The Atlanta Falcons’ meltdown in Super Bowl 51 can’t be pinned to any one moment, but certainly, a late fourth-quarter drive weighs the heaviest.
With less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, leading 28-20, the Falcons got into field-goal range after a stunning catch by Julio Jones.
From there, they suffered a meltdown, first giving up a sack, then committing offensive holding that pushed them back ten yards, and then failing to complete a pass on third and long.
The Falcons were forced to punt to the Patriots, who marched down the field to tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion. They then won the game in overtime.
The Falcons’ play-calling was immediately questioned. Why attempt to pass the ball, with the lead, time on your side, while in range of a field goal that could have effectively ended the Patriots’ comeback attempt? It seemed wiser to run the ball, run out the clock, and attempt the field goal. With a field goal, the Falcons would have gone up 11, forcing the Patriots to go for two and kick a field goal just to tie the game.
After the game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan explained that by throwing a pass, the Falcons ultimately stuck by their offensive philosophy all season: be aggressive.
“That’s very much in character with what we did all year,” Ryan said of the passing play that led to the sack. “We were aggressive. We felt like it was the right thing to do at the time. Thought [offensive coordinator] Kyle [Shanahan] did a great job putting us in position to make plays.”
Shanahan also said after the game, “You always want to run the ball. You don’t want to just run the ball and make your guy take a 50-yard field goal.”
The Falcons were the top offensive team this season, according to Football Outsiders. They were third in passing yards on the season and first in yards per attempt. Matt Ryan steered the ship and ultimately won MVP because of his arm. This was their identity all season.
Ultimately, the Falcons took a chance, relied on the offence that got them so far, and tried to keep the pressure on the Patriots while aiming to make their kicker’s life a little easier. Nonetheless, it’s fair to wonder how different NFL history may be if the Falcons had decided to run the ball and wear down the clock.