For a moment Sunday night, the freakish greatness of Julio Jones negated the metronomic greatness of Tom Brady.
With less than five minutes remaining and the Atlanta Falcons clinging to the vestiges of a once-massive lead, quarterback Matt Ryan threw a desperate pass to the right sideline, in the direction of wide receiver Julio Jones. The ball sailed over the fingertips of cornerback Eric Rowe, leaping just in front of Jones. Jones stretched into the boundary, snared the ball with a toe on the ground and his other leg in a split, suspended in a mid-air yoga pose. Somehow, Jones touched down the second toe, his body pausing while angled at 45 degrees. It was a catch Jones can make, and just about 7 billion human beings cannot.
Atlantans should already be calling it The Catch. They should be buying prints of it to hang on their wall, to commemorate the greatest moment in Falcons history. It should be spoken about in hushed tones for the years and decades to come. What it should have done was nothing less than win the Falcons the first Super Bowl in the franchise’s 52-year history.
At that moment, the Falcons led the New England Patriots by eight points with 4:47 remaining in regulation and possessed the ball on the New England 22. The game, by all rights, was over. The Falcons could run the ball three times, exhaust New England’s timeouts, kick a field goal and take an 11-point lead with around four minutes to play. Break one run – a distinct possibility, given Atlanta’s success on the ground – and the situation would only grow bleaker for the Patriots.
Instead, Jones’s catch will exist as a footnote, forever relegated to a lowercase ‘c.’ When simplicity would have sealed victory, the Falcons instead enabled Brady’s greatness.
A lot of wrong has to happen to blow a 25-point lead. But the Falcons can start with how they mangled their penultimate possession. They ended up running only once, then calling three passes and punting the ball to the Patriots with 3:38 to play.
Sure, the Falcons defense could have made one more play. But the Falcons lost the Super Bowl when offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, rightfully hailed as an offensive mastermind just a quarter earlier, botched the management of the game.
On first down, Devonta Freeman ran for a loss of one yard. The Patriots chose not to call a timeout, and the clocked ticked just past four minutes. Going into Sunday night, it was not a game to sit on a lead, given the potency of the offenses. But it had moved past that point. When the Falcons advanced into field goal range, the clock had become their opponent as much as the Patriots. They needed to risk as little as possible, to either make the clock bleed or force New England to use timeouts while not falling out of field goal range.
Instead, Shanahan called a pass play. Ryan, the MVP, did the one thing he couldn’t do: He took a sack, losing 12 yards as Trey Flowers wrapped him up.
The sack pushed Atlanta back to the 35, to the fringes of place kicker Matt Bryant’s field goal range. The disaster had only started to unfold.
Ryan salvaged his mistake with a nine-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu on third and 23, sending the Falcons back into comfortable range for a field goal. At least it appeared that way until a holding call backed the Falcons up another 10 yards. Now the Falcons faced an absurd 3rd and 33. Faced with having to get back into field goal range, Ryan passed again, firing incomplete to Taylor Gabriel.
The clock stopped, and the Falcons had to punt. When they should have stamped out the Patriots, they instead gave them new life.
There were other plays the Falcons botched. Tevin Coleman whiffed on a blocking assignment on a third down, which let Donta Hightower strip-sack Ryan as the Falcons held a 28-12 lead. That blunder was a matter of execution, not strategy. The Falcons had the game in their full control after Jones’s catch, and they squandered it. The Patriots seized the Super Bowl. But only after the Falcons blew it.
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