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The feeling that the Falcons have after Super Bowl collapse: 'I'm kind of broken inside'

HOUSTON – Time ran out and one of the Atlanta Falcons threw his helmet straight down into the turf. Another crumpled to a knee. Others slouched on the bench, as confetti burst up right behind them.

Up in a skybox, the coaches silently shuffled out to the elevator, only to push the down button and wait. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan stood slightly away from the others, then stared out the window at rows and rows of parked cars toward the dark Texas skyline. He propped his elbow on the sill and rested his chin on his hand. The elevator wasn’t coming.

The coaches decided to take the stairs, and they wordlessly walked down flight after flight. The silence was busted when they exited through the doors into the concourse, suddenly surrounded by delirious New England Patriots fans. One coach ducked out of the way of a reveler in a “Free Brady” jersey. A maize and blue American flag whisked by as one yelled, “Michigan Wins!”, a full-throated nod to the alma mater of Tom Brady. The coaches plodded on.

Matt Ryan started the weekend off with an MVP award, but won't be walking home with the Lombardi Trophy. (AP)
Matt Ryan started the weekend off with an MVP award, but won’t be walking home with the Lombardi Trophy. (AP)

Down at the bottom, Falcons center Alex Mack slowly got dressed in dark jeans and a button-down shirt before going out to meet with the media. He played the Super Bowl on a broken leg. It was both one of the more courageous feats in football history, and also something he didn’t care about. Once he got out to his media session, he admitted, “it hurt” but quickly added, “pain was the only thing” that impeded him. As if pain wasn’t a big thing.

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He was asked how he felt physically after playing an entire game on a broken leg.

“Depressed,” he said.

Tears gathered at the rims of his eyes.

This was all so impossible. The Falcons had shredded the invincible Patriots, just like they had planned. They got after Brady and seemed to rattle him, just like they planned. Matt Ryan threw darts all night, just like they planned. They told each other on the sideline, “Don’t get complacent!” And they didn’t. They truly didn’t.

They were up 25 points in the second half in the biggest game of their lives, and they lost anyway – in overtime, 34-28. It all melted away. It was the greatest game in Super Bowl history, and it was a nightmare beyond compare.

“One of the worst learning lessons you can get in this world,” safety Ricardo Allen called it.

He tried to put his feelings into words.

“It makes you numb. I’m kind of numb,” Allen said. “Like, I don’t really know what to feel. I’m broken inside because this is not us. I’m kind of numb to the feeling, man.”

What the hell happened? The Falcons couldn’t fathom it. “I’m at a loss for words,” said receiver Taylor Gabriel. Was it the failure to run the ball effectively three times after Julio Jones made a stunning catch to put the team in field-goal range with an eight-point lead and less than five minutes left? They needed to burn clock. They had Devonta Freeman, who had torched the Pats in the first half.

“Julio got us down there,” Shanahan offered. “I was feeling pretty good.” He said it was “by no means an easy field goal” (it would have been 39 yards) and he tried a pass on second down. He may always regret that decision, even if it fits with the aggressive style that got the team to this game. Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss. Then came a holding penalty and an incompletion. Then Atlanta punted it away.

That would be all Brady and the Pats needed to save themselves and take momentum for good. Brady tied it up on the next 91-yard series with the help of an astounding fingertip catch by Julian Edelman, but even that was something the Falcons felt they did right. Allen and his teammates had trapped Edelman all game, and it worked fairly well. On this play, again, they defended the pass and caused a jump ball. They dove for it – an interception could have all but sealed it – and it blew up in their faces. Edelman had possession and the Pats soon scored. New England made the two-point conversion to complete the comeback. They got the ball to start overtime and there was Shanahan, up in the box, helpless.

“Just getting ready,” he said, “hoping to get the ball back.”

He never got the ball back.

Team owner Arthur Blank emerged on the sideline well before the end of the game. Maybe that was a mistake. Too soon. But that’s him – supportive and emotional and involved. As his players foraged for words after the loss, Blank arrived again, pushing through a parting in the dark curtain of the media area. He leaned on a massive cooling fan and looked straight ahead. His wife, a few feet away, crouched over to fix the strap on her sparkling right shoe. The family, like the coaches by the elevator, didn’t say anything. They soon disappeared back through the dark curtains. What could you say?

Offensive tackle Jake Matthews, who committed the critical holding penalty after Jones’ bonkers catch, sat at his podium, a cap on backward and sweat glistening on his brow. He was asked how he felt and he halted through his words. “Just wish we could have finished,” he said. “That’s it.” He was asked what head coach Dan Quinn said at halftime. “Finish,” Matthews said. Then he seemed to realize again what had happened.

“We didn’t do that.”

The Falcons, to their infinite credit, did not lash out. They fought their feelings as they fought in the game. Mack took every question, showing great patience with a reporter who barely spoke above a whisper. “Louder, please,” he said, politely asking for a query that would make him describe the emotional torture. The question came again, not much louder, and Mack stood up on his broken leg and leaned over his podium so he could hear the third try. He finally sat back down and answered fully.

But the emotion was right there, right at the surface. Allen, when asked if he could maybe enjoy the offseason, quickly said, “No.”

“I’m going to start training in two days,” he said. Then, softly he added, “Apparently it’s not good enough.”

The history of teams that lose the Super Bowl is not a promising one. The Seattle Seahawks, who suffered a similar crushing loss to the Patriots two years ago, have not returned. The Carolina Panthers fell mightily after their Super Bowl loss last year. The Falcons know all this on some level, but on another level they will try not to know it.

The Falcons were flying high early, good enough to build a 28-3 lead. It didn't hold up. (AP)
The Falcons built a 28-3 lead, which included a pick-six from Robert Alford. The lead didn’t last. (AP)

“I’m already ready to get back,” Gabriel said.

“I won’t forget this feeling,” said linebacker Deion Jones.

The Falcons will replay it all over in their minds: the Edelman catch, the play calls, the pair of two-point conversions. Just one more play would have changed it all, and they did not make that one … more … play. Even the coin toss before overtime was a death knell.

“He was on fire,” Allen said of Brady, raising his hands at his sides. “We knew we would compete but … we knew he was on his game.”

Did they choke? Were they gassed? Those are questions the Falcons will have to fend off for a while. “There absolutely was pressure,” Mack allowed. But no, no, it’s not that. They went for it and they didn’t get it. That’s all.

Right?

“It was more self-inflicted,” Gabriel said, careful not to take anything away from the victors. Still, he repeated it: “self-inflicted.”

Mack tried to gain perspective, even in the moment. It was an amazing season.

“You take a step back,” he said. “We got a great group of guys. I’m proud of ’em.”

His lip quivered.

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