If there was a sequence where the Falcons lost this game (in actuality it was every single drive after New England got the ball with 8:31 left in the third quarter, as the Patriots scored on every one of their remaining possessions—all five of them—while the Falcons couldn’t muster another point) it was the plays immediately following one of the most impressive catches in Super Bowl history.
Do you even remember that catch now?
With that improbable 22-yard grab by Julio Jones, the Falcons were at the New England 22 with 4:40 left and an eight-point lead. Points, any points, points of literally any sort would have made it a two-score game and functionally ended things. It would have been, at that moment, a 39-yard field goal. The Falcons merely needed to run the ball up the gut three times, then kick, and would almost certainly win the Super Bowl.
On first down, Devonta Freeman took the ball outside to the left, and was taken down by Devin McCourty for a one-yard loss. So Atlanta panicked and abandoned the run.
On second down, I’m not sure what exactly the Falcons were looking for here, but the Patriots had every receiver covered and Matt Ryan took way too long in the pocket, allowing both Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers to get pressure on a play where the Pats rushed only four men against six blockers. Flowers got the sack for a 13-yard loss, and this—probably even more so than even the insane Julian Edelman catch later on—was probably the most pivotal play of the game.
That made it a 52-yard field goal, certainly still doable for Matt Bryant, and it looked like the Falcons would get some of that yardage back on third down with a nine-yard strike to Mohamed Sanu. But there was a holding call on Jake Matthews to push Atlanta back another 10 yards, and Matt Ryan came up short on the re-do. The Falcons had to punt, and the rest is history.
This is the sort of thing that haunts a city for a long, long time. And it should! All they had to do was not lose 23 yards and fall out of field goal range. Do you know how easy it is to not do that? There are a billion ways to not lose 23 yards! Teams manage to not lose 23 yards all the time!
New England played one of the best second halves of football in history, on both sides of the ball, and even this sequence owed plenty to the Patriots defense blowing up three plays in a row. But this game also goes down as an all-time choke by the Falcons, and that sack and that holding call were the two plays that did the deed.