Matthew Slater called out “heads,” and the commemorative Super Bowl LI coin flopped clumsily out of the hand of our nation’s 41st president, George H.W. Bush, and onto the turf below, reading tails.
Falcons defer, Patriots ball. Game on.
Four hours later, the game and history on the line, Slater called out “heads” once more.
This time, as if it were aware of the stakes, the coin cooperated with the caller.
The tails emblem wound up face down against the turf — as I’d imagine the faces of all Falcons fans, players and personnel will be for quite a while — and the heads logo stared straight up at the NRG Stadium roof that Lady Gaga descended from an hour or so ago.
Patriots ball. Game. Set. Match.
The Falcons were arguably half a rotation away from Super Bowl glory.
Instead, the coin came crashing down to the Earth as it did, and the Falcons’ dreams came crashing down with it.
Let’s stop there for a second.
Before this comes of as a diatribe about how the Falcons were robbed by the fickle fate of a coin flip, let me set that record straight. The Falcons had every chance to win this football game in regulation.
They folded like a cheap lawn chair in the second half. Poor coaching, poor execution, bad luck and the big bad Patriots created the perfect cocktail for blowing a 28-3 lead in the time it took for Luke Bryan to weave through the national anthem.
Now, before Patriots fans gather their digital pitchforks and make a beeline for my inbox, let me clarify: The Patriots were stunning in every sense of the word at the end of this game. They unequivocally earned this win as much as the Falcons earned their loss.
But back to the Falcons.
Atlanta, at every level, were impressively inept when it mattered most. But that doesn’t mean that they deserved the end they came to.
Yes, they deserved the fate of being forced to play more than 60 minutes of football, but they did not deserve the fate of having their fate decided by the flip of a coin.
Neither did the benefactors of the flip, the Patriots, who were just as much at the mercy of gravity as that 39 mm silver-plated token crashed towards the earth.
Neither did a legion of football fans that endured a full 256-game season of football, plus playoffs, topped off by a bloviated 5-plus hour broadcast (and roughly 200,000 hours of pregame?) to watch the two best teams in the NFL compete for the right to be called Super Bowl Champions.
We all deserve, and need better.
Imagine, for a second, if tails were the result in overtime.
Imagine if Tom Brady – who regardless of your disposition to love or loathe him, valiantly led his team back to force overtime in the most improbable of fashions – had been forced to pace the sideline like Matt Ryan was forced to; hoping his defense could put the pigskin in his hands one more time in the 2016-17 season.
That, would have been tragic, especially given the circumstances.
Instead, we have a much friendlier narrative to fall back on.
Roger Goodell got his comeuppance. Brady’s revenge was complete.
Plus, Ryan and the Falcons lost because they wet the bed in the fourth quarter. They choked. They didn’t deserve a better fate than the one they got.
We don’t need to talk about it, because, hey, all’s well that ends well, and this was the storybook ending that this particular evening deserved.
The Falcons earned their 28 points just as the Patriots earned the 28 they registered on Sunday night before overtime began.
Equal scores need to result in equal opportunity.
Each offense needs to get the ball.
Each defense needs the chance to make their stand.
Each kicker needs to prove he’s got the mettle.
You know, kind of like a real NFL game.
None of those things came close to happening on Sunday night.
Instead, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player languished on the sideline in the most critical moment of his season until it was time to trot out and shake Tom Brady’s hand in defeat.
There’s something seriously wrong with that.
What we all bore witness to on Sunday night was one of the greatest football games and comebacks and NFL history. The Patriots win is not tainted – not in the slightest.
They won fair and square.
But to see them march down the field against a hapless Falcons defense while Ryan, Julio Jones, and the best offense in football can only stare helplessly, is a wrong that has to be righted immediately.
Give it the old college try and adopt the college football method of overtime.
Contract the world’s most expensive consulting firm to weigh in on the matter and find a better system.
Get President Trump to sign an executive order mandating overtime reform (what’s one more executive order at this point anyway?).
I don’t care how it’s done, just get it done.
Or else, let’s just hope the narrative is just as easy to swallow next time around.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for future considerations.