HOUSTON -- It wasn't supposed to end like this for the Atlanta Falcons. The way Super Bowl LI was unfolding, the likely scenario was something involving these images: a second half filled with constant laughter and frequent hugs, a joyous celebration followed by a Gatorade bath for head coach Dan Quinn and predictable debates about the start of a new dynasty.
Few people had the nerve to imagine Atlanta melting down in epic fashion. Even now, it's impossible to fathom how a team could go from being so dominant to so dysfunctional in the span of roughly nine minutes.
As much as we'll praise the New England Patriots for their 34-28 overtime win, we can't tell this story without pointing out that Atlanta gave away a championship. That's the only way to look at a contest that ended with the victor overcoming a 25-point deficit. Yes, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are as dynamic a duo as you'll ever find in the NFL. That doesn't mean they were brilliant enough to pull off this miraculous comeback without a little help from the team wearing red and black.
This was the worst choke job in Super Bowl history. This was a young, athletic team being on the verge of sending a strong message to the rest of the NFL and then ending up as another highlight for Brady's legacy as the best quarterback in history.
The Falcons are such a likeable team that it's difficult to not feel sorry for them right now. They preach brotherhood, and Coach Quinn is as classy a man as you'll find in this profession. As the first half of this game also proved, the Falcons also have enough talent to be back on this stage in the near future. That's why they should be so sick after this defeat: They were whipping the league's top franchise for more than three quarters -- and making it look easy in the process.
The Falcons shouldn't need a day or two to review film to see what went wrong for them. Anybody who watched this game in real time knows the critical turning points. It included a missed block by Falcons running back Devonta Freeman on a fourth-quarter pass play, a whiff that led to Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and forcing a fumble that Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch recovered. It was Atlanta moving the ball down to the New England 22-yard line with just under five minutes left in the game, only to fall out of field-goal range with bizarre play-calling and critical penalties. It also was the Falcons' defense wearing down at the worst possible time.
Atlanta actually led this game 28-3 with 8:31 left in the third quarter, right after Ryan hit running back Tevin Coleman with a six-yard touchdown pass. They ultimately watched the Patriots score 31 unanswered points, including two fourth-quarter touchdowns and two two-point conversations before the end of regulation.
"I think we ran out of gas," Quinn said. "I can't tell you what the time of possession was (New England had the ball for 40 minutes, 31 seconds, while Atlanta had it for only 23:27), but I can tell you how hard these guys battled for it. We knew it was going to come down to the end for sure. It's just that they got those scores back to back and that was the difference."
This game was so strange to comprehend that it literally felt like two Super Bowls were played on Sunday. The first involved Atlanta's domination, which included an offense that New England couldn't stop early and a defense that contributed its own big play -- an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Robert Alford in the second quarter. That pick-six seemed to serve notice to New England at that point. The only question people should've been asking by then, with the Falcons leading 21-0, was how ugly this would ultimately get for the Pats.
The Falcons were faster, more athletic and clearly not affected by their pronounced lack of Super Bowl experience. What they realized rather quickly was that New England was far more beatable than anybody expected. The Patriots didn't have Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (who is on injured reserve), and they had traded away two of their best young defenders over the previous 10 months (defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Jamie Collins). The longer this game went on in the first half, the more obvious it was that the Pats were going to have a hard time keeping pace with their younger opponents.
What New England did prove is that it doesn't matter how you start in these games, it's about how you finish -- a lesson that would've served Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan well. He had Atlanta's offense rolling in the first half. But it's fair to wonder why he was so determined to keep calling pass plays late in the fourth quarter, with the Falcons positioned deep in Patriots territory and perfectly capable of hitting that easy field goal. The same aggressive nature that defined this team's offense all season ultimately cost it a championship, even if the players didn't see it that way.
"I thought Kyle did a good job for us tonight," Ryan said. "We had some opportunities to make a couple plays and we made a few mistakes. When you're playing a team as good as New England, those mistakes are going to cost you."
The rub of that statement is that Atlanta knew the one thing it couldn't do against New England was beat itself. The Falcons also knew a thing or two about collapses because they've lived through them before. Most of the players on this roster were on this team last season, when it started 5-0 and finished 3-8. They were supposed to be mentally tougher now, and their NFC championship was proof of that maturity.
The reality is that young teams sometimes have to learn hard lessons, and this was one of the most brutal.
"It's hard tonight for the lessons," Quinn said. "But what I can say is that you can't truly be relentless until you've had something taken away or you didn't get it. We are a tough team. Although it's difficult, I would like to think that, with this group, we're putting our stamp on things and showing people that we're just getting started."
That is the upside of all this. The Falcons have enough talent and enough quality coaching to believe they have a great chance of returning to this stage sometime soon. If that opportunity does arise, they certainly will benefit from what happened on Sunday night. If it doesn't, then they'll always remember how they once had the Lombardi Trophy well within their grasp, only to watch it slip away to a proven dynasty.