First off, let’s be honest here: as much as I hate the New England Patriots, my disgust has nothing to do with Brady or Belichick, but just the state they represent. I hate Massachusetts, as they are a Communist country. They’re a great team, and Brady is arguably the best quarterback of all time.
But last night, he would be the runner-up but for the mother of all assists from the Atlanta Falcons.
I’ve seen some epic chokes in sports.
(a) The New York Yankees blowing a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox and losing in 7 games (the first time any team came back from an 0-3 deficit);
(b) The Houston Oilers blowing a 38-3 halftime lead against the Buffalo Bills;
(c) Jana Novotna, up 4-1 and serving at 40-30 in the 3rd set of the 1993 Wimbledon Championships;
(d) Greg Norman blowing a 6-stroke lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters.
Last night’s meltdown was worse than those.
The Atlanta Falcons, for two and a half quarters, could do no wrong. Their defense made big plays, their offense moved the ball almost at will, their QB was throwing with confidence. They were playing like the team that beat two Super Bowl champions (Green Bay and Seattle) to reach the finale against New England. They were playing like a championship team having its coming out party.
I was not surprised when Brady finally got a touchdown, closing the score to 28-9. At that point, I figured that Atlanta needed to respond: they needed at least a field goal, preferably a clock-burning drive.
Matt Ryan’s fumble didn’t help. But you have to expect your team to make at least one mistake like that in a big game. That alone wasn’t fatal.
But when the Falcons had the ball at the New England 22, I figured this was their chance to put the game away. They were in field goal range. They were up by 8. A field goal would all but put the game away, as the Pats would need a touchdown, a two-point conversion, an onside kick recovery, a quick drive, and a field goal to win.
I figured the Falcons would play conservative, run the ball or, at worst, throw to the end zone out of the shotgun, with Ryan dumping the ball out of bounds without taking a sack if things got tight.
Instead, Ryan took two long sacks. Then a holding penalty. What should have been a medium-range field goal disappeared: they had to punt.
In overtime, the Falcons had to kick to the Patriots.
At that point, I was very surprised that they did not go for the onside kick. That, honestly, was their only chance to win.
(a) Brady had been unstoppable for the entire second half (except for their opening drive); giving them the ball was conceding defeat;
(b) The defense was clearly dead tired. There was no way they were going to stop the Patriots.
The Falcons had only one chance to win: with their offense. The only way they had a chance to make that happen was an onside kick. If they kick it to the Patriots, they will not get the ball back.
They didn’t get the ball back.
I hate to be a pessimist here, but I don’t think the Falcons will recover from this disaster. When you look at the worst epic chokes, only one athlete ever came back from such a meltdown.
In the women’s final of the 1993 Wimbledon Championship, Jana Novotna was up 4-1 and serving 40-30 (game point) in the third set against Steffi Graf. She was literally five points from victory. She would double-fault on game point to make it deuce; she would lose serve, and then she had nothing left: Graf would win the next 4 games to close out the title.
In the award ceremony, Novotna lost it and cried on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. She had blown it on the biggest stage, and–in spite of her stellar doubles record–had very few chances to win singles championships in the majors.
In 1997, she also choked in the Wimbledon final against Martina Hingis. It seemed that she would never get her redemption.
But in 1998, five years after her terrible meltdown, she captured the Wimbledon championship. It would be her only Major championship outside of doubles.
Can the Falcons come back from last night’s disaster? Perhaps. But getting to the Super Bowl is extremely difficult. Just getting to the playoffs requires many things coming together. And the Super Bowl is a forum where literally anything can happen. And there’s no guarantee that your best players are going to be healthy. A key receiver or running back can sprain an ankle, someone can suffer a concussion, a QB can break a rib…that’s football.
But if they get back to the Super Bowl, they will have to face down the demons that haunt Atlanta.
And last night, they added a demon to the house.