Saturday, October 17th, 2020

THE BEGINNING OF THE END?

Neil Reynolds

THE BEGINNING OF THE END?

Neil Reynolds NFL

This article originally appeared in Issue XXIX of Gridiron magazine, back in 2017 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE



Dan Quinn has done an excellent job as head coach of Atlanta over the past two seasons, culminating in an appearance in this year’s NFL title game. But the Falcons’ capitulation in Super Bowl 51 will have left his players and staff devastated. No team in the league’s history has blown a championship opportunity quite as dramatically as the Falcons did against the New England Patriots in Houston.

You know the statistics by now – nobody had squandered more than a 10-point lead in a Super Bowl. The Falcons more than doubled that as they were up 28-3 with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter (when New England scored their first touchdown of the game) and found a way to lose 34-28 in overtime.

There is no doubt the Patriots played a major role in the turnaround and were simply brilliant and unstoppable down the stretch, but it takes two to tango and for a lead that large to be turned around, one side needs to hit the self-destruct button.

And that was the Falcons.

Having been 25 points ahead, the Falcons ran the ball just five times for the remainder of the game. A shocking statistic and a damning indictment of new San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. A third-and-one passing play that resulted in a turnover and a short field for the Patriots was bad enough, but worse was the sequence of plays that came after Julio Jones had made one of the most spectacular catches in 51 Super Bowls.

With four minutes and 40 seconds left and leading by eight, the Falcons were camped at the New England 22-yard line. A very makeable 40-yard field goal for the ever-reliable Matt Bryant.

Three runs, a low-risk kick and you can start planning for the very first Super Bowl parade in Atlanta. Instead, the Falcons ran on first down, got sacked on a passing play on second down and drew a holding call on another pass on third down. They punted and the rest is history that will read well for the Patriots and like a nightmare for the desperate sports fans in Atlanta.

That sequence was one of about 10 things that happened late in the game where the Falcons needed just one of them to go their way to seal the Super Bowl deal. But they failed time and again and Brady got his one for the thumb.

Losing a game that computers suggested you had a 99.8% probability of winning in the third quarter is going to leave a stain on the Falcons’ psyche. We have seen similar hangovers carry into the next season in the past. Last year, Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals turned the ball over seven times in the NFC Championship Game against Carolina and were rarely the same team in 2016.

The Panthers – losers of Super Bowl 50 – never recaptured the magic of their 2015 campaign. And the Houston Oilers – blowers of the biggest lead in NFL history (they led the Buffalo Bills 35-3 and lost in the AFC playoffs) started the following year with a 1-4 record despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league.

So the Falcons have a mountain to climb and when you hear players like Ricardo Allen say they are “dead inside” and that they don’t think they will ever get over this loss, you have to worry.

Quinn not only has to pick his team of the floor, he has to ease in new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and also rebuild his own image because he was culpable in the two passing plays being called instead of runs that would have secured a win. In situations like that, where clock management is a factor, the buck always stops with the head coach.

The Falcons will be a fascinating case study into the mentality of top-level sport in 2017. But more importantly, they have to start from square one and go through training camp, the regular season and playoffs just to get back to the spot where they were, in my opinion, two running plays from a Super Bowl crown.

And just getting back to the title game is not going to be easy in a conference that features Dallas, Green Bay, Seattle and the New York Giants. Super Bowl hangover or not, the Falcons might not get that close to the NFL’s ultimate glory for quite some time – if ever.



This article originally appeared in Issue XXIX of Gridiron magazine, back in 2017 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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