After offense collapses, Falcons’ defense fades

Playing on the biggest stage in football, against maybe the best quarterback in NFL history, the Falcons were fulfilling Dan Quinn’s vision for his defense.

They were fast, physical, attacking and just too much for Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The defense kept the Falcons in the game while the offense sputtered.

But then the Falcons’ celebrated offense collapsed in shocking fashion and their defense no longer could carry the weight.

After the Patriots had scored only 10 points deep into the third quarter, the Patriots forced overtime by scoring 19 points in the fourth. They won the game, 34-28, with a 75-yard touchdown drive on the first possession of overtime.

Brady couldn’t do much against the Falcons through three quarters but the Falcons couldn’t stop him after that. What happened?

“That is something we will have to see once we get film study to see where it went wrong in the second half,” Falcons cornerback Robert Alford said.

The Patriots ended up holding the ball for 40:31 of the game’s 63:58. Did the Falcons’ defense wear down?

“Not really,” linebacker Deion Jones said. “I don’t really think like that. We always talk about ‘embracing the (fatigue)’ and I think my guys did a good job of doing that and pushing through and leaving every last drop out there.”

That wasn’t enough in the end. The defense did what it could to hold up but the offense didn’t help.

The Patriots scored their first points on a 41-yard field goal just before halftime. They didn’t score again until James White’s touchdown run with 2:06 left in the third quarter.

The Patriots threatened to score another touchdown on their next possession when they gained a first-and-goal at the seven-yard line. Two sacks by defensive lineman Grady Jarrett pushed them back, and they had to settle for a field goal to get within 28-12.

That should have been a safe lead for the Falcons considering their top-ranked offense. But Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan lost a fumble on the next possession, leaving the Patriots with a short field. The Patriots went 25 yards in five plays and converted the two-point conversion to make it 28-20.

The Falcons got within field-goal range on their next possession but a sack and a holding penalty scuttled the drive. The Falcons punted, leaving Brady 3:30 to go 91 yards for tying score.

The Falcons got an unlucky break on a key play.

Alford tipped Brady’s pass intended for Julian Edelman. But the ball landed on Alford’s foot inches from the ground, allowing Edelman to pull it in for a 23-yard gain to the Falcons’ 41-yard line.

“I ran to his hip and I looked back and the ball was right on me and all I could do was get my hand up to hit it,” Alford said. “Something we’ve been going over at practice: just tip it in the air if you can’t get it and then my brother will get it.”

Two other defenders surrounding Edelman couldn’t prevent the catch, either. After that Brady completed three straight passes, James White scored a one-yard TD run and Danny Amendola caught a pass from Brady for the two-point conversion.

In overtime, Brady completed five consecutive passes for 50 total yards. A pass interference penalty against De’Vondre Campbell put the Patriots at the two-yard line, Brady threw incomplete on first down and then White ran in for the winning TD.

“It sucks,” Jones said. “I can definitely learn from it. It’s a feeling I will never forget.”

The ending ruined what had been a stellar effort by the defense.

For three quarters, the Falcons had both the plan and the personnel to slow the only offense in the NFL that came close to matching their own.

The Falcons generated heavy pressure against Brady early in the game and, by the end of the first half, he appeared shaken. At one point he failed to set his feet while missing a wide-open Julian Edelman on a deep pass.

“The pass rush is getting to him,” Mike Holmgren, a Super Bowl winner as Packers coach, said on Westwood One’s national radio broadcast. “He usually makes that throw in his sleep.”

However, the ferocious Falcons pass rush faded late. Jarrett had the two key sacks to force the field goal but the Falcons weren’t consistently getting to Brady as he led the comeback.

“Brady was throwing the ball quick,” Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley said. “He kind of picked on our gameplan and he started throwing quick passes.”

Quinn’s defense held the Patriots in check while the offense sputtered early-—and then made the play that got them going.

Early in the second quarter Falcons defenders rallied to tackle Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Jones saw a chance to go for the ball and took it, ripping it away from Blount. Alford recovered the fumble at the Falcons’ 29-yard line, and the takeaway ignited the offense.

The Falcons needed just 1:53 to convert that turnover into a touchdown. Alford’s 82-yard interception return for a touchdown put them ahead 21-0.