HOUSTON — Matt Ryan danced out of the pocket, gliding right as he released an arching pass toward Julio Jones. The superstar receiver acrobatically snatched the ball over defensive back Eric Rowe and tiptoed the sideline.
It could have been the highlight play in a Falcons championship. Up eight points on the New England Patriots, Atlanta was in field goal range at the 22-yard-line after the catch with a chance to take a two-possession lead. That was just before all hell broke loose in the Falcons‘ 34-28 overtime loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI on Sunday.
After Devonta Freeman was stuffed for a loss, Ryan was sacked by Trey Flowers for a 12-yard loss. Now on the edge of Matt Bryant‘s field goal range, the Falcons tried to get some yards back with another pass. Instead, a holding penalty pushed them even farther back and ultimately out of field goal range after an incomplete pass on third-and-33.
Falcons fans are left wondering what would have happened had Atlanta ran the ball three times and kicked a field goal to stretch the lead to 11 points.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — who is set to become the San Francisco 49ers‘ head coach — was asked after the game whether he’d like to run the ball more in those situations.
“You always want to run the ball if you can. You got to look at each situation when you’re getting the ball,” Shanahan said. “We were trying to score there at the end. We got into field goal range where we would have ended it, but getting that sack and that holding call was tough.”
Added Shanahan: “You don’t think, just run the ball and make your guy kick a 50-yard field goal. You want to try your hardest to give him a great chance to for sure make it. We thought we could get some yards, but ended up getting a sack and it’s not really an option after that.”
Ryan’s sack was the single biggest play that caused overtime. The quarterback told NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo after the game he has no problem staying aggressive late in the game, but wished he would have thrown the ball away instead of taking the sack.
“For me, I wish I could have found a way to throw it away and not lose that yardage — that would have been important for us,” Ryan said. “That drive, in particular, where we had it down to about the 20-yard line and didn’t come away with points and the drive right (after) that where we had a short-field opportunity after the onside kick, to me those are two opportunities to close and it’s pretty disappointing that we didn’t do it.”
After a historic, devastating loss in which Atlanta lost a 25-point lead, Falcons players and fans will spend the next year — and likely the rest of their lives — playing back all the shoulda, woulda, coulda moments from Super Bowl LI.