I never thought I'd live to see a loss as crushing as the Packers' 28-22 heartbreaker against the Seahawks in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. Then Super Bowl LI happened.
Back when Aaron Rodgers and Co. failed to close out Seattle, I viewed it as -- when factoring in the stakes and the degree of difficulty necessary to blow it -- the worst playoff loss in NFL history. The day after the game, I wrote a piece breaking down the eight plays that doomed the Packers.
I'll run that exercise back for the 2016 Falcons. If Atlanta has a favorable outcome in any of the situations below, they probably have a Lombardi Trophy right now. A warning that this is not for the faint of heart.
We learned Wednesday that Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith would not return in his role with the team next season. It was a reminder of how savage pro football can be as a business. Three days earlier, Smith was pitching the coordinator equivalent of a perfect game, holding Tom Brady and the Patriots to a measly field goal midway through the third quarter. And now the Pats were opting to go for it on fourth down in their own territory! The Falcons get a stop here, and they could be taking a 25-point lead -- at least! -- into the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI.
2) Falcons can't capitalize on onside-kick recovery
The Patriots were as desperate as we've ever seen them. Down 28-9 with 2:06 to play in the third quarter after New England's first touchdown, Bill Belichick called for an onside kick. The Falcons recovered, which didn't even matter, since the ball deflected off Steven Gostkowski's leg before it had traveled the necessary 10 yards.
The Falcons had the ball, up 19 points, in Patriots territory, with 17 minutes to play. They moved to the 32-yard line on a Matt Ryan-to-Austin Hooper 9-yard completion to start the possession. Then the first of several mini-catastrophes to come: Left tackle Jake Matthews was called for holding on the next play (more on poor Jake later), the Falcons burned a timeout, Ryan threw an incompletion, then took a sack. Backed up to midfield, Atlanta punted it away, a golden opportunity to put more points on the board -- and quell New England's momentum -- lost.
3) Matt Ryan meets Dont'a Hightower
I get it. The Falcons were aggressive in their play calling all season long. The idea of a shotgun formation and pass play on third-and-1 was not crazy when you know the history of Kyle Shanahan's explosive offense in 2016. But it was still a bad call. The Falcons had the benefit of being conservative in that spot. The clock was still their friend. Run the ball and take the odds that you'll get the five feet you need for a first down.
But Shanahan stayed aggressive and Devonta Freeman couldn't pick up a surging Dont'a Hightower. The result was disastrous. The Patriots now had a detectable pulse. There was a buzz in the building. This could happen.
4) Two-point conversion attempt, Part I
That's when Josh McDaniels reached back for an old Patriots favorite in the playbook. The demonic trickery made it a one-score game.
5) Julio Jones' miracle catch leads to bupkis
I have no idea how Julio got his feet down after corralling this Ryan pass. But he did, and it should have been remembered as the play that clinched the city of Atlanta's second professional sports championship in 179 combined seasons. The 27-yard completion set the Falcons up perfectly: First-and-10, ball on New England's 22-yard line, 4:40 to play, a 28-20 lead.
A field goal and the game is basically over. Once again, Shanahan had the luxury to go conservative and rely on the running game. Even if you fail to move the ball, you take precious time off the clock and remain well within Matt Bryant's field-goal range. But after a 1-yard loss on a Freeman rush on first down, Ryan lined up in shotgun and took a terrible sack, this time by Trey Flowers. A subsequent 9-yard completion to Mo Sanu is wiped out by a second killer Jake Matthews holding call. After an incompletion, the Falcons were forced to punt.
Atlanta went from first-and-10 from the Patriots' 22 to fourth-and-33 from the 45. The free fall was on.
6) Julian Edelman wins battle for a 50/50 ball
One of the great catches in Super Bowl history, and also one of the most important. When the ball pops in the air, the fate of Super Bowl LI hangs in the balance. Was Edelman in the right spot ... or did he simply want it more? Whatever the case, Atlanta had just missed another golden opportunity to avoid the greatest collapse in NFL history. There was an inevitability in the air at this point.
7) Two-point conversion attempt, Part II
The Falcons had cratered, but incredibly, they were still OK. Clinging to a two-point lead with 57 seconds to play, they would still likely win Super Bowl LI if they could stop the Patriots from converting on a second two-point conversion attempt.
They don't come close. Not only does Danny Amendola find the end zone on one of those unstoppable New England goal line routes, Dwight Freeney got flagged for offsides for good measure. The game was tied, but it already felt over.
8) The Coin Flip
The Falcons were shell-shocked, their defense cooked. In a game they once led 28-3, Atlanta was reduced to praying a coin flip went their way. It didn't. The Patriots won the toss and marched down the field for the game-winning touchdown. Brady never even took a snap on third down during the possession. It wasn't a drive so much as a coronation.
If Atlanta wins the toss, perhaps they re-group. Perhaps that incredible offense finds a way. We'll never know.