It was easy to mutter the words, “It’s not over” again and again Sunday night. If you’re an Atlanta Falcons fan, you knew what might happen, regardless of how good things might have looked.
But a 25-point lead, with 17-plus minutes to play? That wasn’t something that should have been squandered. That was something that should have been safe, right?
Unfortunately, the answer to this is going to be simple. It’s going to be a crutch until this awful history for this franchise is wiped away and replaced by positive memories.
These are the Falcons. This is what they do. They break hearts over and over and over.
There was reason to celebrate, even prematurely. The Falcons had played so well through the first half, leading 21-3. Then they outscored New England 7-6 in the third quarter to make everything seem perfectly fine.
And then came the fourth quarter from hell. The most shocking loss in the history of the state of Georgia. Nothing compares to this.
There’s plenty to analyze, plenty to criticize. The Falcons messed this up. Any team that has that large a lead and blows it does not deserve to win. Did you really think the Falcons had a chance once the game went to overtime?
New England had captured the momentum. It was over. It didn’t matter, really. It just postponed the inevitable hurt for a few moments longer. Some might have even turned it off once regulation was over.
But the fourth quarter is where the meltdown started. A defense that could do nothing wrong suddenly could do nothing right. Atlanta had chased Tom Brady, limited the running game and stopped the Patriots again and again early on. Then things changed.
Brady is who he is for a reason. There’s little debate that he’s the best quarterback in history now, and we saw why Sunday night. The epic comeback is something only he could have done, and that’s what made it so scary to watch it unfold.
Atlanta had the leverage, since it had the lead. But two huge plays swung the momentum in New England’s favor for the first time.
First, with 8:31 left in the game and trailing by 16, New England sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. The fumble gave the Patriots the ball at Atlanta’s 25-yard line. It took the Patriots only five plays and then a two-point conversion to make it a one-possession game.
Then, when Atlanta needed to eat the clock, it got too cute. Ryan had completed two passes for 71 yards to give the Falcons good field position. All they needed to do was to eat the clock and set up a potential field goal for Matt Bryant, which would give them an 11-point lead.
Ryan was then sacked, as he was inexplicably passing on second down, when conventional wisdom said run, run, run. The sack pushed Atlanta back out of field goal territory, and New England took over from there and didn’t look back.
The Patriots got the touchdown, converted the two-point play and then sent the game into overtime.
And then, that was it.
All the Falcons had to do was run the clock out, to simmer on that 25-point lead.
The word that just seems appropriate is cruel. This was cruel. The Falcons had waited 51 years for something special to happen. It certainly was special for the first 43 minutes of the game. It was near perfect. Heck, even when New England scored its first touchdown, it missed the extra point.
The Patriots didn’t wind up needing it after all.
The blowout loss to Denver 18 years ago in the Super Bowl was easier to take than this. The Falcons never had a chance in that game. But Sunday, they completely blew it. They had their shot at being champions and once again fell short.
This franchise’s awful history just got a new black eye, a new low that will never, ever be topped. The Falcons will come back next year and try again, but this will sting forever.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.