Elation turning to dejection once again proved to be the fate of an Atlanta sports team.
The Falcons proved it once more in Sunday’s 34-28 loss to New England on the NFL’s biggest stage: Super Bowl LI. Entering halftime, Atlanta held a 21-3 lead, and the Falcons appeared to be in complete control.
Atlanta sports teams haven’t won a world championship since 1995 when the Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in six games to win the World Series, and it looked like the drought would come to an end.
“We had it. The plays didn’t go our way in the end,” Falcons rookie safety Keanu Neal said. “Tom Brady got opportunities, and the receivers made catches. It just slipped away from us,”
New England’s valiant comeback had maybe its biggest play when it was trailing by 12 points. On third-and-1, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back to pass and was sacked by linebacker Dont’a Hightower and fumbled on the Falcons’ 25-yard line.
Brady then saw the door open and drove down the short field for a score, and an eventual two-point conversion made it a one possession game. Atlanta was unable to score again to ice the game, after two sacks and questionable decisions to pass rather than play for a field goal attempt by Matt Bryant.
“(The fumble) was certainly a big play in terms of changing momentum,” Ryan said. “I think we were up 16 at that point, and to give them a short field, that was inopportune. And hopefully in the future, we can do better.”
Brady seemed rattled in the early stages, as Atlanta was able to get pressure on an opposing quarterback for the third consecutive game. At that point, it looked as if the Falcons could shut down a top-tier offense for the third week in a row. Brady had 184 yards and an interception without finding the end zone as his team went into the locker room facing an 18-point deficit.
The New England adjustments undoubtedly paid off, and Super Bowl experience began to show in the second half (Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were appearing in their seventh Super Bowl, while the Falcons were making just their second). Brady finished with 466 yards and two touchdowns and set three Super Bowl passing records.
Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley said that he believed the Patriots figured out Atlanta’s game plan by throwing numerous quick passes.
The consensus among the Falcons was that Brady — who claimed his fifth Super Bowl title and made his claim for the title of greatest quarterback of all time — was the key. The lead began to gradually slip for Atlanta, and while denying complacency, one Falcons player saw things beginning to fall apart for his team.
“Yeah, (I felt it). We stalled out on a few third downs and things like that,” Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “We were doing good in the first half and things like that. (Brady) came back, and he won the game for those guys, so it’s a tough loss, and it’s tough to lose like that in the Super Bowl.”
On a defense with not much experience, veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney has served as the elder statesman of the group. In addition to collecting a sack, he also served as a voice in the locker room.
“Let’s not mistake this, I think collectively nobody on the defensive side or offensive side thought the game was going to be over when the game was 21-3,” Freeney said. “We knew this was going to be a fight. They prevailed, and we did not do enough.”