The pain and anguish weighs heavy on my heart after Super Bowl LI

Published 5:45 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2017


Humiliation for the players. Humiliation for the coaches. Humiliation for anyone who calls themselves a fan.

The Falcons were so close, and they lost everything.

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A 28-3 third quarter lead. A 34-28 overtime loss. Super Bowl LI tops the list of biggest sports letdowns. Bill Buckner has nothing on this.

Hearts cracked and shattered as we watched the Patriots roar back against a seemingly helpless Atlanta. When it was over and done, fans turned off their televisions and pulled off their Matt Ryan jerseys with tears in their eyes.

Why did it have to happen like this?

A franchise doesn’t bounce back from a meltdown this big, eager to take on the next challenge. This was soul crushing.

It wasn’t like Atlanta blowing the lead in the 2012 NFC Championship to the 49ers. It doesn’t come close to Seattle throwing an interception against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX to watch their hopes of back-to-back championships dissolve in a split second. The Warriors blowing a 3-1 Finals lead to LeBron and the Cavaliers isn’t even in the same conversation.

This is an entirely new level of choking. The biggest collapse in Super Bowl history, and will be forever debated as the biggest collapse the NFL has ever seen.

It will haunt the franchise forever. This game will be alluded to whenever the Falcons make the playoffs. It will be beaten over our heads if the stars align for Atlanta to ever return to the Super Bowl. Whenever a team makes a glorious comeback, this game will be referenced. Whenever a team let’s a sure thing melt through its fingers, this is the game it will be compared to.

That’s enough weight to bog down a franchise for decades. The scars will never disappear, and their ugliness will never be forgotten. Time doesn’t heal wounds like this. Only success will. The disappointing thing is Atlanta can’t possibly come closer to success than what we watched on Sunday night. If the Falcons can get that close, and blow it, what does that tell us? A 28-3 lead and only shame to show for it.

It’s hard to outrun the story the Falcons have now solidified for themselves. That they’re cursed, that they blow leads like they’re going out of style, that they’ll never win the Big One. People say it, but this season felt like the naysayers would be proven wrong. Silly us.

There are multiple moments in the second half I can point to as the foundation for the collapse. We can leave the first half alone—it was perfect, and gave us the false hope that everything was going to end beautifully. It also makes the loss sting even more.

The series that I’m glaring at was in the fourth quarter with 3:56 left. Falcons are on the Patriots’ 23-yard line. Three straight runs up the middle makes for a chip shot field goal and a two-score lead with roughly three minutes left on the clock. It sounds so obvious. Kicker Matt Bryant is 31-for-32 on field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime. He had it. The team had it.

But why on earth Kyle Shanahan thought calling a pass play on the Patriot’s 23-yard line was the way to go when the run game was so on point is beyond me. Why a seasoned quarterback like Matt Ryan didn’t dismiss such a ludicrous call and audible to a run play is equally as baffling. How the team got backed out of field goal range after a sack and a holding call is utterly embarrassing. Third and 33, an incomplete pass, and then punt. That was the moment. That’s when the Falcons finally rolled over and gave the Super Bowl away.

Optimism is important in times like this. I want to say Atlanta will be back. I want to remember Matt Ryan is MVP and is going to be this potent next season. But how many years does he have left? Or Julio Jones? Shanahan is leaving to coach San Francisco, and the offense will surely never be the same. Yes, optimism is important, but the reality of this loss crushes it into dust.

I also can’t ignore the narrative the world wanted to see.

Tom Brady was suspended the first four games of the season for Deflategate. He was playing in his seventh Super Bowl for his fifth ring. Roger Goodell handing Brady, Robert Kraft and Bill Belichek the Lombardi Trophy would be the ultimate payback, the most hilarious of ironies. The script writes itself, folks.

The world wanted to see Brady win. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the officiating seemed in favor of it as well. When beating the best isn’t enough and you have to overcome the refs as well, it’s nearly impossible for a franchise like the Falcons to come out on top. Officiating didn’t lose Atlanta the game, but it sure as heck helped New England win it. Considering Brady also broke almost every meaningful Super Bowl record, a few of them his own, it’s hard to ignore just how perfectly the story fell into place for the Patriots. The legacy is cemented now. There were always plans for a statue of Brady in Foxborough. This game just made it 10 feet taller.

Don’t even get me started on the NFL overtime rules. Patriots call the coin toss and choose to get the ball first, of course. Ryan and crew never got a chance for one last try.

This is painful. It’s demoralizing, for a team and a fan base. The worst case scenario came to life before our very eyes on national television in the biggest game an Atlanta team has played in since 1995. These chances don’t come often. It might be another 20 years before it comes again.

Why us? Why Atlanta?

The sun came up Monday morning. It was hard to get out of bed with such a big hole in my heart, but the day was fresh. Friends and loved ones made it better, but I can’t help but imagine what it would feel like if the Falcons were champions.

Finally, champions.

The words sound so sweet.

I’ll keep watching, keep cheering. I always have. I still wouldn’t choose any other city to support. It seems like an eternity from now, but there will be another season in seven months.

Rest and recover, Atlanta.

But please… don’t roll over and fall asleep just yet.