The Golden State Warriors blew a 3–1 lead in the NBA Finals. The Cleveland Indians blew a 3–1 lead in the World Series. The Atlanta Falcons blew a 28–3 lead in the Super Bowl, which is pretty much a 3–1 lead cubed, so long as you also douse the cube in kerosene, strafe it with a blowtorch, and fumble it on your own 25-yard line while protecting a 16-point cushion in the fourth quarter.
The Cleveland Cavaliers winning a title in LeBron James’ second year back in Ohio was amazing.* The Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years was unbelievable. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick winning their fifth NFL title was … certainly something that some people will celebrate. But sports isn’t about championship dreams realized and confetti-strewn victory parades. Sports is failure. Sports is devastation. Sports is losing, horribly and painfully. Sports is your 2016–17 Atlanta Falcons, who somehow ended up on the wrong end of a 34–28 overtime defeat in the greatest, saddest Super Bowl ever played.
With six minutes to go in the third quarter, Atlanta was up by 25 points and New England had no choice but to go for it on fourth down from its own 46-yard line. It was sad, really, but what choice did the Patriots have? Matt Ryan looked like Tom Brady, and Tom Brady looked like Drew Henson. The champ couldn’t quite connect with his fleet of bearded and/or lacrosse-playing receivers, and he’d been picked off by Robert Alford, whose prancing, strutting interception return gave Atlanta a 21–0 second-quarter lead. Even when the Patriots scored to make it 28–9, Stephen Gostkowski doinked the extra point. Pity the poor Pats.
Sometimes you doink the ball, and sometimes the ball destroys your soul. With nine minutes to go and Atlanta with the ball up by 16, ESPN’s win-probability machine gave the Falcons a 99.6 percent chance to win the Super Bowl. On that very play, Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman got his ankle crunched under a pile and had to leave the game. The play after that, Ryan was sacked by Dont’a Hightower, and the Patriots recovered his fumble deep in Atlanta territory. They’d score a couple of minutes later to cut the Falcons’ lead to 28–20.
A huge lead insulates you from catastrophe. The Falcons were in such a commanding position that an improbably enormous number of things could go wrong—injuries, sacks, turnovers, ridiculous catches by men with beards—without them managing to cough up the game. Blowing a 99.6 percent chance at victory is the equivalent of losing eight consecutive coin flips. In this case, one of those coin flips was an actual coin flip. If Atlanta had won the toss in overtime, Ryan very well might have led his red-and-black brethren to victory.
But that coin just kept on coming up tails. In fairness, the Patriots made some of their own luck. Belichick, to his great credit, was willing to risk embarrassing his team to improve its odds of victory. That sad, desperation fourth-down attempt in the third quarter could’ve sunk the Patriots. It was also a whole lot smarter than a punt. New England’s will to win didn’t win it the Super Bowl, but the Pats’ relentless pressure did play a part in wearing down the Falcons. The Patriots ran 93 total plays compared with the Falcons’ 46, and New England held the ball for more than 40 minutes. The Falcons’ tired defense gave up 25 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Atlanta’s historically great offense, meanwhile, scored zero.
Even one of the greatest receivers who’s ever received couldn’t save the Falcons. Julio Jones is so impossibly great that calling him “one of the greatest” football players in history feels like an insult. The catch he made with just less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter was so extraordinary and so beautiful that it felt impossible that the team he graced with his presence could possibly lose.
The leap, the extension, the tapping toes, the viselike grip that nullifies any ex post facto claim that this catch was not a catch. In a game where so much depends on happenstance, Jones made luck look like a crutch for lesser athletes. But then Ryan got sacked, and then the Falcons got called for a holding penalty—tails, tails—and then Julian Edelman won the Powerball twice while getting struck by lightning.
Robert Alford, again, read Brady’s throw perfectly, jumping up to deflect the pass before it reached Edelman. This time, though, he didn’t catch the ball. With Alford’s momentum knocking him down, the pass fluttered to the ground. Edelman, who was blanketed by two other Falcons—throwing that pass up the seam was not one of Brady’s smartest decisions—reached out his right hand before the ball hit the turf, then secured it with his left by the barest of margins. It was a great play, and a skillful one. It had also been abetted somehow by a poor throw and a great defensive play. Luck can be a hell of a crutch.
Sports are supposed to be zero sum. There’s always a winner and a loser. But that’s not really true. Sports are negative sum. There are 32 NFL teams, and 31 of them—that’s 97 percent, Falcons fans—finish each year without the pleasure of sticking a big, fat trophy in Roger Goodell’s face. The Patriots, who’ve won five Super Bowls in the past 15 years, are not normal. The success of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and their rotating cast of skill-position players and pass rushers and defensive backs is a crazy outlier. New England’s victory on Sunday night—one in which they overcame a 25-point deficit; the largest previous Super Bowl comeback was 10 points—was an outlier among outliers. If it’s better to be lucky than good, then being lucky and good is best of all.
And the Falcons—oh, the Falcons. When we assess the world’s greatest athletes and the world’s greatest teams, we look at a failure to win as failure full stop rather than a painful, inevitable acquiescence to reality. Victory is as ephemeral as it is abnormal. Losing is the natural state of things. But losing like this, on the biggest stage in sports, with the organization’s first title in the balance, by blowing a huge lead to a franchise that is comically (and deservedly) self-aggrandizing …
*Correction, Feb. 6, 2017: This story originally misstated that the Cavaliers won a title in LeBron James' first year back in Cleveland. It was his second year. (Return.)