The New England Patriots had an epic comeback. The Atlanta Falcons had a historical collapse. Both were necessary to complete the improbable. In addition to the specific plays that happened to effect that result, Atlanta (and quarterback Matt Ryan) also did a poor job of managing the clock, often snapping the ball far earlier than necessary.
Here was the play clock situation on all plays where the game clock was running, after New England made it 28-9 with 2:12 remaining in the 3rd quarter, and then failed on an onside kick attempt.
1:30 left, 3rd Q, 2nd and 1 at NE 32: Ball snapped at 13 seconds left, Jake Matthews was called for holding on the play.
Atlanta then took a timeout as the play clock ran down before the 2nd down play, threw incomplete, then Matt Ryan got sacked on 3rd down. Atlanta took the clock all the way down on the punt and took a delay of game, taking it to the 4th quarter.
9:00 left, 4th Q, 2nd and 2 at ATL 35: Ball snapped at 9 seconds left. Tevin Coleman run up the middle for 1 yard, hurt on play.
8:31 left, 4th Q, 3rd and 1 at ATL 36: Ball snapped at 15 seconds left. Matt Ryan hit, fumbles, giving New England ball back in Atlanta territory down 28-12 with 8:24 remaining.
5:18 left, 4th Q, 1st and 10 at ATL 49, Ball snapped at 20 seconds left. After a big gain to Devonta Freeman gets Atlanta to midfield, with a new set of downs, up by 8, the ball is snapped with an incredible 20 seconds remaining. Freeman runs for a 2-yard gain. Clock is stopped temporarily for an injury, but then restarts.
4:47 left, 4th Q, 2nd and 8 at NE 49, Ball snapped at 14 seconds left. The Julio Jones insane catch play. He made the catch on the sideline, stopping the clock with 4:40 remaining, with a 1st and 10 at the New England 22.
3:56 left, 4th Q, 2nd and 11 at NE 23, Ball snapped at 4 seconds left. The key Matt Ryan sack came with Atlanta finally running the clock below 5 seconds, and getting it under 4 minutes left. New England took their first timeout, stopping the clock, after this play.
Jake Matthews was called for a hold on the next play, which stopped the clock again before the 3rd down incompletion. Atlanta punted the ball back at 3:38 remaining, and the next time they touched it, the game was tied.
Would it have made a difference? Time was Atlanta’s ally. They had control of that time when they had the ball. On three different drives, they had the ball twice in New England territory, inside what would be considered field goal range, and could not convert. They also failed to run the clock, when it was actually running.
Those plays add up to 75 seconds on six different plays with the clock running. You can’t snap it at zero, but it was negligent to snap it before it got under 5 seconds. Atlanta cost themselves about a minute of game time just by those snaps.
Would it have mattered? New England would have had to start using timeouts sooner, or the clock would have been closer to the two minute warning. Who knows how the play calling would have been different if New England is trying to score with 20 seconds left rather than 1:20 left, deep in Atlanta territory, or if they know they do not have any timeouts left?
The two-play sequence at the middle of the field, up 8, for example, was the equivalent of giving New England an extra timeout. That’s how absurd it was. The Falcons failed at many things in the final quarter. Simply taking a deep breath and letting time pass was one of them.