Gil LeBreton

Falcons’ collapse leaves them whistling in the Super Bowl dark

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan reacts after losing Super Bowl 51 as the screen flashes New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and confetti flies in Houston.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan reacts after losing Super Bowl 51 as the screen flashes New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and confetti flies in Houston. Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Truth be told, I stopped taking notes in the third quarter.

The Atlanta Falcons had just driven 85 yards to make the score 28-3.

Lady Gaga had flown down from the roof. The New England Patriots were getting nowhere. The Falcons had run 30 plays and had 28 points.

The only mystery left in Super Bowl 51, it seemed, was the commercials.

“We all said, ‘Let’s just go play a good fourth quarter and see what the score is,’ ” said Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator of the Patriots.

“We knew that if we could just put together a few drives, maybe we would put some pressure on them and they’d have to make some critical plays in this game, too.”

The rest of America, from what I gather, did not share the New England sideline’s optimism.

Nor did the press box, frankly. High above NRG Stadium, we media infidels confidently began to write the story of Atlanta’s astonishingly easy win.

But as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said later, crediting his assistants, “We just kept trying to find a little crack in the armor.

“Our team showed great mental toughness throughout the game and never really flinched, in spite of what the score was.”

The crack in the Atlanta armor, as it turned out, soon turned into a fissure.

In the frantic conclusion that followed, as the media’s game stories screeched to a U-turn, the eventual hero of the night, Tom Brady, began to have his way.

It was as if the Falcons’ defense had expended so much youthful energy, there was no reservoir to draw from once Brady took over. At the end of the night, the New England offense had run 93 plays. Atlanta was gassed.

But teams don’t erase 25-point deficits without help —help from the other team, maybe also help from above. Though Devonta Freeman had run well in the first half, the Falcons all but forgot him in the final two quarters.

Head coach Dan Quinn and his staff also will have to live with one of Super Bowl history’s memorable second guesses — why try to throw on first down, after Julio Jones had put the Falcons in field goal position with a jaw-dropping, toe-tapping catch at the sideline?

A sack and a holding penalty forced Atlanta to punt, giving Brady time for the game-knotting drive.

Which is where the help from above came in. There are few other ways to explain Julian Edelman’s 23-yard catch, as the ball juggled between the legs and feet of three crashing Falcons defenders.

Quinn said he doesn’t question the pass plays that were called before New England’s tying touchdown drive.

“We’ve got terrific guys,” the Atlanta coach said. “We know how to get open.”

But to give receivers time to get open, an offense has to block. And at a point in the game when the tiring Falcons should have been trying to run the football and use up as much of the clock as possible, they instead were handing Brady precious time.

His young team will get over the defeat, Quinn promised. But he seemed to only be whistling in the Super Bowl dark. How often has Atlanta gotten to these Super Bowl things?

The Falcons’ furious, three-quarter effort had only set the stage for the Patriots’ calm, surgical finish, led by the brilliant Brady.

What’s the old line?

“If you’re going to go at the king, you’d better kill the king.”

The great American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said that.

He, too, was a Boston boy.

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