HOUSTON (AP) — Well, Atlanta, there’s nothing left to say.
The city once known as “Loserville” was cruising toward its first Super Bowl championship, leading Tom Brady and the mighty New England Patriots by 25 points.
Back in Atlanta, the city was all ready to bust loose in a celebration like no other, seemingly assured of finally putting to rest its history of sports flops.
Then, it happened.
The greatest flop of them all.
This one will take a long, long time to get over.
“I’m kind of numb,” said Falcons safety Ricardo Allen, who might as well been speaking for an entire city. “I don’t really know what to feel. I’m broken inside, because this is not us. I’m kind of numb to the feeling, man. It’s terrible. It’s one of the worst feelings ever. I’m not a guy that forgets very easy. I’ll probably never forget this. It will always be haunting.”
Brady engineered a stunning comeback, leading the Patriots to a pair of touchdowns and a pair of 2-point conversions that sent the Super Bowl to overtime for the first time.
At that point, it was a mere formality.
The Patriots won the coin toss.
The Patriots drove right down the field for the championship-winning touchdown.
The final: New England 34, Atlanta 28.
Brady will long be remembered for his record-breaking performance, completing 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards, and this will certainly go down as one of the greatest title games in NFL history.
That’s little consolation to the Falcons.
“That’s a hard one in the locker room,” coach Dan Quinn said. “No place to put that one mentally for us. But I am proud of the fight these guys have. The brotherhood this group has built, it’s as strong as I’ve ever seen.”
In the A-T-L, this will join the Braves blowing a 6-0 lead in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, the Hawks squandering a chance to eliminate Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the 1988 NBA playoffs, and Danny White leading the Dallas Cowboys back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Falcons in a 1981 playoff game.
But, really, nothing comes close to this level of sporting disappointment.
The Falcons spent 2½ quarters playing with the swagger and confidence of a team that wasn’t the least bit concerned about their city’s history. Heading to the fourth quarter, they were still up 28-9. The Patriots tacked on a field goal early in the fourth, but Atlanta was still comfortably ahead.
Then, the play that turned the momentum solidly in New England’s favor.
MVP Matt Ryan dropped back to pass, was hit by Dont’a Hightower just before his arm came forward to pass, and the ball popped lose. The Patriots recovered at the Atlanta 25.
It was the only Falcons’ turnover of the postseason.
“We had some opportunities to make plays,” Ryan said. “We just missed on a couple of things and just made a few mistakes and ultimately, when you’re playing a real good football team like New England, those mistakes ended up costing us.”
Even after Ryan’s turnover and the ensuing Patriots touchdown, Atlanta was still in position to put the victory away when Julio Jones made a stunning catch along the sideline, ripping the ball away from a defender and somehow getting both feet down before tumbling out of bounds at the New England 22.
With under 5 minutes remaining and the Falcons still up 28-20, all they needed to do was run three more plays and set up for a field goal by Pro Bowl kicker Matt Bryant that would finally put the Patriots away.
Devonta Freeman was thrown for a 1-yard loss, but that wasn’t a huge deal.
What happened next was a big deal.
Instead of another run, Ryan set up for a pass. He was thrown for a 12-yard loss and, just like that, the Falcons were on the fringe of Bryant’s range.
Any hope for a field goal was lost when Jake Matthews was called for a holding penalty that set Atlanta back another 10 yards.
That sequence will surely haunt outgoing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan , who was acclaimed for his work with the league’s highest-scoring team and will shortly be named head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
“You always want to run the ball if you can,” Shanahan said. “We got into field-goal range, where we would’ve ended it. But getting that sack and that hold call was tough.”
The Falcons were forced to punt it back to Brady and a Patriots team that was brimming with bravado.
It wasn’t the least bit shocking when they marched right down the field, 91 yards, for James White’s short touchdown run.
It wasn’t the least bit shocking when Brady hooked up with Danny Amendola on a 2-point pass that tied the game with 57 seconds remaining.
It wasn’t the least bit shocking when the Falcons, without any timeouts, failed to muster anything on their final offensive possession.
It wasn’t the least bit shocking when the Patriots won the toss and drove down the field one more time, 75 yards in just eight plays, and finished off the Falcons with a 2-yard touchdown run.
The city of Atlanta had seen it all before.