The Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots are like the Yankees of the Joe Torre era—a team you loved to hate because they were so arrogant and had the titles to back it up. When the Falcons took a 28-3 lead in the third quarter of Super Bowl 51, one couldn’t but rejoice at the prospect that Donald Trump supporter Brady would be denied the “privilege” of being feted by that bigoted blowhard in a White House ceremony.
But it was not to be. The Falcons completely collapsed in the most shocking of fashions. After the Patriots cut the lead to 28-9, a botched on-side kick gave the Falcons a chance to answer with points of their own, but failed. The Falcons’ defense, which had been harassing Brady all day, managed to stave off another touchdown deep inside their territory and force a field goal with 8 minutes to play. The Patriots were still theoretically three scores behind, 28-12. But with less than six minutes to play, the Falcons lost their wings.
The alleged NFL Most Valuable Player, Matt Ryan, demonstrated why raw numbers do not necessarily equate to “value”; after all, the Falcons had lost five games during the regular season, four of which after blowing fourth quarter leads. In a similar situation in the divisional round against the Cowboys, Aaron Rodgers did not wilt under pressure. Rodgers did not fumble the football deep in his own end after being blind-sided by a blitzer after a badly missed blocking assignment. He did not get sacked for a 12-yard loss on a horribly stupid play call when the Falcons were within game-clinching field goal range. And he did possess the required tools to heave a “Half-Mary” pass in the waning seconds to get into game-winning field goal range.
The Falcons’ defense, so dominant for nearly three quarters, suddenly had the consistency of butter in the hot sun as the front line became “gassed” and the secondary acted as if they forgot what their assignments were. The Patriots not only scored on their last four possessions of regulation, but they converted on two two-point conversion attempts to tie the game and force overtime. This would be the first ever overtime game in Super Bowl history, but when the Patriots won the coin toss, the rest of the game was anti-climactic. There was no “drama”; the only “hope” that the Falcons had was if Brady threw an inadvertent pass that was intercepted. It didn’t happen.
We can say that Bill Belichick is a better coach than Dan Quinn, because he didn’t make boneheaded-after-boneheaded decision when the game was slipping away. Not just in allowing an ill-conceived pass play when a field goal would have won you the game, but wasting a time out when a challenge flag was thrown in thoughtless desperation. Losing 34-28 in overtime when you were the underdog would normally be seen as a worthy, valiant effort; instead, no loss could be more maddeningly stomach-churning. There was no comparison to the Oilers blowing a 32-point lead against the Bills in 1993, since the Oilers were already in a tail-spin heading into the fourth quarter. The Broncos’ 55-10 and 43-8 losses in the Super Bowl were “unexpected” at the start but entirely predictable in hindsight. In this game, the Falcons had a 25-point lead that seemed unassailable, and were still leading by 16-points and had the ball with six minutes to play before they simply gave it away. This is the kind of loss no team can live down.