danny Amendola for the two-point conversion to tie the game.

After the kickoff, the Falcons had the ball at their own 11-yard line with 52 seconds and no timeouts remaining.

The drive stalled at the Atlanta 27, the Falcons punted, the Patriots killed the clock, won the toss in overtime and Atlanta lost without ever possessing the football again.

It was the most gut-wrenching defeat in the history of the Super Bowl, a loss snatched from the jaws of victory by a franchise that had every reason to believe its 51-year championship drought was over.

Instead, they go into the offseason trying to figure out how to move on from the stigma of being the team that blew the biggest lead in the history of the Super Bowl. A bitter pill of which the aftertaste will linger for a long time.

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