Call it déjà vu with a twist.
The Atlanta Falcons envisioned repeating their 1998 post-season in which they defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoff game, 20-18, to advance to the conference championship and then went on to the Super Bowl.
By winning the last four meetings between the two teams, the Falcons entered Sunday’s NFC Championship Game confident that just one more victory over the 49ers would propel them into Super Bowl XLVII.
Besides, their football “guardian angels” had been there so many times before – bailing them out when things were too close for comfort. It was just a week ago when Atlanta, up 17-0 against Seattle in this season’s divisional game, blew the lead yet somehow managed to win with seconds remaining.
Entering the game, the Falcons felt invincible.
“There were a lot of similarities between the two games,” Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said following his team’s latest encounter with the 49ers. “It’s not over until that clock goes to zeroes.”
Now fast forward to the fourth quarter in Sunday’s game against San Francisco.
For the Falcons, a team that could seemingly pull a rabbit out of a hat, 10 yards might as well have been 10 miles. Atlanta failed to move the chains on a fourth-and-4 from the 49ers’10-yard line with 1:13 remaining, allowing San Francisco to run out the clock and preserve a 28-24 victory for the NFC Championship.
This time, Atlanta’s final drive began at its own 20-yard line. After losing the lead at the 8:27 mark in the fourth, the Falcons had plenty of time to score – almost too much time for a team accustomed to pulling off miracles all season.
The Falcons staged a 14-play drive, covering 70 yards while taking 7:10 off the clock and extending past the two-minute warning, only to end their season on downs with an incomplete pass to Roddy White within the red zone. The Niners regained possession to run out the final 1:09.
“On those last two plays of the ball game, the ball was tipped on third down, and we didn’t make the play on the fourth down,” Smith said. “We played hard and had our chances for this to be a different outcome. We just came up short.
“I thought we were going to score with two timeouts. I thought we were going to score then. I felt like we had the opportunities. We just didn’t make the plays when the opportunities arose,” Smith continued.
Just as the Falcons have proven all season that it only takes one good play or one good drive to win a game down the stretch, it only takes one play or drive by their opponents to spell demise.
Rallying from 17 down, San Francisco took the lead when running back Frank Gore took a handoff from quarterback Colin Kaepernick on a first-and-goal from just inside the Atlanta 10, and scampered untouched over right tackle into the endzone to put the 49ers up with the game-winning margin. The drive covered 82 yards in seven plays.
The Falcons began the game dominating the 49ers, particularly in their defensive secondary. With Atlanta’s aerial attack being just that – an attack – quarterback Matt Ryan hit 10-of-13 passes for 162 yards in the first period, his longest being a 46-yard touchdown strike to Julio Jones for Atlanta’s first score.
On the receiving end, Jones picked up 100 yards on five receptions in the first period alone, and Roddy White added 49 yards on three catches. Atlanta gained nine first downs compared to none by the 49ers.
On its next possession, Atlanta went up 10-0 on a 35-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, then extended its lead to that “infamous 17″ at the top of the second quarter when Ryan again connected with Jones on a deep pass to the right. Jones ran it in from 20 yards out and Bryant’s PAT was good for a 17-0 Falcons lead.
But that’s when the bottom fell out.
San Francisco scored two consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter to begin its rally. At 8:14 running back LaMichael James capped an11-play, 80-yard drive with a 15-yard run over the right end for the first 49ers score. David Akers converted the PAT to make it 17-7.
On San Francisco’s next possession, Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas was called for a crucial 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty that moved the 49ers from a first-and-10 on Atlanta’s 46 to a first down on the 29. Two plays later, Kaepernick hit tight end Vernon Davis for another TD and the shutout was quickly transformed into a three-point game following the PAT.
However, the Falcons were able to counter just before the half with a seven play, 80-yard scoring drive, capped off by a 10-yard strike from Ryan to tight end Tony Gonzalez. Atlanta was able to push the lead back to 10, 24-14, before intermission.
By the half, Jones and White had accumulated 135 yards and 91 yards respectively in receiving yards.
Not only did penalties play an important role in the game, but turnovers and the timing of those giveaways were just as important as any statistic. Ryan’s two turnovers in the third quarter – an interception and then a fumble – couldn’t have come at a worst time. And a roughing the passer call on Atlanta defensive end Cliff Matthews at the end of the same period only added insult to injury.
Gore had just scored on a 5-yard run over right tackle to pull 49ers to within a field goal, 24-21, when Ryan threw a pass intended for White, but was picked off by Chris Culliver at the San Francisco 47. However, the Falcons were saved when the Niners drive stalled and Akers missed a 38-yard field goal preserve the three-point spread.
More importantly, it was Ryan’s subsequent fumble on Atlanta’s next possession that may have been the deal breaker.
Threatening from the 28-yard line of San Francisco, the Atlanta quarterback coughed up the ball from the shotgun with 1:02 left in the third quarter. The turnover killed an eight-play drive that began back of the Falcons’ 28-yard line. Linebacker Aldon Smith recovered the ball at the 37 for the Niners.
The Falcons were able to redeem themselves during that same drive that went into the fourth quarter when cornerback Dunta Robinson forced Michael Crabtree to fumble while threatening to score from the 1-yard line. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas recovered for Atlanta and the Falcons took over on the 1. But a three-and-out deep in 49ers territory gave San Francisco excellent field position at the 38 to begin a drive of six plays that resulted in San Francisco’s go-ahead TD by Gore.
Ryan finished by completing 30-of-42 passes for 396 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns, while White contributed seven receptions for 100 yards and Gonzalez earned 78 yards on eight catches. Jacquizz Rodgers led Atlanta rushers with 32 yards while Michael Turner went out with an injury after compiling 30 yards.
Kaepernick finished with 16-of-21 completions for 233 yards and one touchdown. Davis led all 49ers receivers with 106 yards, and Gore rushed for 90 yards in 21 carries.