The official countdown clock has already begun for the Minnesota Vikings’ home, U.S. Bank Stadium, to house the Super Bowl, but today everyone is talking about the epic comeback of the New England Patriots, who trailed by 25 points with two-and-a-half minutes left to play in the third quarter and by 16 with just a tad over six minutes to go.
All the talk is about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick being the respective G.O.A.T.s (Greatest Of All Time) at their respective professions. Almost none of the talk is about the team that suffered the most epic collapse in Super Bowl history.
Pain is history in the NFL. Falcons coaches, players and, to a much larger body count, fans are feeling pain of amputation-like proportions.
In what almost appeared to be scripted, Sunday’s re-burning of Atlanta was, in many ways, proof of how dominance on one side of the ball can take a team a long way, but, to be a champion, you need to finish the job in all three phases.
In many ways, the Falcons and Vikings are a mirror image of one another. They were among the best in the NFL on one side of the ball and struggled badly at times on the other.
While Atlanta showed defensive improvement in the final couple months of their season – taking out Seattle and Green Bay is no small feat, even at home – they weren’t a finished product and had spent a lot of time playing one-dimensional defense because their offense had routinely opened up 17-point leads.
They had a 25-point lead and let it get away, not because they were awful, but because they were gassed. There were 139 plays run in Super Bowl LI. New England ran 93 of them, more than twice Atlanta’s total of 46.
Much in the same way the Vikings defense kept them in many games, only to have the offense sputter and stall, when Atlanta’s offense couldn’t close the door on New England, it spelled doom for the Falcons.
It is the bane of teams that are built dominantly on one side of the ball and most teams are. When it comes to Minnesota, the mantra has been that the defense will hold opponents to 20 points or fewer and the offense just has to score enough points to get the win. When it comes to teams like the Falcons, there was a seeming requirement to score big because they came into the 2016 season much in the same way New Orleans and Indianapolis do every year – having to score 30 or more because they are going to give up points.
For those who were in attendance in January 1999 and saw the Vikings collapse – the highest-scoring team in league history losing to a lesser Atlanta team – they witnessed a game that had multiple chances for the Vikings to put away the Falcons early. Like before-halftime early. The offense didn’t put the chokehold on Atlanta and they came back.
That loss pales in exponential comparison to this one. This may replace Buffalo – both in beating Houston and losing the Super Bowl wide right – as the most humbling defeat in NFL history.
It may be excruciating to the Falcons players to accept this loss. Any loss hurts. Losing in the playoffs take longer to get over. Some losses, players never get over. This one could the losing G.O.A.T. for the NFL. Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman say, “It sucks to be you.”
While many of those who hold a grudge against Commissioner Roger Goodell somehow got their wish with Bob Kraft snapping the Lombardi Trophy out of his hand, the only solace for Falcons fans is that the national media will obsess on the greatness of Brady and Belichick and leave the Falcons largely ignored.
For their fan base, one can only imagine the peaks and valleys they experienced Sunday. Vikings fans have seen their historical death-blow defeat come in the NFC playoffs over the last 40 years – from the conference championship to the wild-card round. This loss will last a lifetime.
The lore is only going to grow. The NFL will make sure of it. Despite a less-than-impressive postseason, where double-digit blowouts were the norm, it appeared for about three hours that we were going to see another disappointing gathering of football fans.
That last hour was something to see, reaffirming why the NFL is the best reality show going.
As all 32 teams have now officially begun the process of getting ready for the 2017 season, some markedly earlier than others, they look at the blueprint for success that is needed – playing strong on three phases of the game when it is needed.
The Vikings already have a strong defense that has become its calling card and winning roster spots on that side of the ball won’t be easy. Offense and special teams? Those are what need to improve if the Vikings are going to succeed and have the chance to close out a season like Atlanta had the golden opportunity to accomplish.
Every NFL season leaves a scar for those players who don’t kiss the Lombardi Trophy – complete with a hot mic reaffirming to youngsters words they’ve only heard their dad say when he hit his thumb with a hammer. Some scars heal. Some scars are permanent.
As things currently stand, Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, Seattle and New York can make a legitimate case to represent the NFC when the Super Bowl makes its every-26-year trip to Minnesota.
The Vikings are conspicuous by their absence from that list because, as things currently stand, they don’t deserve inclusion.
The 2016 season officially ended Sunday with a script more absurd than Draft Day (we take that back, because nothing is more absurd than Draft Day). That finish should win an Oscar and, for teams like the Vikings who have Super Bowl aspirations, anything is possible when there remains time on the clock.