For more than half of Super Bowl LI on Sunday night, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan looked like the same guy that put together the best season of his career and won the NFL MVP award this year, in part because Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was dialing up the same offense that made him the NFL’s assistant coach of the year.
Ryan threw two touchdowns as the Falcons sliced up the New England defense over the game’s first three quarters, pushing Atlanta to a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 lead. Even after the Patriots stormed back, Ryan engineered a drive ― with the help of an insane catch from wide receiver Julio Jones ― that took the Falcons deep into Patriots territory with just less than four minutes to play.
All the Falcons had to do was finish off that drive, and they didn’t even need a touchdown to do it. A field goal would almost surely have been enough to seal the first Super Bowl win in Falcons franchise history.
Then Ryan, Shanahan and the Falcons blew it.
It started on 2nd-and-11 from New England’s 23-yard line, when Ryan dropped back to pass, found himself under pressure, and inexplicably took a sack from Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers.
Before the 12-yard loss, the Falcons were looking, at worst, at a field goal that kicker Matt Bryant likely would have made: Bryant was 28 of 29 this season on attempts shorter than 50 yards, and had the benefit of kicking indoors. After the sack, they were on the outer bounds of his range (his season long was 53 yards), but still close enough to at least give him a chance.
Somehow, they managed to make the situation even worse. On third down, Ryan hit wide receiver Mohammed Sanu for a 9-yard gain that should have put the Falcons right back in Bryant’s comfort zone. But a holding penalty on lineman Jake Matthews cost them another 10 yards, and on the replayed third down, Ryan overthrew his intended target.
Atlanta had to punt, and New England scored a touchdown on the next drive to send the game to overtime, where the Patriots eventually won the Super Bowl.
Ryan taking the sack is a hard mistake to stomach. But pinning it on him alone isn’t quite fair. From the New England 23, with the knowledge that a field goal would probably be enough, Shanahan could have turned to running back Devonta Freeman ― who rushed for 75 yards on just 11 carries and had 121 yards of total offense ― to eliminate the possibility of a sack and pick up whatever extra yardage they could to make the field goal attempt even easier.
For some reason, he chose not to, just as he decided to abandon the run on the 3rd-and-1 play that led to Ryan’s fumble ― and New England’s second touchdown ― earlier in the fourth quarter.
To say that any football game rests on one or two plays is to oversimplify the sport. The Falcons could have, at any point, come up with a score that would have kept the game out of New England’s reach, or stopped the Patriots offense from racking up all sorts of Super Bowl records during their comeback. Bryant, of course, might have missed the kick. And maybe on another night, Julian Edelman doesn’t pull off one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history to extend the Patriots’ game-tying drive.
But it’s hard to overstate how simple a task the Falcons had in front of them, and how badly they botched it.
At one point in the third quarter, the Falcons had a 99.6 probability of winning the Super Bowl, according to ESPN’s win probability measure. A field goal on the drive in question would have given them a two-score lead with about three minutes to play ― all but ensuring they’d win. But they didn’t, because they couldn’t avoid going backward on two straight plays, and gave New England quarterback Tom Brady the ball and a final chance to tie the game.
The Falcons had a fantastic season, and Ryan and Shanahan are as big a reason as any that they ended up in the Super Bowl in the first place. That season wasn’t capped with the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, though, because of their inexplicable failure to close out a fourth quarter drive that will be hard for them, or Falcons fans, to forget for a long time.