Feb 07, 2017

After Super Bowl shocker, triumph and defeat coexist in uneasy proximity

Reporting Texas

HOUSTON — A thin curtain divided the room between celebration and heartache.

The Atlanta Falcons shuffled into the post-game press conference late Sunday night after Super Bowl LI. It had been 22 years since an Atlanta sports team won a championship. Surrounded by cameras and microphones, players took their seats and were forced to accept that nothing had changed in year 23.

Most wore comfortable clothes for the interviews they did not want to do. Misty-eyed cornerback Robert Alford, in a red T-shirt with cut-off sleeves, faced questions about how a 25-point lead in the second half turned into a monumental loss to the New England Patriots in overtime. His shirt bore the Falcons’ motto: Rise Up.

Nothing rose up. The room inside NRG Stadium was quiet as reporters leaned in to hear the soft, defeated voices of the Falcons. There were few answers.

“There’s nothing you can really say,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “It’s hard to find words tonight.”

The Falcons relied on the idea of brotherhood throughout their 11-5 season. That theme remained, with players focused on the importance of sticking together through the loss. “It’ll just bring us closer,” wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “We came this far as brothers and we gave blood, sweat and tears throughout the year,”

Gabriel fought tears as he replayed the second half and described the feeling of the game slipping away.

Then, in the background, the Falcons heard the faint sounds of a larger crowd in higher spirits on other side of the curtain.

Reporters, family members and Patriots’ staff filled the room. It was difficult to see who sat at each podium. Most of the players remained in full uniform, except they had traded their helmets for hats that read “Super Bowl CHAMPIONS” beneath a red, white and blue Patriots logo.

The Patriots also struggled with their words. But it was a different kind of fight, and they were smiling.

“It feels amazing right now but it’s going to feel better as a memory all time,” said Patriots defensive end Chris Long. “That memory is never going to leave me. You feel like you’re kind of immortal.”

Tight end Martellus Bennett brought his 2-year-old daughter Jett with him. She sat in his lap. Bennett’s interview bounced from his reflection on the game to his daughter’s commentary on topics such as their dog, Wendy, which had “peed on the rug,” she explained. Father and daughter also listed characters from Monsters Inc.

All the while, the curtain hung and the Falcons still sat on the other side, reliving the same moments the Patriots were celebrating.

Atlanta center Alex Mack, who played with a fractured fibula in his left leg, was asked about the sack of Ryan in a crucial series in the fourth quarter that led to the Falcons falling out of field goal range. Alford, the misty-eyed cornerback, was asked to describe his thoughts after he tipped a pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady that was gathered by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman.

There were few answers.