The Atlanta Falcons were down, 28-24. There were six seconds left. They had the ball at their own 41. The entire Georgia Dome leaned forward.
The Falcons – who once led 17-0 – needed 59 yards on the last play to pull out one last miracle and beat the San Francisco 49ers. By coincidence, 59 yards was exactly what they gained on their miracle play against Carolina earlier this season, when the Panthers had Atlanta pinned to its own 1 with a minute to go and no timeouts. Then safety Haruki Nakamura gave up a 59-yard bomb over his head to Roddy White.
But not this time. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was hurried and threw a relatively short pass. Julio Jones was tackled at the San Francisco 35. The game was suddenly over. The 49ers started jumping around, celebrating their trip to the Super Bowl, where they will face Baltimore on Feb. 3rd.
The Falcons trudged to their locker room. “It’s really tough,” Falcon center Todd McClure, a 13-year veteran, said a few minutes later. “You work your whole career…”
Then McClure choked up. He knew how precious this chance was. He’s not sure he will play again next year. Neither is Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez, the future hall of famer who almost (but not quite) officially retired after the game.
After nearly collapsing a week ago against Seattle – when the Falcons led 27-7 at one point, then trailed 28-27 before winning 30-28 with another comeback – this time the Falcons completed their disintegration.
They scored 24 points in the first half but zero in the second. Ryan took his eyes off a perfect shotgun snap and fumbled it away for one turnover. Star receiver Roddy White fell down on a pass route, costing the team an interception.
And with a third-and-4 on the 49ers’ 10 in the final 90 seconds, Ryan threw two passes toward White that were both deflected. On the second one, Atlanta fans thought White was held. But White said later that he knew officials weren’t going to make that borderline call at that point in the game.
The Falcons’ locker room felt all used up and dead afterward, like a Christmas tree slung to the side of the road in late January. It makes you remember how cruel the NFL game is.
Atlanta won twice as many games as Carolina this season – 14 vs. 7 – and made it to the NFL’s final four. And still, the Falcons felt like a failure, just like the Panthers did, just like 31 of 32 NFL teams do every year.
Falcons team owner Arthur Blank attended coach Mike Smith’s postgame press conference. Blank accepted condolences from others as on a muted TV, just 15 feet away, a grinning Colin Kaepernick yukked it up with Terry Bradshaw.
The Falcons had gambled by concentrating mostly on stopping Kaepernick from running – which made sense after he burned Green Bay for 181 rushing yards the week before. But by doing so, they allowed the 49ers’ running backs and tight end Vernon Davis to hurt them badly.
“Never for a second did we think we were going to lose this football game,” said Falcon cornerback Dunta Robinson, whose strip of the ball from the 49ers’ Michael Crabtree at the 1 had prevented another San Francisco touchdown. “Even the Hail Mary at the end. We’ve done so many miraculous things this year.”
But a team that relies on miracles usually gets burned. San Francisco was the sounder team in the second half. And the 49ers played a coverage Atlanta didn’t expect on the final fourth-down play and got the tipped ball they needed.
So the Falcons were left with their own ache. “You can’t keep chasing a Super Bowl,” Gonzalez said.
Well, you can. That’s what everybody does. But only one team gets it. And everyone else – no matter when they go out in the race – just feels cruddy.