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Super Bowl 51 recap: The good, the ugly, and the painful reality

The Falcons lost. We try to sift through the wreckage.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons met the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51 and lost in overtime. This is the cleanest, least emotional way to present this, but of course, you can’t remove the emotion.

This was a brutal ending to arguably the finest season in Atlanta Falcons history. Atlanta dominated on a consistent basis in the 2016 season, including in the postseason, and were painfully close to pulling out a Super Bowl win. We all know they didn’t, and we all know they blew the largest lead ever, as I mentioned earlier this morning. We’re going to have to dwell on this for a long time, but I’m not going to do so here.

Honestly, it’s nearly 1 a.m. as I write this and I simply don’t have it in me to spend a ton of time on every individual player and matchup this time out, especially given that we’ll have a long, long offseason to talk about where this team will need to improve and why we’re excited about guys like Grady Jarrett. For now, let’s hit the highlights and lowlights, and we’ll figure out where we’re going from here.

On to the full recap, regardless.

The Good

  • If you expected Matt Ryan to come out rattled, given the stakes, he thumbed his nose right in your stupid face. He was accurate, made bold throws across the middle and to the sideline, and didn’t let early pressure impact him. The fact that he ultimately couldn’t win this himself takes away little from one of the most crisp, efficient performances we saw from him in a year filled with those kinds of performances. He finished with a 144 passer rating, and if not for a missed throw here and the costly fumble there, it might have gone down as his greatest game ever.

Knowing that Ryan is capable of this—that he had another gear this whole time, if the situation was right—does a lot to make me feel good about this team’s immediate future.

  • Devonta Freeman ran like a man possessed. He made cuts that left Patriots grasping at air, powered through contact, and generally behaved as though he wanted to win the game himself and get a fat new contract for doing so. That contract will come, either in Atlanta this offseason or from another team the year after, and Freeman will continue to make defenses look terrible. It’s what he does.

He made one massive, costly mistake, but he was stellar throughout this game and that needs to be recognized.

While he didn’t look quite as good on the ground, Tevin Coleman also deserves significant props for playing a strong game both through the air and when running.

  • Julio Jones was doubled up throughout most of the game, and was clearly a focal point for the Patriots’ defense. It hardly mattered, as he made a series of catches in traffic, on the sideline, and threw in a couple of circus-like grabs too in the first half. The problem was that he only finished with four catches, and the Falcons weren’t able to get enough done in the second half without finding him.
  • Taylor Gabriel, as is his custom, had a pair of huge grabs that set the Falcons up nicely. The Falcons need to make re-signing him a priority, because even in a limited role, he’s insanely effective.
  • Grady Jarrett is my MVP for this game in many ways. On a day where the pressure absolutely had to come from up the middle, Jarrett had his best game ever, routinely putting pressure on Brady, coming away with three sacks, and nearly getting a safety that would have certainly changed the course of this football game, and likely the result. He has a chance to be special, and we saw a big-time preview of that in Houston.
  • Courtney Upshaw’s first quarter sack was extremely well-done, and saw him effectively bullrush Tom Brady and bring him to the ground. Ditto Dwight Freeney, who had a tremendous game, got close often, and did come away with one sack on the biggest stage possible. I hope he’ll be back next year.
  • De’Vondre Campbell wound up with a costly penalty in overtime, but he was on Brady a ton and looked...well, fast and physical. I personally have insanely high hopes for him next year.
  • The secondary had hiccups and tired late, but between C.J. Goodwin making nice plays as a converted wide receiver, Robert Alford playing a tremendous game all around, and Keanu Neal delivering some big hits. They did all this without Desmond Trufant, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, which serves both to make me sad about Trufant’s injury all over again and give me hope for the future.
  • Look, objectively: The Falcons put the best team in NFL history back on their heels for three quarters. They were up 21-3 at halftime against the New England Patriots, a team that many thought would dominate them out of the gate. They got amazing performances from a lot of players, and they lost by virtue of a bad decision here or a bad play there. None of this excuses a truly historic, heartbreaking loss, but it’s the kind of perspective we’ll eventually need to move ahead and start looking at this team with clear eyes. They did many things worth being proud of, even within this game, and it just sucks that it wasn’t enough.

The Ugly

  • The pass protection was, on balance, quite good. I know there were a lot of negative reactions to Jake Matthews following this one, and he got beat a couple of times in extremely crucial spots in a way that ensures he will not shake his reputation as a player who hasn’t lived up to his draft billing. But it is also true that when the Falcons needed it most, on third downs when the Patriots were coming in hot, Atlanta didn’t hold up multiple times. That led to sacks, missed opportunities, and punts that ultimately cost this team the game as surely as anything else.
  • The Falcons played excellent defense in the first two quarters...except for the holds. Robert Alford got hit with a ticky tack call, but Brian Poole’s two were not bad calls by the refs, and those three penalties kept alive a Patriots drive that otherwise might have died on the vine. This was a preview, of sorts.
  • The defense just ran out of gas, and the Patriots did a better job adjusting to what Atlanta was putting on the field than Atlanta did to the offensive tweaks New England made. You have to be tremendously good to stop a team like the Patriots for an entire game, and for all the impressive strides this defense made, they’re just not yet tremendously good.
  • Devonta Freeman had a great game, but his missed pass protection pickup in the fourth quarter led to a Matt Ryan fumble the Patriots recovered and scored on, priming the Patriots comeback. I’m not sure exactly what happened on that play—I’m sure the team will address it or we’ll figure it out on review down the line—but it’s impossible for me to be too angry at Freeman considering it looked like a miscommunication and he had such a stellar game otherwise.
  • Much hay will be made of the Falcons’ inability to just run the ball and set Matt Bryant up for a field goal that could’ve been the game winner late...and much hay should be made of it. As the Patriots showed us on the one yard line pass in overtime that was nearly picked off, even smart teams make very poor decisions, and sometimes those decisions haunt you. I do want to hear from Kyle Shanahan why this happened, and more generally, why the team struggled so mightily to put points on the board in the second half.
  • The loss. There are a million fingers to point here because it was a team loss, albeit one I’d tend to pin more on the coaching staff than the players because the decisions themselves sometimes seemed off. But what matters is that they did lose, and it was in such a fashion to ensure that we’ll be smarting over this for a long, long time.

How they respond next year will tell us everything we need to know about where this team is going.

  • Me. I cried, damnit, and I am an ugly crier.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Giving it to Grady Jarrett, but really, you had more than one candidate if the Falcons pulled this thing off.

One Takeaway

The Falcons just fell short. They were good enough to make a Super Bowl and almost good enough to win one, but there will be soul searching and a quest for improvement, and there should be.

Next Week

Hello darkness my old’s the offseason again.

Final Word