For the next few months and possibly years, Atlanta Falcons fans will endlessly break down just what went wrong in Super Bowl LI. The Falcons led the New England Patriots 28-3 with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter and somehow managed to lose the biggest game in franchise history. To understand how that was even possible, you need look no further than one single stat: time of possession.
For the game, the Patriots held the ball for 40:31, while Atlanta possessed it for just 23:27. In that context, it’s easy to understand how the Falcons surrendered 31 unanswered points and slumped off the field following a 34-28 defeat. Yes, the offensive play calling was monumentally terrible in the fourth quarter and that opened the door for New England to come back. But Atlanta’s defense still had several opportunities to stop Tom Brady and his offense and failed to do so.
The Falcons defense had held the Patriots without a touchdown for the game’s first 42 minutes, then was completely unable to get stops late. Yes, Brady found a rhythm and Julian Edelman and others made some fantastic plays, but Atlanta’s defense was clearly gassed. The relentless pressure Brady faced early in the game all but disappeared in the fourth quarter and overtime. His receivers weren’t blanketed as closely as earlier in the game and his running backs (specifically James White) had a much easier time getting open out of the backfield.
The Patriots ran an insane 93 total plays, while the Falcons ran just 46. That lack of offensive snaps meant that offensive studs like Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones couldn’t take the game over. Freeman wound up with just 13 touches (11 rushes) and Jones had just four catches for 87 yards on four targets. Freeman had fewer touches than that just once this season, during a Week 14 blowout over the Los Angeles Rams. You have to go back to Jones’ rookie season in 2011 to find the last time he was targeted four or fewer times in a game. That was five years ago.
It wasn’t that the Falcons weren’t looking to get Freeman or Jones the ball, they just didn’t have the opportunities to because they simply didn’t have possession.