They say champions must go through pain. But this was beyond pain. This was beyond a necessary learning experience. This was beyond Atlanta.
A 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, where no team had ever trailed by more than 10 points and won. In a long history of NFL postseasons, nobody had ever come back from than 16 in the fourth quarter.
A 28-3 lead, when young was beating old, when fast was beating slow, when the MVP quarterback of today was outplaying the one of years past, when it appeared a franchise was headed for the greatest of all exorcisms.
“This is hard one for us,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Sunday night. “There’s not place to put that one.”
No. And there never will be.
Because this is a new low for the Falcons. This is a new low for Atlanta sports. For as exciting and wonderful as this season was on so many levels — a magical offense, a young and improving defense, a seemingly new direction affirmed — the 2016 season will most be remembered for how it ended.
With a splat: New England 34, Falcons 28.
A sports teams and its fan base was again left doubled over. Nobody’s wind will be coming back any time soon.
The Falcons, so close to its first championship, led 28-3 late in the third quarter. It was 28-9 with less than 10 minutes remaining, before Stephen Gostkowski’s 33-yard field goal brought New England within 16, or two (super) scores — touchdowns and two-point conversions.
They couldn’t blow this, could they? Even against the multi-ringed Patriots, even against the great Tom Brady, this had the appearance of an unthinkable collapse.
This championship was going to be the makeup for the almost cartoonish Super Bowl appearance of 18 years ago. It was going to make people forget about the other postseason collapses, to Green Bay in 2010, to Dallas in 1980.
It was supposed to make up for the 13 last-place finishes and the 38 non-playoff seasons and the pits of professional sport Hell: Bobby Petrino, and a starting quarterback jailed for dogfighting.
“Two words: Tom Brady,” said Rasheed Hageman.
Here’s two more: Kyle Shanahan.
It didn’t seem anything or anybody could stop the Falcons’ offense. They drove to two touchdowns in the second quarter to take a 14-0 lead, then the defense took over. Robert Alford had an 82-yard pick six against the great Tom Brady. Grady Jarrett had three sacks. Brady was getting pressured and hammered and, well, yes, it seemed over.
It would be easy to put the blame on a young defense for tiring and fizzling. But the biggest problem was the offense, held scoreless after the 8:31 mark of the third quarter. The biggest problem was Shanahan kind of lost his mind.
Shanahan, who’s on his way to the head coaching job in San Francisco, outsmarted himself.
On third-and-1 from the Falcons’ 36 in the late going, he called for a pass play. Matt Ryan got sacked and fumbled at the 25. New England took over, drove to a touchdown and a field goal. Suddenly it was 28-20 with 5:56 left.
Then Shanahan did it again. After a miraculous and acrobatic third-down catch by Julio Jones for 27 yards put the Falcons in field goal position at the 22, a running play lost one yard and then Shanahan called another pass play. Ryan was sacked again and that, combined with a holding penalty, pushed the ball back to the 45.
Again, the Falcons were in field goal range. Three points makes it a two-score game and likely puts it away with less than four minutes left.
The. Game. Was. Over.
Quinn: “We thought we had a good look for the personnel that was in the game. We trust our guys. When it doesn’t work, it’s easy to question it.”
Shanahan: “The thought is to get as many yards as you can. Were right on the fringe. It was not an easy field goal.”
The Patriots got the ball back. Brady picked the Falcons apart. Julian Edelman made a 23-yard catch for the ages at the Falcons 41 that seemed to bounce of every possible limb of multiple players. Another touchdown followed — a 91-yard drive.
Of course New England made the two-point conversion.
Of course the game went to overtime.
Of course the Patriots won the coin flip.
Of course they drove 75 yards on eight plays for the winning touchdown. Because that’s what happens.
Of course Roger Goodell, the villain NFL commissioner, had to present the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Team Deflategate: owner Bob Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and Brady — the game’s MVP.
Robert Alford on Edelman’s catch: “I couldn’t really tell if he caught it. But they said he caught it.
“God says things happen for a reason. So there’s a reason this happened. I don’t know.”
Don’t ask why. It just is.
After the game, several Falcons assistant coaches, including Shanahan, waited for the elevator to go downstairs.It never came. So they were told to walk down a flight. They waded through celebrating Patriots fans who hooted and hollered, many stunned to see members of one of the team’s coaching staffs walking outside the beer and hotdog stands.
The coaches were told to come back, an elevator would stop at that lower level to get him. So they circled back and waited. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes.
“This is (bleeping) bull,” Shanahan yelled!
He leaned against the wall, composing himself.
“Sorry, I can’t talk right now,” he said.
Understandable. He’ll take this nightmare with him to San Francisco.
This loss isn’t all on Shanahan. They all allowed greatness to turn to mush. It’s something nobody could have seen coming. Maybe we should have.