“Choking” vs. “Getting Beat”

What a Super Bowl, huh? You don’t see 25-point comebacks every day, expecially in a game where both teams are supposed to be cool under fire. Most of the postgame talk, rightly, has covered the Patriots. But what a heartbreaker for Atlanta, made that much worse because the team choked away such a big lead.

And yes, this was a choke.

To start with, it’s worth noting that not every big comeback is a choke. A “choke” happens when the team with a big lead gets tight, gets out of their game plan, and gives the game back to the underdog. For example, the 2007 Patriots didn’t choke when they lost to the Giants, they played their game and got beaten by David Tyree’s helmet. Did Scott Norwood choke when he missed that field goal in Super Bowl XXIV? Maybe. But he also came into that kick one out of five on field goal attempts of 40 or more yards on grass, so he wasn’t exactly in a spot where he had succeeded before. The 1986 Red Sox didn’t necessarily choke as a team, but manager John McNamara sure did when deviated from his usual game plan of sending in a sub for his gimpy-legged first baseman.

Back to the Falcons.

You know the story by now: America watched Atlanta run up a big lead. Predictably, the Patriots clawed their way back in. They even got a little lucky when New England’s Trey Flowers scored a strip sack fumble recovery on an unblocked blind side rush. The Pats promptly scored and were within a single score, after being down 25 points.

Even at this point, you can’t fault  the Falcons – sometimes the protection doesn’t work, and Matt Ryan never saw Flowers. These things happen.

The choke happened on the next possession. When Atlanta’s next drive reached the New England 22 yard line, they didn’t run the ball two more times and settle for a field goal attempt. A sack, a holding penalty, and an incomplete pass later, the Falcons were punting.

This morning, America wonders why the Falcons didn’t run the ball, and it’s a valid question. If Matt Bryant could have made the 40-yard field goal (or even one a little bit longer) then why not drive down the clock and take the points? The panicked failures in play calling and execution gave the Patriots the ball back with 3:38 and trailing by eight; had the Falcons stayed within their game plan they could have kicked off with 2:30 or so left in the game and an 11-point lead. (Even if Bryant had missed the field goal, the Patriots would have had to worry about the clock as much as the yardage on their final drive.)

The Atlanta Falcons choked. It only in the space of three plays, where they went away from the offensive balance that had got them there, when they tried too hard for a touchdown when a field goal would have meant ticker tape instead of “what ifs.” The Falcons coaches and players let the game get away from them for three measly plays.

It’s not much, but sometimes that’s all it takes.

 

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