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Super Bowl LI: Falcons refer to bitter pill as tough lesson

New England Patriots' Chris Hogan runs between Atlanta

New England Patriots' Chris Hogan runs between Atlanta Falcons' Deion Jones, left, and Ricardo Allen during overtime of Super Bowl LI on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. Credit: AP / Tony Gutierrez

HOUSTON — If the Patriots pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in their 34-28 overtime victory, did the Falcons produce one of the greatest choke jobs ever?

The Falcons prefer not to think that way.

“We have to learn from this,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “It’s a tough learning lesson. This is one of the worst learning lessons you can get in this world, but we’re going to just keep building. The brotherhood is going to get closer.”

The Falcons had a 28-3 lead in the third quarter and seemed headed for a sure victory over the four-time Super Bowl champion Patriots. But quarterback Tom Brady pulled off the biggest comeback ever in the Super Bowl, and the Falcons are left to wonder what might have been.

“It’s hard tonight for the lessons,” second-year coach Dan Quinn said. “What I can tell you is you can’t be truly relentless until it’s right there, and you’ve got to take it away or you didn’t get it. We are a tough group. A loss like tonight, although it’s difficult, I would like to think that this group, we’re putting our stamp and we’re just getting started to be what we can be.”

Still ahead 28-20, the Falcons faced a key moment in the fourth quarter. They drove to the Patriots’ 22 on a 27-yard pass down the right sideline from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones with 4:40 to play in regulation. Had they gotten a field goal from there, they would have built a two-score lead and made it that much tougher for the Patriots to come back.

They got no further, though. After Devonta Freeman lost a yard on first down, Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss to the 35. After a holding penalty pushed them back to the 45, Ryan’s pass to Taylor Gabriel fell incomplete, forcing the Falcons to punt.

So instead of going up 31-20, the Falcons still held only a one-score lead. The Patriots made them pay for it, driving 91 yards for a touchdown, adding the two-point conversion and sending the game into overtime. New England scored on its first possession of the extra session to get the dramatic win.

A huge second-guess in that spot?

“When it doesn’t work, for sure,” Quinn said. “But I don’t second-guess on play-calling or wanting to throw it. Honestly, we’ve got terrific guys. We know how to match up. We know how to get open. That part of our game is so intact.”

Quinn still wonders what if, though.

“For sure I thought it would end up being a two-score game at that point, and then we weren’t able to kick the field goal at the end of that drive,” he said. “It was a terrific play [Jones’ catch] going up to get it. That, for sure, was a turning point, but we had our chances to stop them on defense, too.”

They didn’t, and now the Falcons must live through a difficult offseason wondering about where it all went wrong. Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will wonder about it in a different capacity; he’s expected to take over as the 49ers’ head coach this week.

“You look at everything, what could have happened, what could have gone different,” he said. “You wish you could have ran on more plays, but when it was said and done, we had a chance there at the end. We got into field-goal range, took that sack and then had that holding call. You give the ball back to Tom Brady too much and that’s what happens.”

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