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Falcons’ Julio Jones made a career catch, but the Pats still won Super Bowl LI

Can’t say Jones didn’t give the Falcons a shot, but nobody puts Brady and Belichick in a corner

For starters, you had to wonder how Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones even got off the hash marks, let alone continued to play after making the most spectacular sideline catch you might ever see in a professional football game, never mind the Super Bowl. The degree of difficulty on that grab was Simone Biles hard. But for the Falcons and their fans, what came afterward in Super Bowl LI was even harder to comprehend.

The New England Patriots overcame a 25-point deficit — the largest comeback in the game’s history — Sunday night for a 34-28 overtime victory at Houston’s NRG Stadium. The come-from-really-far-behind victory gave head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady their fifth Super Bowl championship. No coach-quarterback tandem has combined for more. Yep, the Patriots did it again. Though truth be told, the Falcons did everything necessary to hurt themselves.

Wasting Jones’ gravity-defying play was high on the Falcons’ long list of missteps. Revived by the All-Pro wide receiver’s acrobatics, the Falcons seemed to briefly get it together before stumbling to an unsatisfactory finish. From the sound of things, they’ll be processing what went wrong after the catch for a long, long time.

“We were in a good position,” quarterback Matt Ryan believed.

“That catch put us in field-goal range,” wideout Taylor Gabriel explained.

Linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. was the best at succinctly capturing the feelings in the Falcons’ locker room, saying, “I thought we were going to get some points out of that drive and put the game away.”

The Patriots – and many in the worldwide audience – did, too. “Shades of some of the [catches] we’ve seen before against us in games like this,” Belichick said.

It all turned out great again for the Patriots. Even a thoroughly embarrassing start didn’t stop the Patriots’ machine.

After sprinting to a 21-3 halftime lead, the Falcons extended their advantage to 28-3 midway through the third quarter. In Atlanta, preparations for a championship parade were in high gear.

The Patriots, however, are led by Belichick on the sideline and Brady on the field. That means they’re always capable of something exceptional.

Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons makes a catch over Eric Rowe #25 of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

Julio Jones (11) of the Atlanta Falcons makes a catch over Eric Rowe (25) of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium on Feb. 5 in Houston.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons makes a catch over Eric Rowe #25 of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

Julio Jones (11) of the Atlanta Falcons makes a catch over Eric Rowe (25) of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium on Feb. 5 in Houston.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

With Atlanta leading, 28-12, a seismic momentum shift occurred. Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower sacked Ryan (apparently, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman didn’t realize he had to block Hightower), and the Patriots recovered his fumble. Five plays later, Brady linked up with Danny Amendola on a six-yard touchdown pass. The Patriots completed a two-point conversion. Suddenly, New England needed only eight points to pull even. In an unexpected fight, the Falcons responded.

From their own 10-yard line, the Falcons started fast. Freeman shook off his mistake and teamed with Ryan on a 39-yard catch-and-run. Then Ryan and Jones got the Falcons really hyped. Facing pressure, Ryan climbed the pocket, moved right and threw toward Jones, who was covered extremely well along the right sideline by cornerback Eric Rowe.

Despite Rowe having inside position on Jones, Ryan, throwing on the run, took a shot. The ball barely eluded Rowe’s hands. Jones made the grab behind Rowe, got his right foot down and then violently slammed down his left foot for a 27-yard gain. Making the play even more amazing was that Jones has battled foot problems this season.

On the far sideline, the Falcons celebrated. They figured Jones provided exactly what they needed. With 4:40 to play on the game clock in regulation, the Falcons were at the Patriots’ 22-yard line. Atlanta was well within place-kicker Matt Bryant’s range.

The smart move: Run the ball, run clock and kick a field goal to all but complete the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. Instead, the Falcons stayed aggressive.

Following Jones’ catch, Freeman ran for a loss of one yard. The next play, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called a pass. Ryan dropped back in the shotgun and was sacked for a 12-yard loss. Add a holding penalty, and the Falcons went from having a first down on the Patriots’ 22, to third-and-33 from the 45. They failed to convert, punted and Brady’s legend would soon grow. The Falcons acknowledge it: They became totally unglued.

“We just didn’t finish that drive and that hurt us,” Gabriel said. “At the same time, you can’t point the finger at anybody. It’s a group thing.”

Well, yes. But Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn sets the tone. On offense, Shanahan calls the plays. They had some explaining to do. Quinn went first.

“It was a fantastic catch. Our initial thought was that we’re getting closer here” to a field goal, Quinn said. “But having a chance to score [a touchdown] … we knew how good the other side was, too. We wanted to go attack at every opportunity. When it didn’t work out, it’s easy to second-guess on that.”

Quinn was forthright. He owned up to the failed approach. You have to respect that. On the other hand, it was highly questionable, at that late stage of the game, to pursue a touchdown when a field goal would have extended the lead to 11 points. If Atlanta managed the play clock well, even in a worst-case scenario, New England most likely would have gotten the ball back with about three minutes to play, trailing by 11 with only one timeout.

Quinn’s explanation probably wasn’t particularly reassuring to anyone who rooted for Atlanta. Shanahan’s was no less comforting.

“You always want to run the ball if you can,” said Shanahan, who reportedly is in the process of leaving the Falcons to become the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach, possibly as early as Monday.

“You have got to look at each situation – when you’re getting the ball, what’s the down and distance. We got a few big plays there in the pass game, missed a couple in the run game. Had a couple of guys go down. We got into field-goal range, which would have ended it. Getting that sack and that holding call was tough.”

It sure was. Just as tough as wasting Jones’ signature moment.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.