HOUSTON (AP) The Atlanta Falcons headed home Monday, still in a bit of shock after blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl.
While the future looks bright for a team with MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and a promising young defense, let's not forget the psychological impact of what happened in Houston.
That could take a while to get over.
The Falcons were ready to celebrate the first championship in their 51-year history when they built a 28-3 lead on the New England Patriots. Alas, Tom Brady led the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history - and, really, nothing else comes close - to pull out a 34-28 overtime victory .
''I was thinking what anyone would be thinking - we had the game,'' Atlanta receiver Taylor Gabriel said after the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. ''At the same time, it's Tom Brady. If you give him chances to come back and win the game, he's going to do that.''
No one seemed to take it harder than running back Devonta Freeman, who fought back tears and could barely speak above a whisper.
''I'll always remember this game,'' he said, ''for the rest of my life.''
The Falcons flew back to a gloomy city that has only one major sports championship in 169 combined seasons for its NFL team, Major League Baseball's Braves, the NBA's Hawks and two now-departed NHL teams, the Flames and the Thrashers.
Instead of returning to a massive celebration, the Falcons will face an offseason filled with questions about how they let a title slip away, overshadowing a year when so many things went right.
''We have to learn from this,'' safety Ricardo Allen said. ''It's a tough learning lesson. This is one of the worst learning lessons you can get in this world, but we're just going to keep building. We have something good going here.''
The most immediate issue facing the team will be finding a new offensive coordinator.
Kyle Shanahan is leaving to become head coach of San Francisco 49ers, and his replacement will take over a unit that led the league in scoring, has two of the game's elite players in Ryan and receiver Julio Jones, and showed enormous versatility with 1,000-yard rusher Freeman and a record 13 players catching touchdown passes.
For coach Dan Quinn, it will be important to bring in someone who meshes well with Ryan and carries on the wide zone blocking scheme that worked so well this season.
As for Shanahan, he moves on to a new job with some emotional scars.
''This is the first time I've had this feeling,'' he said. ''It's as tough as it gets. It's not just me, it's everybody in this organization.''
Defensively, the Falcons made major strides over the second half of the season with a unit that started as many as four rookies and four second-year players.
Right out of college, safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell claimed starting roles. After a disappointing rookie season, Vic Beasley Jr. emerged as one of the game's most fearsome pass rushers, leading the league with 15.5 sacks and earning All Pro honors. Second-year tackle Grady Jarrett had a breakout performance in the Super Bowl with three sacks of Brady.
''It's not over for this franchise,'' said Dwight Freeney, who turns 37 in a couple of weeks and is one of the few greybeards on defense. ''This is a young team, a very young team.''
Freeney hasn't decided whether he will return for a 16th season , saying he will take a couple of months to weigh his options. The only player with significant experience on that side of that side of the line is 35-year-old tackle Jonathan Babineaux, the longest-tenured member of the team.
As with all teams that have success, the Falcons can expect to face those pesky financial issues that always make it hard to keep a winning roster together.
Freeman already created a bit of a stir early in Super Bowl week by saying he wants a lucrative contract extension that will make him one of the game's highest-paid running backs.
Otherwise, this is a team that likely will make only minor tweaks heading into its first season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium , a $1.5 billion, retractable-roof facility that replaces the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons were hoping to open the new place by hanging a championship banner.
Instead, they'll be trying to forget a monumental meltdown.
''There's a lot of be proud about,'' Freeney said. ''It's just tough right now.''
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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