HOUSTON – The chairs in the interview room sat empty. A disembodied voice announced, “Coach Dan Quinn will be at Podium 6. Podium 6.”
A massive television on the wall behind the podium showed Patriots owner Robert Kraft receiving the Lombardi Trophy from Commissioner Roger Goodell. Large flakes of confetti fell on Kraft’s head like wet snow.
Quinn entered the room from behind a curtain. He sat quickly and said, “This was a tough one for us.” His was the only audible voice in the room. The confetti on the big screen might as well have been falling in a different country.
Quinn’s Falcons led New England by 25 points in Super Bowl LI late in the third quarter on Sunday night. Surely they would win their franchise’s first championship and place a car-door dent in the Patriots’ dynasty. They were the better team. They had proved that with speed and depth, and by ripping the Band-Aids off the Patriots’ flaws.
Their dominance would become prologue to the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history. The Patriots would win, 34-28 in overtime.
So red and blue confetti fell on the field while the Falcons filed to podiums and stood in front of hastily emptied lockers, trying to explain the unexplainable. A gallows looks like a stage until the floor falls away.
“We lost,” Atlanta defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman said. “I’ve got no other way to say it.
“It was Brady, man. Tom Brady. What did you expect? It was Tom Brady being Tom Brady. It was Tom Brady just doing his job.”
The former Gopher wore a white shirt with large blue flowers across the chest, a party shirt befitting a Super Bowl championship. Hageman shook his head and repeated Brady’s name over and over, as if it was the name of a disease that had taken a loved one.
“When we came in here at the half, we knew Tom Brady was going to make a run,” Hageman said. “And he did.”
What will haunt the Falcons is that Brady needed help as well as luck. Even after the Patriots kicked a field goal with less than 9 minutes, 48 seconds remaining, the Falcons led 28-12 and had the ball. Super Bowl teams don’t squander 25-points leads. One never had.
Three plays later, the Falcons faced third-and-1 from their own 36-yard line. They averaged 5.8 yards per carry on the night. Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called for NFL MVP Matt Ryan take a deep drop, hoping for a big play. Ryan faded, double-clutched, was sacked and fumbled. The Patriots recovered the ball and scored five plays later.
New England’s two-point conversion made it 28-20, and suddenly the Falcons were one possession away from the worst collapse in Super Bowl history, and their veteran quarterback was making the kinds of mistakes you see in the fourth quarter in early August.
“At some point, we felt a shift,” Falcons rookie tight end Austin Hooper said. “We felt like, ‘What is happening?’ ”
The Falcons remained in control, mathematically if not emotionally. They drove quickly, reaching the Patriots 22-yard line. A field goal would make it a two-possession game and test even Brady’s resourcefulness. A touchdown would almost certainly lead to confetti falling on different heads.
But a run lost a yard, then Ryan took another sack. A holding penalty pushed the Falcons out of field-goal range. The stage was set. So was the gallows.
“You let Tom Brady hang around …’’ Hooper said, not feeling the need to end the sentence.
Brady would drive the Patriots 91 yards for a touchdown and the tying two-point conversion. New England would win the toss in overtime, take the ball and drive for the winning score.
Having ceded control of the game, the Falcons suddenly looked helpless. “In the end, [Bill] Belichick and company got the win,” Hooper said. “We’ll be a part of history. We just weren’t on the right side of it.”
Two years ago, when the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl on a last-minute Patriots interception, there was anger and second-guessing in Seattle’s locker room.
No Falcons seemed angry on Sunday night. They murmured, packed and quickly left. It turns out the wrong side of history is a large and quiet room.