At least they didn’t try to bamboozle anyone.
"I’ll always remember this game for the rest of my life," running back Devonta Freeman said.
Safety Ricardo Allen described it best: "It makes you numb. I’m kind of numb. I really don’t know what to feel. I’m broken inside. It’s terrible. It’s one of the worst feelings ever. I’m not a guy that forgets easy. I’ll probably never forget this."
I respect Allen. I was standing right in front of his podium surrounded by at least 50 other reporters when he said this. His face was ashen, his voice was cracking. But he sat right there, cameras rolling, bright lights flashing, this 34-28 Super Bowl overtime loss still agonizing and fresh. Allen exhibited rare character after a nasty punch to the gut.
After this absolutely epic Super Bowl LI failure by the Atlanta Falcons.
What a dagger. What a disaster.
Their owner, Arthur Blank, strolled down to the Falcons sideline for the second half, like he does at many Falcons games. He held wife Angela’s hand. They were smiling. He waved to Falcons fans. This was good. Falcons up 28-3 with 8:31 left in the third quarter. This was really looking good. Falcons just a few minutes away from their first ever Super Bowl championship. Blank just a few minutes away from giving the city of Atlanta an important and special treat. They were up 25 points. This was fresh.
And then it was 28-9. And then 28-12. And then 28-20. With :57 seconds left in regulation it was 28-28. And then eight plays into overtime it was Patriots 34-28. And it was over.
Drip, drip, drip. Prick, prick, prick. The Patriots killed them softly. A silent assassination, a Super Bowl-record deficit rolled into victory. A Falcons epic failure. If you had just watched the Blanks’ joy slowly transform into concern, their smiles melt into frowns as the Falcons’ lead dripped, as it was pricked, by the thorny Patriots, that would have told you everything.
The proven and decorated Tom Brady orchestrated it. He was the game’s MVP.
Several Falcons afterward looked as if they were in a trance.
"Come on man, when it was 28-3, I’m thinking what you and everybody else was thinking, that we pretty much had this game," Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu said. "Tom Brady just took it to the next level. He made some great plays."
Brady had help from the Patriots.
But he had help from the Falcons, too. They contributed to their epic failure.
The Falcons started hot. They were running it. They were throwing it. Their defense was forcing the action. Cornerback Robert Alford returned a Brady interception 82 yards for a touchdown just before halftime. That gave Atlanta a 21-0 lead.
The Falcons looked faster than the Patriots. They looked stronger. The Patriots could not slow them down and the Patriots could not keep track. The Falcons even won the third quarter, 7-6. They entered the fourth quarter with a 28-9 lead.
"We just did something to get us off schedule a little bit and put us behind the chains, penalties and just mistakes," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said about his team’s meltdown. "And so I don’t think it was one thing or another. It was a couple of things here and there that kind of got us off schedule and we weren’t able to overcome that."
Even though receiver Julio Jones was often double covered, the Falcons did not feature him enough during the Patriots’ comeback. For the game, Jones was targeted four times and caught all four passes for 87 yards. He could have done more. This is what Patriots coach Bill Belichick loves, taking away your best player, making you play left-handed. With screens, reverses, and just more creative Jones touches, the Falcons would have created more fight.
New England deserves credit for creating its own ways to counter Atlanta’s speed. The Patriots defense began to hit the Atlanta offense harder and blitz more on third downs. The Patriots offense turned to running back James White as a mismatch receiving weapon. He caught 14 passes for 110 yards. And Brady threw it 62 times. He passed for 466 yards. His longest completion was only 28 yards. Drip, drip, drip. Prick, prick, prick.
Thirty-seven Patriots first downs. Twenty-six passing first downs. A Patriots 40:31 to 23:27 lead in possession time. Six different Patriots catching four or more passes.
There were plenty of big plays in the comeback, but Julian Edelman’s 23-yard catch on the game-tying drive in the final moments clarified the Patriots’ excellence and the Falcons’ failure.
The pass was bobbled and bounced and hit off a Falcons player’s leg. A scrap for it ensued. Edelman got it.
Falcons safety Keanu Neal was there: "It was tipped and I was reaching for it. It was crazy."
Falcons cornerback Robert Alford was there: "I saw the ball. I ran into his hip and looked back and the ball was right there. All I could do was get my hands up to hit it."
He wanted to tip it into the air. He just knew another Falcon would then get it.
Allen was there: "We are taught to run to the ball. We believe that when you run to the ball, good things happen. Not this time. In running in there, we wound up on the bottom of the pile. He (Edelman) was on top of the pile. So, he was coming from top down and in the best position to get his hands on the ball for a last grip. I still can’t believe he caught it."
Just like the Falcons still can’t believe they lost. But he caught it. And they blew it. They failed.
It was not a lack of Falcons effort. It was not total carelessness. It was a failure to seize enough moments. To understand that Brady and the Patriots never flinch. It takes a clock at zero to beat them. It takes four quarters. Sometimes five.
"Well, I told them it’s going to be a four-quarter fight, and this was a five-quarter fight," Falcons veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney said of his talks to his young teammates. "You have to try to respond and we did that, we just didn’t do enough."
They thought they had New England beat. But those thoughts helped unhinge the Falcons. Every moment of a championship game must be earned against the Patriots. Every second.
"That’s a hard one in the locker room," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "No place to put that one mentally for us."
He said his team will rely on its closeness, its brotherhood to overcome this.
This epic failure where the Falcons were mesmerized by the Patriots’ march to glory.