The Atlanta Falcons let a 17-point lead slip away to dropped a game in crushing fashion to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The Falcons were 13-point favorites, and early in the third quarter, they had a 98.2 percent win probability. They lost, 20-17.
It didn’t sting as much as the blown lead in Super Bowl 51, but the upset left players reeling.
“(We had a) 17-point lead at the half, and to come away without a win is disappointing. Just a pretty inconsistent game for us,” Matt Ryan said after the loss.
The Falcons may have thought they’d get a respite from 28-3 jokes until their trip to New England for a Super Bowl rematch next week. The loss to the Dolphins just gave folks more blown-lead material to work with, however.
On paper, this was a game that the Falcons should have won handily. Atlanta was at home, coming off a bye. Julio Jones was back on the field after leaving the Falcons’ Week 4 loss to the Bills with a hip flexor injury. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder was back after a couple of weeks in the concussion protocol.
The Falcons were close to full strength, and there was every reason to think they could bounce back against a 2-2 Dolphins team that barely escaped with a 16-10 win over the Matt Cassel-led Titans last week.
Things went according to plan for the Falcons in the first half. Then it all fell apart. Here are the four things that happened that lost the game for Atlanta.
1. A missed field goal before the half starts the momentum swing
Falcons kicker Matt Bryant was perfect coming into Week 6. He’s perfect no more. His first miss of the season was a 59-yarder with two seconds remaining in the first half against the Dolphins. It shifted momentum in Miami’s favor.
Up until that point, the Atlanta offense was clicking. The Falcons had taken over with 1:04 remaining in the half after Deion Jones intercepted Jay Cutler. Ryan moved the offense down the field efficiently and got into a range that Bryant could hit from just before halftime.
Bryant has attempted three other field goals longer than 50 yards this season and made all three. He was on Atlanta’s injury report this week with a back injury, which may have been a factor.
It’s just three points, but it would have extended the Falcons’ lead to 20-0. The missed kick was the moment the Falcons’ trajectory changed. It was the last time the Falcons were in a position to score until their very last possession of the game.
2. A shanked punt jump-started the Dolphins’ comeback
It wasn’t a banner day for the Falcons’ specialists. Punter Matt Bosher is usually reliable, but he shanked a punt after a three-and-out with about four minutes remaining in the third quarter. It gave the Dolphins a short field while trailing 17-7.
Miami took over on its own 49-yard line, and five plays later, the Dolphins were in the end zone. Jay Cutler hooked up with Jarvis Landry for a 7-yard score to cut Atlanta’s lead to 17-14.
And then it got worse. The Dolphins stopped the Falcons on Atlanta’s next possession, and long snapper Josh Harris botched the snap on the punt attempt. The ball was rolling loose, and Bosher had to recover it.
The Dolphins took over possession on their own 48-yard line, and they turned Atlanta’s mistake into a game-tying field goal. The score was 17-17 with 8:34 left in the game.
3. Falcons penalties extended drives for the Dolphins
Atlanta had six penalties over the course of the game. But the timing of two specific penalties was particularly painful for the Falcons. Both helped Miami’s offense keep rolling on the Dolphins’ second touchdown drive.
Miami was trailing 17-7. On a third-and-9 from midfield with just over three minutes left in the third, Cutler tried to connect with wide receiver Jakeem Grant on a deep ball. It was incomplete, but Falcons cornerback Robert Alford was flagged for pass interference. So instead of punting, the Dolphins got a fresh set of downs at the Falcons’ 24-yard line.
Two plays later, linebacker Deion Jones picked off a pass intended for Landry. But defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was called for roughing the passer.
The penalty negated the interception and extended the Dolphins’ drive. Miami was able to score again two plays later on that Cutler pass to Landry, making it 17-14.
Cutler has mostly played this season like a guy who should have stayed retired. But he went from listening to Dolphins fans chant for backup Matt Moore last week to playing the hero for Miami in the second half of Sunday’s win.
4. A game-breaking interception seals the win for the Dolphins
Matt Ryan threw just seven picks over the entire 2016 season en route to the league’s MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards. He’s thrown six so far this season, and his last interception against the Dolphins was the final nail in the Falcons’ coffin.
Matt Ryan's pass is picked off...— NFL (@NFL) October 15, 2017
And @miamidolphins' @reshadjones9 is going the other way! #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/FmSlmb6AWO
The offense was one-dimensional in the second half, but the Falcons still had a chance to win at the end. They were trailing 20-17 at the Miami 26-yard line, in prime position to tie or take a lead. Ryan took a shot at tight end Austin Hooper, but Cordrea Tankersley made a flawless play on the ball, tipping it into his teammate Reshad Jones’ hands. The Dolphins were able to kneel it out with 38 seconds remaining for the 20-17 win.
The Falcons have earned a reputation for choking away wins. Being on the wrong end of the most infamous blown lead in Super Bowl history will do that to you.
But even with the Patriots rematch looming, Dan Quinn isn’t worried about people seeing that as part of his team’s identity.
“You can’t replay the game that was played in the Super Bowl, but what we can do is control what we have now,” Quinn said. “For that one, it was a historic game and one that we didn’t get done, but we don’t look back to that one on every opportunity when we’re ahead or when we’re behind in any of that way. Our focus is 100 percent on now and who we are.”
But who they are now is a team that blew a 17-point lead to the Dolphins on Sunday.