Super Bowl LI: A loss that made grown men cry
For the Falcons, the agony of their late-game defeat will be everlasting
I am frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.
After Super Bowl LI, Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen fielded questions from the podium. With red eyes, he was forced to relive every painful play from the game he had lost moments before. He firmly answered question after question about various pivotal moments in his team’s 34-28 loss to the New England Patriots. Until he was asked, “How do you feel?”
For the first time, he began to display the sadness he had to be feeling. He said, “I feel broken. I feel numb.”
Falcons center Alex Mack played the game with a fracture in his left fibula. When asked how he felt, he responded by saying “depressed.” There was no mention of the physical pain in his leg. It was trumped by emotional anguish. The most visibly emotional of the Falcons’ players, Mack’s eyes welled with tears as the 6-foot-4, 311-pound player had to take a moment to gather himself a few times. Coming from Cleveland, Mack spent the first seven years of his career with the Browns. He never won more than seven games in a season and averaged only four wins per season.
Falcons cornerback Robert Alford was stoic for most of his questions. When asked how he felt, some pain began to show through. He expressed disappointment, saying, “I feel like I let them down.” Given that Alford returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble, it would be hard for anyone to suggest that he let the team down. But those great plays mean nothing to Alford now. The play he will remember is the one that got away.
We will all remember that play, for Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman’s miraculous catch. But Alford will never forget the fractions of a second before Edelman grabbed the ball as it fell from the sky — Alford had a chance to win the game. A chance to be a Super Bowl legend and win Super Bowl MVP.
Throughout the night, his coverage was superb and this play was no different. With the Falcons playing two-man coverage, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tried to throw the ball in the middle of the field, between the safeties and over the head of Alford while his back was turned. Much like Alford’s interception earlier in the game, he was prepared for the Patriots’ play call due to film study. Alford was one step ahead of Brady again, whipping his head around just in time to see the pass coming and get both hands on the ball.
But he couldn’t hold onto it and, somehow, Edelman could. That play wasn’t the only reason why the Falcons gave up a seemingly insurmountable Super Bowl lead, but for Alford, it sure feels like it.
The agony of defeat
No one on the Falcons slept well Sunday night because, like Alford, they all feel like they didn’t do enough. They all have one play that kept them up. A play where they made a mistake, missed an assignment or a tackle that would have change the trajectory of the game.
For Falcons tackle Jake Matthews, it is probably the late-game holding call that pushed the Falcons out of range for a game-sealing field goal. Running back Devonta Freeman was very productive for the Falcons. He had a touchdown, 75 yards rushing and 46 yards receiving, but he missed his block on Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, which led to a fourth-quarter sack fumble of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
When a game is that close, every losing player that participated will be forever haunted by the belief that had he done one thing just a little bit better he would be a Super Bowl champion. The coaches are not safe from this self-inflicted pain. They, too, will be tormented by decisions.
I’m sure Kyle Shanahan, the NFL’s assistant coach of the year, wishes he would have called a run on third-and-1 on his own 36, rather than the pass play that led to the critical Ryan fumble and short scoring drive for the Patriots.
Defensively oriented Falcons head coach Dan Quinn might regret putting his team in an uncharacteristically high amount of man coverages, despite being a predominantly zone coverage defense for much of the season.
I don’t know for certain which plays and decisions will linger in the minds of Falcons players and coaches, but I know there will be at least one for each of them. And it will ache. When they think of it, their chest will feel hollow. When we think of emotional pain, we think of loss or death. But the pain from the death of the Falcons’ Super Bowl dream will fade. Yet, the agony from their Super Bowl regrets is everlasting.