HOUSTON — They dropped back to throw on third-and-one.
The Falcons were ahead by 16 points with 8:31 to play Sunday night, the clock ticking down to their coronation as Super Bowl champions.
But Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower sacked Matt Ryan as he was about to throw, and teammate Alan Branch recovered the fumble. An hour later, Patriots players would recall the sack as the moment they believed they could pull off the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time.
“The biggest play of the game was Hightower stripping the football,” Patriots defensive end Chris Long said.
The Patriots needed help to rally from 25 points down. The Falcons seemed happy to oblige, starting with the third-and-one pass and, later, retreating 23 yards and out of field-goal range.
On third-and-one, coach Dan Quinn liked the way his Falcons matched up against the Patriots’ defense.
“We trust our guys, so we thought that was the opportunity to let it rip,” Quinn said. “When it doesn’t go that way, it’s easy to question it.”
The Falcons insisted on throwing while up eight with four minutes left. Julio Jones’ tippy-toe catch down the right sideline gave the Falcons the ball at the Patriots’ 22, and Devonta Freeman’s one-yard loss still had the desired effect as the Falcons ran 40 seconds off the clock.
A field goal likely would cement the victory. But Ryan dropped back to throw on second-and-11 and took a sack. After a Patriots timeout, on third-and-23, Jake Matthews was whistled for holding, knocking the Falcons out of field-goal range.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will have a tough time shaking this one off.
“You wish you could have ran on more plays,” Shanahan said, “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 and we got out of it.”
After an incomplete pass later, the Falcons punted. They only ran 18 seconds off the clock on three plays.
“I thought it would end up being a two-score game at that point, and that we weren’t able to kick the field goal at the end of that drive,” Quinn said. “That for sure was a turning point.”
Ryan said he didn’t think the Falcons were too aggressive.
“I thought we played the way that we play,” he said. “We always play aggressive and play to win, and we had opportunities as players.
“We had opportunities and made mistakes on the field that, at the end of the day, ended up costing us.”