The Falcons fought one of the NFC's best to the wire last night, and the double digit loss was a heck of a lot closer than the score made it out to be. If nothing else, the Falcons proved last night that they can actually run with anyone in the NFL when they play their best football.
But once again, a close game came down to one mistake that wound up being the difference between a win and a loss, something that has happened to the Falcons all too often this season.
The first quarter was pretty tepid with a lot of frustration on offense for both teams. Both San Francisco and Atlanta had sustained drives, but only one of them, by the 49ers, resulted in points. The 49ers had a 3-0 lead heading into the second quarter. It was then that the Falcons offense took over the second quarter and took control of the game.
This was largely due to Matt Ryan and the surprising offensive line that actually gave Ryan enough time to work his magic. Despite throwing two interceptions near the end of the game (one not really his fault, and one that was just in pure, hopeless desperation), this was arguably Ryan's best performance of the season.
Against one of the best defensive units in the NFL, Ryan finished with 348 yards, while going 37/48 with two touchdowns. His number one target of the night, Roddy White, torched San Francisco. He had 12 receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown. Ever since the Buffalo game, White has looked like his elite self and last night was no exception.
This duo led the Falcons to 10 second quarter points to take a 10-3 lead heading into halftime. While Steven Jackson wasn't incredibly effective (16 rushes for 53 yards), he was given the ball enough to keep the Falcons normally one dimensional offense, balanced.
The Falcons defense was able to contain Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore for a half in which the 49ers were leaning on the pass way too heavily. But just like in last year's NFC championship game, the 49ers made adjustments for the second half and the Falcons didn't.
San Francisco pounded the ball on the ground in the third quarter and Frank Gore wound up running for 97 yards on 21 carries for the night. The physicality of the 49ers running back began to wear down the Falcons defense, who lost Corey Peters to an achilles tendon injury in the first half.
The 49ers were able to outscore the Falcons in third quarter 10-0 and dominated time of possession. The Falcons only ran nine plays in the third quarter, to 49ers 24, which really wore down the defense.
But the Falcons were able to rally back in the fourth quarter. On their first drive of the final period, Matt Ryan's offensive line rose to the occasion and gave the quarterback time to complete a play action pass 39 yards down the field to Roddy White for a touchdown. It was at this moment that Falcons fans and anyone watching the game, saw what Matt Ryan can do when he gets some protection.
But the 49ers would take advantage of the winded Falcons defense and add another touchdown. With time running out, and the Falcons down 27-17, the Falcons drove 80 yards down field and Tony Gonzalez caught his final Monday Night Football touchdown to make it only a 27-24 deficit.
The Falcons would then attempt an onside kick that squirted past the 49ers and was recovered by Jason Snelling at the 49ers 30. It was a perfect kick off by the Falcons most consistent player this year in punter Matt Bosher.
"When we got the onside kick at the end of the game, I thought we had a great opportunity to win it," quarterback Matt Ryan said.
They certainly did and Ryan led another terrific drive deep into 49ers territory. With just under two minutes to play, the Falcons got to 49ers 10 yard line just like last season. And just like last season, the final drive of the game ended in tragedy.
Mike Smith wasn't playing to go to overtime, he was playing to win. The 49ers sent nearly their entire front seven on a third and one blitz. Ryan hit Harry Douglas with a quick pass that would have netted the Falcons a first down, but Douglas dropped the pass and while it was still in mid air, 49ers linebacker Novorro Bowman intercepted it. He would then take the ball the length of the field for the touchdown to seal the game.
"When it popped up in the air, I was just hoping it would hit the ground," said Douglas. "It's just one of those plays."
It was a truly heartbreaking moment and a horrifically perfect microcosm of the Falcons season. When they weren't completely outplayed, the Falcons would come up short in the most gut wrenching fashion.
The Falcons season comes to a merciful close next week at home against Carolina. After last night, it can't come soon enough.
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