The Falcons deserved better.
As a former player, my thoughts during a game, and especially after this one, go right toward the emotions that I perceive the players are feeling at that time, because I think about how I would feel in that moment. When I went to bed after Super Bowl 51 and when I woke up on Monday morning, I felt the exact same angst in the pit of my stomach, one I envisioned the Falcons players were experiencing.
It's the feeling of putting your heart and soul into something, yet coming up agonizingly short. All the hard times that I had to deal with that throughout my athletic career pale in comparison to what the Falcons must be going through right now.
Simply put, it's going to take a long time for this group to recover. If ever.
The Falcons were utterly dominant for most the game, holding a 28-3 lead until a little more than two minutes remained in the third quarter when the Patriots finally scored their first touchdown … only to subsequently miss an extra point and fail to recover an onside kick.
The numbers are nothing short of staggering. The Falcons won the turnover battle, had a defensive touchdown, had a QB with a 144.1 passer rating, a pair of running backs who combined to average close to six yards per carry, and averaged a staggering 7.5 yards per play as a team for the game. And lost.
Who does that? Who loses with stats like that? The 2016 Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51, that's who.
And really, anybody who watched the game knows that it goes well beyond the numbers. For most of the game, the Falcons looked like the younger, faster, more explosive team, probably because they were. They were clearly more talented than the Patriots team that ultimately beat them 34-28 in overtime. At times, it appeared either the Falcons were playing in fast forward mode or the Patriots were in slow motion. It was that noticeable.
And, ultimately, that irrelevant.
What makes me feel even worse for those guys, and what must eat at them as well, is that it was really a series of unbelievable blunders that left them in this predicament.
It starts with the Falcons consistently snapping the ball with 10-15 seconds remaining on the play clock late in the game. That's just awful situational football. When you have a lead, especially a big lead, you want to use every opportunity you get to shorten the game.
That doesn't mean they should run the ball every play, but there's absolutely no reason to snap the ball with more than five seconds left on the play clock. Plus, with as tired as their defense was at that point, any extra rest they could get would have been much appreciated.
The dubious decisions really began with the Falcons attempting to throw the ball on third-and-one with 8:31 remaining in the fourth quarter from their own 36-yard line. On the surface, I can live with Kyle Shanahan's decision to throw the ball even I don't agree with it. Shanahan had an amazing year and was very deserving of the Assistant Coach of the Year Award that he won at the NFL Honors event on Saturday night. But a pass out of the shotgun? On third-and-one when you are averaging more than six yards per carry? That is the part that makes no sense to me. Shanahan is the master of the play action pass yet didn't even give the Patriots any potential threat of a run on that play. Hard to believe.
The results were disastrous.
Matt Ryan fumbled as he was hit by Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower and it led to a touchdown that really gave the Pats the spark and life they needed as it made the game a one-score contest. It was pretty much the only thing the Falcons couldn't do in that situation, yet that is exactly what they did.
In fairness to Shanahan, and head coach Dan Quinn for that matter, I am a big believer in personal accountability. It appeared on that snap that running back Devonta Freeman missed his block on Hightower while Ryan's awareness, presence and ball security were all severely lacking.
Even more egregious perhaps was the sack Ryan took later in the quarter after a miraculous Julio Jones catch set the Falcons up at the Patriots' 22-yard line as the game closed in on the four-minute mark. With the Falcons up by eight points and in relatively easy field goal range, they went back 22 yards on back-to-back plays to effectively take them out of that range. Again, other than a turnover, that's the worst thing they could do in that situation.
And, again, Ryan can't take a sack in that situation and Jake Matthews can't get a holding penalty, but truthfully, they shouldn't be in that situation to begin with. If Shanahan wanted to continue to be aggressive in that situation, then it is up to Quinn to step in, put his foot down, and tell his coordinator it was time to run the ball.
These are the decisions, and the plays, that will haunt the Falcons and their fans for years to come. They played their hearts out for over sixty minutes, but ultimately fell short because their head coach, offensive coordinator and MVP quarterback let them down when they needed them the most.
Those guys deserved better.