Date: Sunday, February 5th 2017
Time: 10:21 pm
It was 10:21 PM and it was over. No, the game wasn’t officially over yet, but Atlanta Falcons rookie LB Devondre Campbell had just committed a pass interference penalty on New England Patriots TE Martellus Bennett, placing the ball on the Falcons 1 yard line and improbably, the Falcons dream season was now turning into a nightmare. It was so close, as Civil Rights leader & Georgia Congressman John Lewis had said in a recent interview “that you could see the parade down Peachtree”. Just an hour earlier, dreams of the Falcons first world championship seemed all but certain. With the Falcons comfortably ahead 28-3 late into the third quarter, for Falcons fans it was only a matter of time. But what unfolded after that Tevin Coleman TD run to make it 28-3 was a perfect storm of abysmal play calling, missed assignments, sloppy play and the inevitability of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. To say this loss hurts or stings is an understatement. To Atlanta and to every Falcons fan out there this is undoubtedly the worst loss in Atlanta Falcons history and the most comprehensive collapse in Atlanta sports history.
In the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl there was a strong sense of optimism in Atlanta surrounding these Falcons. After an up and down start to the season that saw them at 7-5, the Falcons rallied down the stretch, winning their remaining 4 games to win the NFC South and claim the NFC’s #2 seed in the playoffs. Confidence was growing because of the sustained excellence of MVP candidate QB Matt Ryan, a record setting offense and Coach Dan Quinn, who in year 2, had his team and the city believing in this team and in its new mantra of “Brotherhood”. With home field advantage and unbridled excellence on both sides of the ball, The Falcons managed to easily dispatch Super Bowl winning QBs Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks and Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Divisional round and NFC Championship Game. And the Falcons didn’t just win those games, they dominated. The Falcons won by double digits in both games, averaging 40 points per contest.
As Super Bowl 51 approached Atlanta was sure it was going to be a different outcome for these Falcons. Sure we were going up against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the mighty Patriots, but we Atlantans remained unfazed. These Falcons, we figured, were different than the only other Super Bowl team in team history, the beloved 1998 Atlanta Falcons, a.k.a. “the Dirty Birds”. This Falcons team knew it could win and had the belief that they would win. And for the first 3 quarters of Super Bowl 51, we were right. But then those young Falcons defenders weren’t quite as imposing as they had been in the first half and this amazing offense, the best in Falcons history, couldn’t move the ball. As I watched the collapse unfold in real time it still never hit me that they could lose this game. Not even with the offense unsure of itself and the defense falling apart. It wasn’t until Tom Brady’s 2nd two point conversion to Julian Edelman in the endzone with less than a minute remaining in the 4th Quarter that I began to fear the worst. With 57 seconds and the best offense the Falcons had ever had I trusted Matt Ryan, now crowned league MVP, to do what he’s done so many times and lead us down the field for a game winning FG, but the offense was again stuck in mud and had to go to overtime. When New England won the coin flip, my heart sank. After that amazing comeback in regulation you knew they were going to score and that’s exactly what they did. After James White scored a touchdown from 1 yard out, the collapse (or comeback) was complete. But the anger, pain and emotional frustration for a championship starved city had only just begun.
Moving forward it’s easy for the Falcons to take the position that they will bounce back. They’re opening a new stadium, boast the league’s best offense with most if not all of its key members returning for next season and have a young and improving defense. There’s no reason to think they won’t be back at another Super Bowl soon. But in a game with no certainties, Falcons fans are left wondering if our best chance for a Super Bowl championship died at 10:21 PM on Sunday February 5th, 2017.