HOUSTON — He came from Seattle with a well-earned reputation. Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, curator of the so-called “Legion of Boom.” Seattle won one Super Bowl and almost won another.
The Atlanta Falcons made Quinn their head coach before the 2015 season, and with his strategy and tactics — and draft picks — he made them the 2016 NFC champion.
That defense held Quinn’s former team, Seattle, and quarterback Russell Wilson to 10 points in the first half of a divisional playoff game. It held Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to zero points in the first half of the NFC Championship Game. Then it held Tom Brady and the Patriots to three points in the first half of Super Bowl LI on Sunday night.
And then, with Atlanta leading by 25 points late in the third quarter, the defense collapsed in a way that no defense had ever collapsed in this game. The Falcons gave up 31 unanswered points, including a touchdown in the first overtime in Super Bowl history, and New England won, 34-28. “For sure we ran out of gas,” a stunned Quinn said.
Not surprising. Even in the first half, when New England could get only a field goal, it had the ball for 19 minutes, 35 seconds, two-thirds of the time. In the end, the Patriots had 40 minutes, 31 seconds of possession time, including the entire 3:58 in overtime.
While ball control is not always a determination of winning and losing, it provides a more than adequate explanation. If one team always has the ball, the other team is struggling to stay in the game, even when it grabs a fumble and returns an interception for a touchdown.
That was done by cornerback Robert Alford, who picked off Tom Brady’s pass and gleefully raced 82 yards untouched to give the Falcons a 21-0 lead. But later there was no joy for Alford or his defensive teammates.
“I can’t tell you right now what happened,” he said about the Atlanta failure. “Some of those plays, I’ll have to see the film.”
One of those plays was that ricochet reception by New England’s Julian Edelman in the fourth quarter on a second-and-10 pass from the Patriots’ 36. Alford seemed to have intercepted it but couldn’t hold the ball in a collision of several bodies. As replay verified, Edelman made a spectacular catch inches above the ground.
“I had the ball, and then it got away,” Alford said. That is an appropriate description of the Falcons’ grasp of the game.
“I was falling,” Alford said. “Give Edelman credit. He made a great catch.”
Quinn seemed a bit philosophical. “One of the things we don’t talk about with [the Patriots] is the way they can execute,” he said. “When they got hot, it was hard for us to deal with them.
“I think if we go back and watch it tomorrow, there are things we could have done different and played differently. Our guys fought hard. That’s why we’re hurting right now.”