Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the greatest play in Super Bowl history that time forgot

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Sports fans love nostalgia.

Today is February 5th, and if your social media timelines are anything like mine then you are seeing images of Super Bowl LI over and over and over again. That’s because on this night four years ago, the New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl, coming back from a 28-3 deficit.

So you’re seeing countless images of Julian Edelman’s catch, James White’s touchdown to win the game, and Tom Brady’s heroics in the second half.

But you probably are not seeing what should have been the most memorable moment of that game, and perhaps the best catch in Super Bowl history.

Here’s a look at Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the greatest play in Super Bowl history that time forgot.

With just under six minutes remaining in the game, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski put his foot to the football and lofted a kickoff to Falcons returner Justin Hardy. Hardy fielded the football at his own three-yard line, returning it to the ten. The Patriots, after trailing by 25, had cut the Atlanta lead down to eight. But the Falcons had the football, and the clock was their friend. While New England still had their full compliment of time outs, points on this drive – any points – probably put the game out of reach.

The drive began with exactly what you want to see, if you are a Falcons fan:

After carrying out a play-action fake to Devonta Freeman, Ryan retreats into the pocket. Atlanta sends its receivers deep, clearing out space underneath for Freeman to leak into the flat. Ryan simply checks the football down to his running back, who then makes Duron Harmon miss in the open field. 39 yards later, the Falcons are at midfield.

There are just over five minutes remaining in Super Bowl LI, and Atlanta is almost in scoring position holding an eight-point lead.

The Patriots decline to take a timeout, and on the ensuing 1st-and-10 Freeman tests the right side for a gain of two. With under five minutes left, the Falcons face a 2nd-and-8, on the Patriots’ 49-yard line.

On this snap, the Patriots decide to bring pressure. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower come after Ryan, but the quarterback is able to climb the pocket and elude the defenders, sliding to his right. He has some grass in front of him, although a defender is lurking near the line of scrimmage.

Yet Ryan has other ideas:

The game should have been over.

Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe is in ideal position here, blanketing Jones and putting himself between receiver and quarterback. But Ryan, showing supreme confidence in his receiver, puts this throw over the head of Rowe where only Jones can get the football. The receiver does just that, snatching the football from the sky and twisting his body back to the turf, managing to tap his right toes down in-bounds to complete the catch.

Here is the play from the end zone angle:

To this day I do not know why Ryan made this throw, and how Jones came down with the football.

Two men who had perhaps the best view of this play were the FOX broadcast team of Troy Aikman and Joe Buck, from high above the field at NRG Stadium. Remember, they had seen Edelman’s catch from earlier in the game, but were rendered almost speechless by this play from Ryan and Jones:

“Anything short of perfect ball placement, and it’s intercepted.”

“The biggest catch of this second half.”

“As good as it gets.”

What could have been. What should have been, was not.

Because we know how this story ends. The Falcons, whose aggression on offense got them to the Super Bowl, remained aggressive after this play. Facing a 1st-and-10 at the New England 22 they were in control of this game. They tried to run Freeman to the left side, but that lost a yard. Ryan then dropped to throw on second down, but he was sacked by Trey Flowers for a loss of 12. Then on third down a holding penalty cost the Falcons ten more yards, and by the time the drive was over, Atlanta was back near midfield, and punting the football back to Brady.

Setting the stage for yet more heroics from Brady’s storied career.

But that is not how this story should have ended. Yet football is a cruel mistress, with a way of ripping your heart out just when you feel it is safe to believe. It has a way of testing your emotions, pushing you to the brink of ecstasy, and then jerking you back again into reality. In the process, plays that should have been legendary – as this one – are rendered afterthoughts. Lost in the dustbin of football lore behind Edelman’s catch, Brady’s throws in overtime, and White’s plunge into the end zone to finish the first Super Bowl that went to an extra frame.

In one moment Matt Ryan trusted his teammate to make the ultimate play on one of the biggest stages in sports, and Julio Jones did just that, leaping into the Houston sky over a perfectly-placed defender and snatching what should have been victory for a city, and a team.

Minutes later the play was rendered moot.

The suddenness and cruelty of sport.

In a way it is painful to think about how paths diverged from there. The Patriots would go on to win, yes, and then appeared in the next two Super Bowls, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII, but winning in Super Bowl LIII over the Los Angeles Rams. Now Brady is back in the big game, albeit with a different team. He plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now, and what team did he and the Buccaneers beat twice down the stretch to complete their run to the playoffs and salvage their postseason chances?

The Falcons.

As for Atlanta, the fallout from losing that game was not immediate, but could be felt into this season. The Falcons would make the playoffs the next season as a Wild-Card team, but would lose in the Divisional Round to the Eagles on their run to a title. After that came three-straight losing seasons, including a 4-12 finish this past year that began with some brutal blown leads. Losses that ended Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff’s tenure with the team, that perhaps spell the end of Ryan and Jones with the Falcons.

Losses that conjured up visions of Super Bowl LI, and what should have been.

But what was not.