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Historic collapses could define Matt Ryan’s playoff legacy

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NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons squandered a 28-3 2nd half lead and fell to the New England Patriots 34-28 in the first ever Super Bowl to end in overtime. Subtracting Robert Alford’s interception return for a touchdown, the Falcons offense only scored 21 points against the league’s #1 scoring defense, went a dismal 1-of-8 on 3rd down, and fell to 1-5 on the season when failing to score at least 30 points.

League MVP Matt Ryan had an impressive and efficient stat line (17-of-23, 284 yds, 2 TDs), so it’s extremely harsh to blame him for the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history. However, the three critical sacks he took in the 2nd half played a considerable role in fueling New England’s rally. He nearly threw an unbelievably bad interception towards the end of regulation, which would’ve given New England a small chance to win the game before the clock hit 0:00.

Atlanta’s disastrous finish just so happened to be on the game’s biggest stage against perhaps the greatest dynasty in the Super Bowl era. In the bigger picture, this is the third time they have lost a lead of 17+ points in their last five playoff games, and the second time they’ve lost the game outright. This is why the title of this article says “historic collapses” and not “historic collapse,” but you probably figured that out already.

In the 2012 season, the Falcons held a 20-0 halftime lead against the Seahawks, and a 27-7 lead at the end of the 3rd quarter. As Seahawks fans know all too well, Russell Wilson and company took a 28-27 lead with only 31 seconds to go, only for Matt Ryan to beat two pathetically ineffective blitzes and rescue the Falcons from what would’ve been the largest 4th quarter collapse in the history of the NFL playoffs.

During Seattle’s 21-0 run, Ryan was 2-of-5 for 3 yards and an interception, and none of Atlanta’s drives lasted longer than 2:32, gifting Seattle’s offense ample time to mount a comeback. Ryan’s final drive was heroic and sent his team to the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Once again, the Falcons sprinted out to a sizable lead, going up 17-0 on a 49ers defense that had its fair share of struggles following a season-ending injury to Justin Smith. For the Niners to win, they needed to engineer the largest comeback in NFC Championship Game history. San Francisco quickly closed the gap to 17-14, before Ryan fired a touchdown to Tony Gonzalez to make it 24-14 at halftime. Ryan was 18-of-24 for 271 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 1st half. Their 2nd half drives ended as follows:

Ryan Interception
Lost fumble by Ryan
Three-and-out
Turnover on Downs
End of Game

Atlanta was outscored 28-7 in the final 38 minutes of the game, and were fortunate that the 49ers failed to capitalize on both of Ryan’s turnovers, as one drive ended in a missed David Akers field goal, while the other ended in a Michael Crabtree goal line fumble.

Even outside the playoffs, this year’s Falcons team had a 27-10 1st half lead at home against the Chargers, and lost 33-30 in overtime. The 2014 Falcons were up 21-0 at halftime against the Detroit Lions, and lost 22-21 in their biggest ever regular season collapse. In its entire franchise history, Atlanta has lost ten games (playoffs included) in which they led by at least 17 points, and four of them have happened under Matt Ryan, none of them a true road game.

Prior to last Sunday, no team in NFL playoff history had ever rallied from a 4th quarter deficit of at least 17 points to win a game. In an alternative world where the 2012 Seahawks had beaten the Falcons 28-27, Matt Ryan would’ve been on the wrong end of this statistic for the second time in four seasons. Instead, he’s simply the man who has been at the helm for the biggest blown lead in NFC Championship Game history, as well as Super Bowl history.

Ryan, of course, is still only 31 years old, and has consistently been a good-to-great quarterback since he entered the league. It’s reasonable to think that he has a few more quality years left, but the mark on his postseason legacy has dramatically changed from “can’t win a playoff game” to “can’t hold a lead.” What transpired in Houston will likely stick with Ryan for the rest of his career unless he wins a championship, which is a bit of a shame, as the only other quality QB taken in the 2008 NFL Draft was Joe Flacco, and he’s the one with the ring and a Super Bowl MVP. Oh well, life isn’t supposed to be fair, and Atlanta sports fans certainly know that feeling all too well.