Let’s begin by going back — way, way back — to a far away, now foreign time when the Atlanta Falcons were more than just leading their NFC Championship game against San Fransisco. They were dominating in any and every way imaginable.
- A 20-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones was the opening play of the second quarter. That made it 17-0 for Atlanta, the second straight week they surged out to at least a two-touchdown lead.
- That Jones score was his second of the day, and already his sixth catch at that point. His other touchdown was a 46 yarder, which came only seven plays into the game.
- Another fun fact involving the number seven: Jones’ first touchdown came only seven yards short of the longest pass play surrendered all year by the 49ers’ secondary, a category in which they finished tied for first with Buffalo.
- Jones had 120 receiving yards and two touchdowns by the 14:54 mark of the second quarter while averaging 20 yards per grab. He was the first wide receiver to amass 100 receiving yards during one quarter of a post-season game since Carolina’s Steve Smith in 2005.
- What’s even more impressive — and now, crushing — is that in the same time frame Matt Ryan had already completed four passes for 20 yards or more. On the season, he was averaged three…per game.
- Also, after the first quarter Ryan had 162 passing yards, while Colin Kaepernick had one. Yes, just one yard. Not a joke.
- Taking that further and beyond the first quarter, Atlanta finished the first half with 297 total yards on offense. During the regular season, San Francisco gave up an average of 294.4 yards per game. Also not a joke.
Yet none of it mattered. For the second straight week, the Falcons did everything in their power to lose a game in the second half. This time, it worked.
The eventual score once the calamity concluded was 28-24 in favor of San Francisco, with the 49ers winning their first NFC Championship since 1994, the same year Steve Young led them to an easy Super Bowl win over San Diego.
It wasn’t just one long failure for the Falcons either, as was the case last week when Seattle was allowed to scored 28 second-half points, 21 of which came in the fourth quarter. No, this was a much more creative, far reaching failure. The kind that wastes talent and potential. The kind that feeds narratives about pressure, and its almighty weight. The kind that ends careers (please come back, Tony). The kind that makes for an excruciating offseason.
The kind that’s just so Falcons.
First there was a 17-point lead, and that was blown primarily by an Atlanta defense which treated defending the tight end like eating discount frozen lasagna (#bloglife). Vernon Davis had a 27-yard catch that set up LaMichael James’ touchdown run, and then on the next 49ers’ drive he added a 25-yard catch directly before his four-yard touchdown reception.
Davis finished with 106 receiving yards. Yes, that’s the same Vernon Davis who had 10 or fewer yards in a game six times this year, and over the last six weeks of the regular season, he had less than 30 yards in each game. Toss in Delanie Walker’s 20-yard reception, and 126 yards were given up to the tight end position, most of which came on significant chunk plays (three +20 yard catches).
That’s not a good look, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. But alas, all was not lost, as composure was regained, and Atlanta had a 10-point lead at halftime after a Tony Gonzalez touchdown. Ultimately, it would be the last of his career.
I’m always a fearless defender of quarterbacks of all shapes and varieties, and their senseless battle against the asinine rotting of intelligent football thought that is the need to assign wins and losses to QBs. Many of you will continue to claim that Ryan isn’t clutch, or that he can’t overcome some insurmountable obstacle that only great, super awesome quarterbacks leap over. None of that is fully true, of course, because had he not made two great passes late in last week’s game, the collapse would have come a week earlier, and the Falcons wouldn’t have had a chance to embarrass themselves today.
But here’s what we can say, definitively: despite an otherwise excellent game in which he completed 70 percent of his passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns, only two plays will be remembered now. Two crushing plays.
The first was a third quarter interception on a wayward ball thrown directly between Dashon Goldson’s numbers. The subsequent 49ers drive that started with great field position ended in a clunk job by David Akers. Still, the pick came just outside of Matt Bryant’s range, and at the very least three points likely would have come out of that Falcons drive. That’s the difference between Ryan needing to squeeze a ball into a tight window from the Niners’ 10-yard line with 1:13 left in the game on fourth down (an attempt that failed), and Atlanta needing only a chip shot field goal for the lead.
Ditto for Ryan’s third-quarter fumble, which had so much herp derp…
That came on second and nine from the San Fran 34, again on the edge of Bryant’s range. And again, an opportunity was, quite literally, fumbled away, this time because a fundamental skill of fielding a shotgun snap proved too difficult. At minimum then, six points were erased by Ryan. Our rough addition work indicates that six is more than four, the final deficit.
Remember that vast chasm between Kaepernick and Ryan in the first quarter which led to the Atlanta offense out-gaining San Francisco by 122 yards in the first half? The end result: 383 net yards for Atlanta, and 363 for San Francisco. An incomprehensible finish after a first quarter when only one team appeared to be playing, and doing anything of meaning.
The game, the playoffs, and the season ended in such a Falcons way too: with no timeouts, six seconds left on the clock, and the Falcons on their own 42, some kind of desperate trickery was needed. There was no band available to flood the field, and Doug Floutie wasn’t in the building. The expectation, though, was likely the ol’ hook and ladder gimmick, and then a lot of prayer.
What happened next? A 24-yard completion directly down the middle of the field to Jones. Game over. Season over.
Kaepernick’s cup told him this would happen, and even he didn’t believe.
Never again, Kaep’s cup. We’re all believers now.