The Atlanta Falcons were executing their game plan perfectly. Coach Dan Quinn saw his team jump out to a 25-point lead in the third quarter, giving them a 99.6 win probability, according to ESPN. Richard Smith, the Falcons defensive coordinator, drew up schemes that put pressure on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady early and often. And offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan got the running backs involved in the passing game, with both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman finding the end zone.
Then … everything changed. And the Falcons will forever be seen as the biggest chokers in NFL Super Bowl history.
As good as Shanahan’s play-calling was in the first half, it was equally maddening in the second half. The Falcons had a first and 10 at the Patriots’ 22-yard line, giving them an opportunity to extend a 28-20 lead into a two-score advantage with 4 minutes 40 seconds remaining. After Freeman lost a yard on first down, Shanahan called passing plays on second and third down. On the first, quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked by Trey Flowers for a 12-yard loss. The second, a nine-yard completion to Mohamed Sanu, was negated when Jake Matthews was flagged for holding. Shanahan called another pass attempt, this time on third and 33, which was incomplete.
According to Pro Football Reference, based on Atlanta’s field position at the start of the drive, teams come away with an average of 4.11 points. Yet the Falcons had to punt. The Patriots then needed only 2:30 to drive 91 yards down the field to tie the game.
Run three times. Kick a field goal. Falcons win. That simple. As great as Brady was, the victory doesn’t happen without bad coaching
— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) February 6, 2017
Shanahan’s tactics were suspect on the drive, but so was his overall second-half strategy. Instead of using the running game to wind down the clock and nurse a lead, he actually skewed more pass-heavy in the second half, asking Ryan to throw the ball on 18 of 27 second-half plays from scrimmage (66.7 percent) compared to nine out of 19 plays in the first half (52.6 percent). The Falcons also threw the ball on all eight of their first downs, converting just one of them, while averaging a loss of 1.63 yards per play because of four sacks.
Wild stat. Falcons called only 5 running plays after securing a 28-3 lead. @NFLonFOX
— Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) February 6, 2017
“It’s not really the run-pass ratio that I look at,” Shanahan said after the game. “It’s — you stay on the field, and you run your offense. When [we] went three-and-out two times, which was huge, I think we had second and one on both of those. To not convert on second and one and then third, it was tough. That’s why we let them get back into the game.”
Fatigue also appeared to play a role. The Patriots ran 93 plays during the game compared to 46 for the Falcons, the biggest play disparity in NFL postseason history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That increased workload slowed down a defensive line that was extremely effective early.
In the first half, nine Falcons registered a sack, hit or hurry against Brady, who completed just 5 of 11 passes for 62 yards plus an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Courtney Upshaw and Grady Jarrett each had a sack in the first quarter and Brady was pressured six times on his first 11 dropbacks. Atlanta got just six pressures on Brady’s last 38 dropbacks, on which he completed 26 of 33 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 122.7.
“It looked like we were starting to press them in the fourth quarter, a lot of no-huddle, a lot of empty formations, a lot of passing,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick told reporters after the game. “We decided to do that in overtime. Our conditioning paid off.”
Quinn would agree, saying his team “ran out of gas.”
And now, after a sensational start, the Falcons will endure that empty feeling all offseason.