The Falcons might have had a better shot at preserving the healthy lead they maintained for much of Super Bowl LI if they’d just run the ball. The one thing the Falcons couldn’t afford to do with a 28-20 lead and 3:56 remaining in regulation was to let Matt Ryan take a critical sack, pushing the team out of field goal range. But that’s exactly what happened, and the result was a crushing and historic loss.
Situational football is not always sexy or exciting, but it wins games. Situational football would dictate that, holding a 28-12 lead with just under 10 minutes left to play, you run the dang ball.
Moving the ball on the ground, or even trying to, takes precious time off the clock. In this particular situation, it would have kept Tom Brady off the field, limiting his ability to do what Tom Brady does to devastate his opponents.
Tevin Coleman was injured, so that explains why he wasn’t getting carries. Devonta Freeman, however, had more success against the Patriots on the ground all day, with 75 rushing yards to Coleman’s 29.
The Falcons were up by eight points and got the ball on their own 10-yard line with 5:53 remaining, and they commenced a promising drive. The first play was a 39-yard pass to Freeman. The second was a Freeman carry for a 2-yard gain, and the third was this pass to Julio Jones.
That catch put Atlanta on the Patriots’ 22-yard line, well within field goal range for Matt Bryant, who hit 100 percent of his attempts from the 40-to 49-yard range this season.
All Atlanta needed to do was chew up some clock, keep Brady on the sideline, and get to fourth down to kick a game-sealing field goal.
That is not at all what the Falcons did.
On first down, it was a running play. Freeman carried the ball for a 1-yard loss. No big deal. It took 44 seconds off the clock, and the Falcons were still within field goal range.
The second down play call featured a five-step drop for Ryan. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder had left the game with a torn ankle ligament a couple of plays before this one, leaving the line more vulnerable. Ryan had a wide-open Taylor Gabriel just waiting for a pass from Ryan — but Trey Flowers got to him first.
The sack resulted in a loss of 12 yards, which was a nightmare scenario for a team that could have put the game on ice by adding three points.
So, facing a third-and-23 from the New England 35-yard line, the Falcons no longer had the luxury of just trying to move the ball on the ground and letting the clock run.
Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu for a 9-yard gain, getting the team at least close to field goal range again, but a holding penalty against left tackle Jake Matthews moved Atlanta back to the New England 45-yard line.
Kyle Shanahan said after the game that running the ball is always a priority, but the team was “trying to score.”
"You always want to run the ball if you can. You got to look at each situation when you're getting the ball," the Falcons’ then-offensive coordinator said. "We were trying to score there at the end. We got into field goal range where we would have ended it, but getting that sack and that holding call was tough."
Shanahan didn’t explain why the team took risks that ended up eliminating the option of a field goal.
After the game, head coach Dan Quinn stood by the decisions the team made on that series.
“I don’t disagree with the call. As it turns out, the outcome is what gets you,” Quinn said. “So you look back and say well I could’ve done that one different or interjected and said hey, let’s do this differently.”
Quinn is correct that, had those plays gone as intended, nobody would have been talking about this series as the one that ruined the Falcons’ shot at a Lombardi Trophy. The fact remains that choosing to not run the ball led directly to that momentum-destroying sack. There’s no way the Falcons should have lost that game, and that play changed everything.
A look at the dramatic turn in win probability in the Patriots' Super Bowl win pic.twitter.com/1SYGxRBuEK— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 6, 2017
Let’s recap: The Falcons pulled off a couple of characteristically explosive plays to get into comfortable field goal range with an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI. They then, for no discernible reason, decided to throw the ball, resulting in a catastrophic sack that led directly to the eventual loss in overtime.
Meanwhile, the defense was gassed, and the Patriots took advantage.
Moving away from the run wasn’t the only reason the Falcons lost. This was a perfect storm that led to a historically embarrassing defeat for the Falcons.
But while the defense did allow the Patriots’ offense to come surging back, the Falcons should never have been in that position. If you had to pinpoint the single play that turned the tide forever against Atlanta, it was that sack.