Falcons build championship case but can't close with historic collapse

Brady throws first career postseason pick-six in win (0:49)

Robert Alford intercepts Tom Brady in the second quarter to put the Falcons ahead of the Patriots 21-0. (0:49)

HOUSTON -- Matt Ryan won the MVP. He won the Offensive Player of the Year award. He won the NFC Championship Game.

Unfortunately, he might be remembered most this season for the game he lost.

The Atlanta Falcons quarterback, playing in his first Super Bowl, couldn’t quite add a Super Bowl title to his impressive resume. The Falcons held as much as a 28-3 lead and looked poised to bring a championship back home to Atlanta. But then the Falcons fell victim to a Super Bowl-tested quarterback in Tom Brady, who engineered a miraculous comeback in the New England Patriots' shocking, 34-28 Super Bowl LI victory. The loss for the Falcons marked the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history and is sure to leave an empty feeling in the stomach of Ryan and his teammates the entire offseason.

It also may fuel their fire going into the 2017 season.

"For sure, it hurts like hell," second-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn told Fox. "I thought our guys battled hard and made plays. We know how good and what they are capable of doing. You thought this game would come down to the end, and it did. Two good teams battling for it. We knew what they were capable of as well."

The loss put a damper on what was a spirited effort for the Falcons, sparked by a young defense that made plays early and often. Rookie linebacker Deion Jones set the tone early with a strip and forced fumble that was recovered by cornerback Robert Alford. Then Alford read Brady as he was pressured by Dwight Freeney, picked off the pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead.

But all of it went for naught as the defense eventually succumbed to Brady’s brilliance. And offensively, the Falcons seemed to lose all the juice that made them the highest-scoring offense in the league.

The season, however, wasn’t a total loss for a Falcons team that turned the corner under the direction of Quinn. The future looks promising, as was evident through the first three quarters of Super Bowl LI.

No one predicted a Super Bowl appearance for the Falcons in Quinn's second season, including ESPN's panel of experts. In fact, the Falcons had a 1.2 percent chance of playing in the big game, according to NFL FPI during the preseason.

But Quinn, the intense motivator, made certain the arrow for his team pointed upward. A defensive-minded coach, he had no issues with offense being the Falcons' calling card, knowing the guidance of offensive coordinator and San Francisco 49ers coach-in-waiting Kyle Shanahan, plus the veteran savvy of Ryan, could elevate the team to uncharted territory.

Quinn's primary mission was to clearly define his vision of being one of the toughest and more relentless outfits in the NFL.

His message didn't sink in immediately, but the vision really started to take shape following a 24-15 loss at Philadelphia in Week 10. After the Falcons got physically dominated on both sides of the ball, Quinn challenged his players, coaches and even himself to dig deeper and find elements of their games to improve in preparation for the stretch run. The self-reflection took place during the ensuing bye week, and the Falcons responded with a more spirited effort the remainder of the season, winning seven of eight games heading into the Super Bowl.

Ryan found an even better version of himself, particularly after throwing two costly interceptions in a 29-28 home loss to Kansas City on Dec. 4. That turned out to be the Falcons' only defeat over their last six regular-season games. Ryan's focus was the same mentality he brought into the regular season: Cut down on turnovers and maintain a high level of efficiency in Year 2 of Shanahan's scheme.

Ryan solidified his name among the circle of elite quarterbacks, even if his accomplishments were somewhat overshadowed contending with Brady in the Super Bowl. His remarkable regular season, which included franchise records in passing yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), passer rating (117.1), completion percentage (69.9) and passes of 25-plus yards (42), was the primary reason the Falcons earned a first-round playoff bye. His elevated play in the first two playoff games -- seven TDs against no interceptions -- was the driving force behind the Falcons' run to the Super Bowl.

Quinn knew upon taking the Falcons job in 2015 that he had championship-caliber pieces in Ryan and game-changing wide receiver Julio Jones. It was more a matter of finding the right complements to surround his featured players.

The Falcons signed four-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack last offseason to stabilize an offensive line that started the same five in every game of the season -- the only NFL team to do so. The additions of wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, who was claimed off waivers from the Browns, alleviated some of the defensive attention from Jones, as did the drafting of rookie tight end Austin Hooper. And the late commitment to seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Freeney bolstered the pass rush, while his veteran presence helped in the development of second-year pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr., who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks.

While Ryan provided the backbone, a young core of defenders gave a glimpse of the Falcons' bright future. Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator who had a fast and physical defense in Seattle, insisted on building the same type of unit in Atlanta. They found players who fit that philosophy in the 2016 draft with strong safety Keanu Neal (first round), linebacker Jones (second) and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (fourth).

Neal, Jones and Campbell, along with undrafted nickelback Brian Poole, comprised the first-ever foursome of rookies to start on defense in a Super Bowl. Three of the Falcons' five most-used players this season on defense were rookies -- Neal (991 snaps), Jones (970) and Poole (895). The four rookies, teaming with a trio of second-year players in cornerback Jalen Collins, nose tackle Grady Jarrett and Beasley, represented a significant portion of a defense that came of age at the right time to help fortify a Super Bowl run.

Their growth, along with the return of the core of the offense, suggests that the best is yet to come for Atlanta.

"My longest-term goal is not just to get to a championship and win it -- certainly that is our goal -- but beyond that is to have a team ... there's four or five teams that you discuss every year, that we're in that conversation," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said days before the Super Bowl. "If you're in that conversation, you're at the party. You have a chance."

The Falcons indeed have the ability to be in that conversation by sustaining the momentum from this season. It all starts with Ryan continuing to play at a high level, even without the departing Shanahan at his side. Ryan averaged 15 interceptions over the four seasons leading into 2016 when he cut that number down to seven in his second year with Shanahan. The Falcons can hope for that to continue, but they can't assume it with Shanahan in San Francisco.

The continued development of the defense, which is sure to get a boost with the return of Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant following season-ending pectoral surgery, will also be vital for Atlanta. As will finding more gems through free agency and the draft, with general manger Thomas Dimitroff and assistant general manager Scott Pioli working in unison with Quinn.

That formula should have the Falcons in prime position to be in that yearly conversation.