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It was an all-timer of a highlight play. It should have served as Atlanta’s championship-clinching image. Leading New England 28-20, the Falcons had first-and-10 on the Patriots’ 22-yard line.
Run the ball three times – heck, take a knee three times – force New England to burn its timeouts and if it comes to fourth down, kick a high-percentage field goal for an 11-point, two-score lead with about three minutes left. Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant went 27-of-28 this season from inside 49 yards.
Make Tom Brady beat that.
“It felt like we were right there,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “At least able to get a field goal.
Only that isn’t what Atlanta got.
New England overcame a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl on Sunday, 34-28 in overtime. The margin is a record and then some. Previously, no team had ever trailed by more than 10 points and come back to win the championship. The lengthy collapse will haunt Atlanta forever.
Yet it’s the smaller one, the late fourth-quarter one that will hurt the most. Brady and the Patriots were going to score points in the second half, they are too talented and proud to quit and get blown out.
Up eight and positioned deep in field-goal range, though, still withstanding the comeback attempt, Atlanta needed just a field goal to all but assure the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Atlanta seemed to appreciate that, rushing Devonta Freeman on first down. He was tackled for a 1-yard loss, but the clock continued to run. Then the Falcons decided to get aggressive … or they panicked.
In the haze of the postgame mess, Shanahan could hardly even recall what happened. Some of that is understandable.
“From what I remember, I think we ended up second-and-11, then we were throwing it, trying to get back in field-goal range, get a few yards,” Shanahan said. Except, Atlanta was at the 23-yard line, so still very much in field-goal range (a 40-yarder), with a running clock.
Ryan dropped back to pass. His top priority, ahead of even completing a throw, was to avoid a turnover or, to a lesser extent, a sack. He got sacked. It cost Atlanta 12 precious yards. Now New England called timeout with 3:50 left. At their own 35, the Falcons were still in field-goal range (52 yards) even if they didn’t act like it.
“That was a tough one,” Ryan said of the Trey Flowers sack. “I wish I could have done a better job of trying to get rid of the ball. That was a big drive for us to kind of turn the field and get the ball in field-goal range.”
Shanahan said he felt, on third-and-23, that the Falcons were out of field-goal range. That made no sense. Bryant was six of eight this year from 50 or more yards, with a long of 59. The game was being played inside a dome, so conditions weren’t a factor.
Rather than run something up the middle to perhaps grab a few yards and make the kick even easier, Atlanta decided to pass again.
“We’ve got to try to throw it to get back into field-goal range,” Shanahan said.
Except they were already in field-goal range. Regardless, Ryan passed and completed it for 9 yards. It didn’t matter. Offensive lineman Jake Matthews was caught holding, perhaps sparing Ryan another sack but creating an unmitigated disaster. The ball was moved back 10 yards.
Adding insult to injury, the clock stopped without a New England timeout. With 3:44 remaining, the Falcons were now sitting at the New England 45. Now they were facing a potential 62-yarder – finally, truly, officially out of field-goal range. It was third-and-33. Ryan tried to throw again but it was incomplete. The clock stopped at 3:38 with the Patriots still holding two timeouts.
Atlanta had to punt.
Somehow the Falcons went from a near-surefire field goal to make it a two-score game, with time and timeouts burned, to handing Tom Brady the ball with 3:30 left and two timeouts. Bill Belichick couldn’t have dreamed of anything better.
“To not come away with points on that drive was very disappointing,” Ryan said.
Two years ago, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator for Seattle when they faced New England in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks infamously decided against running the ball on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the final seconds and instead called a slant play. Bruising running back Marshawn Lynch was likely to barrel for the winning score. Instead, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson’s pass and New England won.
Here, again, an opponent was forgetting a simple axiom: Run the ball.
“Too aggressive?” Ryan said when asked if Atlanta should have just been conservative and played for the field goal. “No. I thought Kyle did a good job. I thought we played the way that we play.”
Atlanta did, going for the jugular. Instead, the Falcons gagged away the game, perhaps not even sure where they were on the field.
Brady had to make the plays on that final drive and ensuing overtime. The quarterback still had to lead New England on an epic 91-yard touchdown march down the field. Julian Edelman still had to make a circus catch and James White still had to score (and score again in overtime) and Danny Amendola still had to convert a two-point conversion.
Take no credit away from that. The Patriots won the Super Bowl.
Atlanta sure didn’t need to hand Brady and that offense the opportunity, though. Not against a tiring defense that would face 93 Patriots offensive plays and over 40 minutes of time of possession. Not when the Falcons could have played to make it a two-possession game, diminished time and a wasting of New England’s timeouts.
Run the ball.
Sometimes the Super Bowl comes down to something that simple.
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