The Atlanta Falcons will never live down the worst choke job in NFL history.
There's really no other way to view their inability to hold a 25-point third-quarter lead on the way to a 34-28 overtime loss in Super Bowl LI. While the world rushes to recalibrate the New England Patriots in the annals of sports history, and rightfully so, it should not lose sight of how unprecedented it was for a Super Bowl team to cough up such a big lead.
The Patriots more than doubled the previous record for a Super Bowl comeback (10 points). Their victory after trailing by 25 points was the third largest in NFL postseason history. Consider this: Since 2001, 394 teams have trailed by at least 25 points in the first three quarters of a game. Those teams, including the Patriots, are now 3-391, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
Even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, an eternal optimist and competitor, was shocked.
"Down 25 points," Brady told reporters, "it's hard to imagine us winning."
Fans, media and historians will spend the offseason unpacking the second half of this game. Among the first places they should look: a key sequence late in the fourth quarter.
Leading 28-20 with 4 minutes, 40 seconds remaining, the Falcons had a first down at the Patriots' 22-yard line and a great opportunity to make it a two-score game. The Patriots had found their rhythm on offense, but it's debatable whether they would have had enough time to score twice.
The Falcons' playcalling at that point was, well, unexpected -- and that's being kind to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. They missed a huge opportunity to seal the game.
Shanahan called a pass on second and third downs. The first resulted in a 12-yard sack, and the second was overturned by a holding penalty. On the next play -- on third-and-33 -- Shanahan called another pass that fell incomplete. The Falcons lost 23 yards on two plays, were forced to punt and drained only 1:10 off the clock.
Had the Falcons simply run three times -- even if they failed to gain a single yard -- kicker Matt Bryant would have been in position for a quite reasonable 39-yard field goal attempt. In his career, Bryant is 31-for-32 on field goals of 40 yards or shorter in the fourth quarter or overtime, according to research from Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Information.
Instead, the Patriots got the ball back with 3:30 remaining. They needed only 2:30 to drive 91 yards for a touchdown and game-tying two-point conversion against the Falcons' exhausted defense.
That's just one of many hotspots where the Falcons are vulnerable to criticism. They led by 25 points in the third quarter and by 19 points with less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and they lost. It was an epic, historic collapse that will never be forgotten.