by Jeffrey Farek
More than halfway through the fourth quarter I thought my prediction was still looking pretty good. The Atlanta Falcons, up 28-20, were driving deep into New England Patriots territory after a tremendous catch by Julio Jones. With just under 5 minutes left in the game on the New England 22-yard line, a field goal would all but end the Patriots ferocious comeback from 25 points down, stretching the lead to 11 points and, more importantly, two possessions. It didn’t happen.
The end result was not unexpected. Both teams played to their strengths. The Falcons offense was, as advertised, the best in the league. The Patriots defense looked mundane in the first half, but rallied tremendously, allowing only 7 points after halftime. Atlanta’s defense, which had been in better form than during the regular season, held the New England offense to only 3 points in the first half, a fantastic performance against a top 5 offense this year. However, they gave up 25 unanswered points, and 19 in the fourth quarter alone, to lose their chance at the first title in franchise history.
Losing 21-3 at halftime, the Patriots offense somehow had run twice more plays than Atlanta had and was on the field for just over 19 minutes. Part of the success New England had in the second half came from tiring the Atlanta defense. Despite doing a great job at preventing big plays, the Falcons defense could not get the New England offense off the field, including one drive extended by three separate defensive holding calls on Atlanta – each resulting in an automatic first down. Further compounding this problem, Atlanta was scoring, but very quickly, not giving their defense enough of a rest. The Patriots offense did a great job in the second half not only scoring, but doing it methodically, wearing out the opposing defense as the game wore on. This, in turn, rested their own defense, which helped them limit MVP Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons offense to just 7 points in the second half.
While all of this explains how the Patriots were able to control the second half, it still should not have been enough. Three crucial mistakes by the Falcons assisted the comeback, each stemming from poor clock management.
After a New England touchdown cut the deficit to 28-9, they attempted a surprise onside kick. The Falcons recovered, gaining possession on the Patriots 41-yard line with just over 2 minutes left in the third quarter. Matt Ryan completed a pass for 9 yards on first down, putting Atlanta on the 32. While still in the third quarter, it is too early to claim that the Falcons should run the ball to kill clock. However, with a tiring defense just on the field for another 6 minutes, Atlanta needed to maintain possession as long as possible, even if running the ball more meant settling for a field goal. On second down, a holding call on Jake Matthews pushed Atlanta back to the Patriots 42. A field goal from there would be about 59 yards. The career long for Falcons kicker Matt Bryant is 62 yards, so facing 2nd and 11, the Falcons were not out of field goal range, but a few more yards would be a big help. The next couple of plays started an unfortunate pattern. Abandoning the run, an incomplete pass followed by a sack put the Falcons 9 yards further back and effectively out of field goal range. They punted. Still running their normal offense, this is more a missed opportunity and great defensive stand by New England than an egregious error, but an error nonetheless.
A Patriots field goal brought the score to 28-12 and took 5 more minutes off the clock. After a touchback, Atlanta took over on their own 25-yard line. Up by 2 possessions with just under 10 minutes left in regulation, a field goal on this drive would all but end the game, especially if they could take time off the clock. Atlanta ran the ball twice for 9 yards to the start the drive. A good start to the drive. At the very least the Falcons want to wind down the clock and take care of the football. No turnovers. On 3rd down Matt Ryan is sacked and fumbles. The Patriots recover on the Falcons 25. A great play defensively, but a questionable play call. Even if the fumble had not occurred an incomplete pass stops the clock and the Falcons punt. A failed running play at least keeps the clock moving.
28-20 after another New England score. Just under 6 minutes left to play. Everything questionable the Falcons have done so far has been just that – questionable. A case could be made for each decision. Matt Ryan is the MVP and leader of the Atlanta offense. Putting the ball in his hands makes sense and those mistakes may only be errors in hindsight. On this drive, Ryan proves why. He drives Atlanta down the field to the Patriots 22-yard line with just under 5 minutes to play.
With all three timeouts and only down a possession, the Patriots were still in this game. Deep in field goal range, Atlanta needed to take away both. Running the ball three straight times and kicking a field goal would either force New England to burn their timeouts or let 40 seconds run off the clock after each play. Even without gaining any yards the Falcons were looking at a 39-yard field goal. Matt Bryant converted 27 of his 28 attempts inside 49 yards this season, so a made field goal was all but certain. They ran the ball for a 1 yard loss on first down. Good start. Then, astoundingly, Matt Ryan drops back to pass and is sacked for a 12 yard loss. The clock is still running, so New England calls timeout, all but telling the Falcons they will do it again after third down and save one timeout for their offense. At the 35-yard line, Bryant would face a 52-yard field goal. He is 6 for 8 from 50 or more yards this season. They are not out of field goal range yet. What came next was inexcusable. If you run the ball on more time, you force a timeout and count on your kicker to go up by two possessions. Instead, another pass play. Holding penalty on Atlanta stops the clock and puts the Falcons out of field goal range again. They are forced to pass to try and get back into field goal range on 3rd and 33. It falls incomplete. Atlanta punts the ball away. Not only did Atlanta fail to go up by two scores, but they spent less than 20 seconds and forced only one timeout to allow the Patriots to tie the game and ultimately win in overtime.
The Patriots played a tremendous second half. They forced mistakes, whether they caused panic or not in Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. Either way, they should not have won this game. He made a crucial error in a pressure situation and it cost Atlanta the game. With everything that went wrong, it would not have mattered had Shanahan ran out some clock, instead of greedily looking for more passing yards for Matt Ryan and company. Tom Brady will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He deserves that recognition. But even one of the greatest quarterbacks ever could not have won this game without a little help.