Falcons' flop a new low for Atlanta's sad sporting history

Falcons' flop a new low for Atlanta's sad sporting history

HOUSTON -- Well, Atlanta, there's nothing left to say.

The city once known as "Loserville" was cruising toward its first Super Bowl championship, leading Tom Brady and the mighty New England Patriots by 25 points.

TWENTY-FIVE!

Back in Atlanta, the city was all ready to bust loose in a celebration like no other, seemingly assured of finally putting to rest its history of sports flops.

Then, it happened.

The greatest flop of them all.

This one will take a long, long time to get over.

"I'm kind of numb," said Falcons safety Ricardo Allen, who might as well been speaking for an entire city. "I don't really know what to feel. I'm broken inside, because this is not us. I'm kind of numb to the feeling, man. It's terrible. It's one of the worst feelings ever. I'm not a guy that forgets very easy. I'll probably never forget this. It will always be haunting."

Brady engineered a stunning comeback, leading the Patriots to a pair of touchdowns and a pair of 2-point conversions that sent the Super Bowl to overtime for the first time.

At that point, it was a mere formality.

The Patriots won the coin toss.

Of course.

The Patriots drove right down the field for the championship-winning touchdown.

Of course.

The final: New England 34, Atlanta 28.

Brady will long be remembered for his record-breaking performance, completing 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards, and this will certainly go down as one of the greatest title games in NFL history.

That's little consolation to the Falcons.

"That's a hard one in the locker room," coach Dan Quinn said. "No place to put that one mentally for us. But I am proud of the fight these guys have. The brotherhood this group has built, it's as strong as I've ever seen."

In the A-T-L, this will join the Braves blowing a 6-0 lead in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, the Hawks squandering a chance to eliminate Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the 1988 NBA playoffs, and Danny White leading the Dallas Cowboys back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Falcons in a 1981 playoff game.

But, really, nothing comes close to this level of sporting disappointment.

The Falcons spent nearly three quarters playing with the swagger and confidence of a team that wasn't the least bit concerned about their city's history. Heading to the fourth quarter, they were still up 28-9. The Patriots tacked on a field goal early in the fourth, but Atlanta was still comfortably ahead.

Then, the play that turned the momentum solidly in New England's favor.

MVP Matt Ryan dropped back to pass, was hit by Dont'a Hightower just before his arm came forward to pass, and the ball popped lose. The Patriots recovered at the Atlanta 25.

It was the only Falcons' turnover of the postseason.

"We had some opportunities to make plays," Ryan said. "We just missed on a couple of things and just made a few mistakes and ultimately, when you're playing a real good football team like New England, those mistakes ended up costing us."

Even after Ryan's turnover and the ensuing Patriots touchdown, Atlanta was still in position to put the victory away when Julio Jones made a stunning catch along the sideline, ripping the ball away from a defender and somehow getting both feet down before tumbling out of bounds at the New England 22.

With under 5 minutes remaining and the Falcons still up 28-20, all they needed to do was run three more plays and set up for a field goal by Pro Bowl kicker Matt Bryant that would finally put the Patriots away.

Devonta Freeman was thrown for a 1-yard loss, but that wasn't a huge deal.

What happened next was a big deal.

Instead of another run, Ryan set up for a pass. He was thrown for a 12-yard loss and, just like that, the Falcons were on the fringe of Bryant's range.

Any hope for a field goal was lost when Jake Matthews was called for a holding penalty that set Atlanta back another 10 yards.

That sequence will surely haunt outgoing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan , who was acclaimed for his work with the league's highest-scoring team and will shortly be named head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

"You always want to run the ball if you can," Shanahan said. "We got into field-goal range, where we would've ended it. But getting that sack and that hold call was tough."

The Falcons were forced to punt it back to Brady and a Patriots team that was brimming with bravado.

It wasn't the least bit shocking when they marched right down the field, 91 yards, for James White's short touchdown run.

It wasn't the least bit shocking when Brady hooked up with Danny Amendola on a 2-point pass that tied the game with 57 seconds remaining.

It wasn't the least bit shocking when the Falcons, without any timeouts, failed to muster anything on their final offensive possession.

It wasn't the least bit shocking when the Patriots won the toss and drove down the field one more time, 75 yards in just eight plays, and finished off the Falcons with a 2-yard touchdown run.

The city of Atlanta had seen it all before.

For complete Super Bowl LI coverage, see CSNNE.com.

Bills fire GM Doug Whaley, scouting staff

Bills fire GM Doug Whaley, scouting staff

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Whether it was sitting together in a golf cart watching training camp or sharing dinner and drinks at a nearby restaurant, Bills owner Terry Pegula and general manager Doug Whaley were nearly inseparable last summer.

Some nine months later, their professional relationship soured to such an extent that Pegula fired Whaley and his entire scouting staff on Sunday.

The decision was reached shortly after the two met at 8 a.m., a day following the NFL draft, and it completed a front-office purge that began with coach Rex Ryan being fired in the final week of last season.

Pegula's voice cracked briefly with emotion when discussing the latest move, saying: "There were a few tears around the building, to be honest with you. He's a good guy."

But not good enough to keep his job, with Pegula saying he reached the conclusion following a lengthy offseason review.

It's a shake-up that further solidifies the influence rookie coach Sean McDermott has gained in the three months since being hired. The 42-year-old detail-oriented defensive specialist has become the voice of the franchise in discussing all team-related topics, including free agency and the draft.

Pegula said the timing coincided with the end of the draft, but he declined to detail the reasons why the overhaul was necessary. Nor would Pegula explain his reasoning for showing Whaley the door while praising the collaborative approach that took place between the GM and McDermott in the draft room.

"We have certain aspects we need to get a little better in," Pegula said. "(Whaley's) a smart man, but we made the decision. And the reasons remain private to us."

Pegula said "things change," when asked why he signed Whaley to a four-year contract extension in January 2016, and then backed him this January after Ryan was fired.

Pegula also took the emphasis off McDermott's authority by saying the decision to fire Whaley was made by him and his wife, Kim.

The Bills also dismissed player-personnel director Jim Monos and Kelvin Fisher, the team's former amateur scouting director who had previously been demoted to an advisory role.

Pegula will immediately begin a GM search and said it was too early to speculate on candidates. He said McDermott would have some input.

One possible candidate is Carolina Panthers assistant GM Brandon Beane because of his ties to McDermott, who spent the previous six seasons as the team's defensive coordinator.

McDermott on Saturday praised Whaley's role in the draft process but sidestepped questions regarding the GM's job security.

The Bills made six picks and swung several trades in addressing immediate and long-term needs.

Buffalo opened by acquiring two selections, including a first-rounder next year, in a trade with Kansas City to move back 17 spots and select LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White at 27th.

The Bills have now gone through six general managers during their 17-year playoff drought -- the longest active streak in North America's four major professional sports. It's the first GM search for the Pegulas, who retained Whaley when they purchased the team in October 2014.

Whaley worked up the scouting ranks with the Pittsburgh Steelers, before the Bills hired him as an assistant general manager in 2010. He was groomed to become the GM and took over the job in May 2013 when Buddy Nix stepped down.

The Bills' drafting history had been spotty this decade.

Of the 35 players Buffalo drafted from 2010-13, only defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and left tackle Cordy Glenn remain on the roster.

Whaley has been second-guessed on a number of selections, including the decision to trade two draft picks -- including Buffalo's 2015 first-round selection -- to Cleveland to move up five spots and pick receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth selection in the 2014 draft.

It was considered a high price to pay in a draft that produced a bounty of top-flight receivers.

Whaley acknowledged he took a gamble and suggested his tenure in Buffalo might well be judged on that one move.

Both of Pegula's Buffalo-based sports franchises are hitting the reset button. Pegula fired Sabers GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma 10 days after the NHL season ended two weeks ago.

Without going into detail, Pegula said he is close to hiring a general manager.

Between the two teams, the Pegulas have now employed a combined seven coaches and three GMs since purchasing the Sabres in February 2011.

Pegula chalked up the rate of change as being common in sports, and disputed the notion it reflects poorly on him.

"We're going to try to make the best decision we can in the future," Pegula said. "We've made big decisions all our lives."

Grading the Eagles' 2017 NFL draft haul

Grading the Eagles' 2017 NFL draft haul

The 2017 NFL draft is over, so naturarally it's time for the national experts to grade teams' draft classes before any of the draftees ever hit the field. Here's what the experts are saying about the Eagles' draft:

Mel Kiper, ESPN, B+
Kiper says the Eagles "needed to shore up the defense and did that pretty well" with the picks of first-round DE Derek Barnett and second-round CB Sidney Jones.

Pete Prisco, CBS: B+
Prisco loves the Barnett pick in the first round, calling Barnett possibly "the best pass rusher in this class," but believes the Eagles took a risk with Jones in the second.

Nate Davis, USA Today, C+
Davis likes third-round pick Rasul Douglas' big-play ability, but questions whether fourth-round running back Donnel Pumphrey can withstand the rigors of a full NFL season.

Chris Burke, Sports Illustrated, B+
Burke likes that the Eagles addressed their needs at defensive end and cornerback and says that Pumphrey "could be Darren Sproles 2.0."

Chad Reuter, NFL, A-
Reuter's only gripe with the Eagles' haul is the health of Jones, who might miss his rookie season while recovering from an Achillies' injury, "but will be a good corner down the road."

Dieter Kurtenbach, Fox Sports, B+
Kurtenbach says Barnett is a "solid, if not spectacular pick" and Douglas is a "boom-or-bust" prospect at CB.

Mark Maske, Washington Post, B-
Maske questions Barnett's athleticism, but says "getting DT Elijah Qualls in the sixth round was an excellent value."