How the Falcons lost the Super Bowl

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) during the second half of Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 5.
(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

A wall banner running the length of the somber Atlanta Falcons locker room at NRG Stadium read “IN BROTHERHOOD, WE RISE.”

On Sunday, the Falcons fell.

They nosedived harder and farther than any team in Super Bowl history.

The Falcons collapsed, blowing a 25-point lead in a 34-28 overtime loss to the New England Patriots.


“I’m at a loss for words right now,” receiver Taylor Gabriel said, “just because I can’t believe it.”

The Falcons came in as the NFL’s highest-scoring team with an offense triggered by league most valuable player Matt Ryan, superstar receiver Julio Jones, and a dynamic backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

All of those players performed well, and the defense appeared to rattle quarterback Tom Brady, en route to a 21-3 halftime lead.

The game appeared to be in hand after Coleman caught a short pass from Ryan midway through the third quarter to push the margin to 28-3.

But the Falcons could not make it stand up.

“I was impressed with how hard the guys fought and battled for it,” Coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s why we’re hurting so bad right now.”

Said offensive lineman Jake Matthews: “It sucks. We had the opportunity to do it at the end.”

The Falcons probably lost the game before it got to overtime.

The Patriots cut the deficit to 28-12 with a field goal with 9 minutes 44 seconds left in regulation and the Falcons began to make crucial errors.

On third and one at the 36-yard line, they tried a pass but linebacker Dont’a Hightower sacked Ryan and forced him to fumble. Lineman Alan Branch recovered the ball and Brady made the Falcons pay by throwing a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola. The Patriots added a two-point conversion to pull to within 28-20.

Did Quinn second-guess the decision to pass on third down?

“When it doesn’t work, for sure,” he said. “But I don’t second-guess our play-calling or wanting to throw it. Honestly, we’ve got terrific guys. We know how to match up. We know how to get open.”

The Falcons might have been too aggressive on their next possession.

Ryan and Jones connected on a spectacular play along the right sideline for a 27-yard gain and a first down at the Patriots 22 with 4:40 remaining.

“I thought we were in good position,” Ryan said.

But Freeman was dropped for a one-yard loss on first down and lineman Trey Flowers sacked Ryan for a 12-yard loss. A completion to receiver Mohamed Sanu was offset by a holding penalty against Matthews, pushing the Falcons back to the 45 and out of field-goal range. Ryan’s pass for Gabriel on third and 33 fell incomplete, forcing the Falcons to punt and give the ball back to Brady.

“I thought we played the way we play,” Ryan said when asked if the Falcons had played too aggressively. “We always play aggressive and play to win and we had opportunities as players.

“We had opportunities and we made some mistakes on the field that … ended up costing us.”

Especially against Brady, who picked apart the defense.

“They had time and they made plays,” linebacker Deion Jones said. “It’s the truth. Brady is a great quarterback and he did what he needed to do.”

Now the Falcons can only think about next season.

They will move into a new stadium, but offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is leaving to become coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

“A loss like tonight, although it’s difficult,” Quinn said, “I would like to think that this group, we’re putting our stamp and we’re just getting started to be what we can be.”

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @LATimesklein