Atop the NFC, with a chance to secure a playoff spot, the San Francisco 49ers (11-3) fell victim to a “trap game” Sunday afternoon, losing in the final seconds to the Atlanta Falcons (5-9), after the second of back-to-back replay reviews resulted in an Atlanta touchdown and an eventual 29-22 win.
Coming off a thrilling victory over the New Orleans Saints (10-3) last Sunday, the 49ers returned home to face the last-place Falcons with a defense that struggles against the pass. A sluggish game for the 49ers on offense and defense, aside from George Kittle (13 receptions. 134 yards) kept this game close before the 49ers blew their lead in the final seconds.
Sunday’s matchup with the Falcons featured a very different looking 49ers defense. The 49ers suffered numerous injuries against New Orleans, leaving their secondary depleted and defensive line depth in shambles. Plenty of big names were inactive for the 49ers Sunday.
Jimmy Garoppolo threw for four touchdowns in the win over the Saints, his third time doing so this season. Garoppolo and the passing game looked to have plenty of success against a bad Falcons pass defense, but it was Raheem Mostert who made the difference early. Force-feeding Mostert, while completing passes to George Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders and Mostert, the 49ers found themselves in Falcons territory on their second possession.
Faced with a 4th-and-1, the 49ers converted on a pass to Kittlewould start the next drive in the backfield. After the night-and-day difference between Mostert and Tevin Coleman in recent weeks, Kyle Shanahan said this week that the team will continue to ride the hot hand.
A 3rd-and-19 for the 49ers resulted in a roughing-the-passer penalty called on the Falcons, giving the 49ers a new set of downs just outside the red-zone. A short pass to Kittle over the middle gave the 49ers a 3rd-and-1 from the Falcons 15 yard-line. Garoppolo converted on a quarterback-sneak. A few plays later, from the Falcons two-yard line, Mostert ran the ball in for a 49ers touchdown.
Dominating the time-of-possession early on, the 49ers scored on a 21-play, 88-yard drive that lasted 10:43.
Garoppolo was asked about the 21-play drive the 49ers used to score first, and if it was a sign of what was to come against the Falcons defense:
“Whenever you go against a defense kind of like that, that style, you know it’s going to be long drives. They’re not going to give up many big plays. 21 plays, it was awhile, so it felt like that out there. It was good for our defense, keep their offense off the field. I guess a defense like that, you just got to execute play after play and in that drive, we did that.”
The Falcons following drive got off to a slow start, before Matt Ryan completed a deep pass to Julio Jones downfield, moving the Falcons into 49er territory for the first time. A few plays later, the Falcons found their way into the red zone. Threatening to score from the five-yard line, the Falcons would tie things up at 7-7 on a touchdown pass to Jones.
Again, Garoppolo and the 49ers offense sputtered with another three-and-out, and the momentum had shifted in favor of the Falcons. Just two plays into their next drive, they were back in 49er territory. The 49ers pass defense was struggling without Richard Sherman, allowing both Jones and tight end Austin Hooper to have plenty of success in the first half.
Faced with 3rd-and-7 from the 49ers 25-yard line, the Falcons would not convert, leading to a field goal attempt. After a successful 43-yard field goal, it was Falcons 10, 49ers 7 with 2:36 remaining.
Garoppolo and the 49ers offense began their final drive before the half with a false-start penalty. An incompletion set up a 2nd-and-15 where Coleman busted open a run for 37 yards into Falcons territory. Garoppolo followed with a sidelines pass to Kittle, and the 49ers found themselves on the Falcons 23-yard line. Another pass to Kittle moved the 49ers inside the Falcons 10-yard line. A third-straight pass to Kittle inched the 49ers even closer to the goal line.
Faced with 3rd-and-4 from the 4-yard line, the 49ers would not score. Robbie Gould would follow with his first field goal of the game, and the game was tied at 10-10 with 24 seconds left. A Falcons kneel-down sent this game to half time.
The 49ers were set to receive the second-half kickoff, but the Falcons tried and recovered an onside kick. Unfortunately for Atlanta, there was an illegal formation penalty, and the successful onside-kick attempt was wiped out. Atlanta would re-kick and the 49ers would begin the third quarter on the 31-yard line. A screen pass to Kittle led to a quick first down. Three plays later, the 49ers offense continued to sputter, punting on fourth down once again.
Defensively, the 49ers did not play their best game Sunday. Held without a sack into the third quarter, it would be their third straight game where their dominant defensive line was suppressed. (As I wrote that previous sentence, Sheldon Day sacked Ryan for the 49ers first sack of the day, midway into the third quarter. The Falcons followed the 49ers punt with a punt of their own.)
Garoppolo was sacked on the 49ers first play of their next drive, which resulted in a roughing-the-passer penalty on the Falcons, moving the 49ers to midfield. Back-to-back handoffs to Mostert moved the 49ers into Falcons territory. Garoppolo found Kittle once more, for his ninth reception of the game.
Still tied at 10 points apiece, the 49ers wanted a touchdown. Faced with 3rd-and-6, the 49ers offense would be charged with a false-start penalty, making it 3rd-and-11. Unable to convert, the 49ers settled for another field goal and a 13-10 lead.
Nick Bosa had been quiet all game until he recorded the 49ers second sack on Ryan, his ninth sack on the season, and his first since Week 12. The Falcons offense punted two plays later.
The 49ers got the ball back, and immediately found Kittle once more for 21-yards. Two plays later, who else? Kittle. A pass over the middle gave the 49ers another first down, and Kittle his 12th reception. The 49ers’ drive would abruptly end on a Matt Breida fumble, giving the Falcons the ball back on their own 34-yard line. The first turnover for the 49ers was a big one, stopping the momentum they gained on that previous drive.
After the game, Shanahan talked about if he thinks about over-using Kittle:
“No. If we were throwing him in double coverage i would. We don’t have plays, except that last one that was a screen to him. You don’t just call plays that say ‘Go to Kittle.’ You might want to start there and if they don’t double him, he usually gets it because he usually wins and if not you progress. There are a number of plays we try to get to other people, but Kittle got the majority of it today.”
Kittle’s 12th reception of the game allowed him to make a little bit of history. With over 130 yards receiving Sunday, Kittle has now accumulated more yards by a tight end in his first three NFL seasons than any tight end in NFL history.
After the game, Kittle was asked about breaking Mike Ditka’s tight end record. Losing the way the 49ers did, personal accolades were the last thing on Kittle’s mind:
Atlanta began its drive following the turnover at the start of the 4th quarter. Faced with a quick 3rd-and-17, the Falcons would fail to convert. An incomplete pass, almost intercepted by Fred Warner, would force a Falcons punt.
Still leading 13-10, the 49ers would look to potentially put this game away with a touchdown on this drive. A quick 3rd-and-6 for Garoppolo and the offense was converted on a sideline pass to Kendrick Bourne. Three plays later, the 49ers offense sputtered once more, resulting in another punt. With the game still up for grabs, the 49ers offense was incapable of doing anything.
After Sunday’s game, Geroge Kittle was asked if the 49ers possibly underestimated the Falcons defense coming into a game that they were supposed to win:
Fortunately, the 49ers would get a huge break on the punt. A forced fumble on Falcons returner Kenjon Barner by 49ers tight end Ross Dwelley was recovered inside the 49ers 5-yard line by fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
A big special teams turnover allowed the 49ers to score a touchdown two plays later. Garoppolo completed a short pass to Juszczyk in the corner of the end zone, and the 49ers extended their lead to 19-10 after Gould missed the point after.
The Falcons drive following the touchdown would make its way into 49ers territory after a pair of first downs. Ryan continued to find holes in the 49ers defense, and the Falcons were within field goal range. A deep pass to Jones in the end zone resulted in a pass interference penalty on the 49ers, moving the Falcons inside the 49ers 5-yard line, threatening to score a touchdown. From the 1-yard line, Falcons running back Qadree Ollison scored, cutting the 49ers lead to 19-17 following the extra point.
A three-point game with 5:15 left in the game allowed the 49ers to take over and control their fate late in the 4th quarter.
Starting at their own 25-yard line, Garoppolo found Juszczyk for a short gain. Mostert carried for a first down to the 37-yard line. An incomplete pass to Emmanuel Sanders was followed by a big pass to Deebo Samuel for 29 yards, into Falcons territory. From the Falcons 34-yard line, Mostert ran up the middle for no gain. Another pass to Sanders brought this game to the two-minute warning, with the 49ers on the Falcons 28-yard line.
Faced with 3rd-and-4, the 49ers would come up short. On 4th down, Gould extended the 49ers lead to 22-17 with 1:52 left in the game. The 49ers defense needed one last stand against Ryan and the Falcons.
The Falcons, needing a touchdown to take the lead, quickly moved into 49ers territory. Four plays and a deep pass to Jones moved the Falcons into the red-zone. On the 49ers 16-yard line, Ryan’s pass to the end zone was incomplete, bringing up 3rd-and-1. The following play was completed for a first down on the 49ers 5-yard line. Five yards away from taking the lead, the Falcons had eight seconds left in the game.
A pass over the middle to tight end Austin Hooper was ruled a touchdown, and the Falcons had (for the moment) taken a 23-22 lead on the 49er with four seconds left. The touchdown to Hooper was reviewed and overturned after the ball had hit the ground. A second life for the 49ers, with one play left for the Falcons.
With 5 seconds left, the Falcons last attempt to take the lead was just barely good enough. A short pass over the middle was called on the field as stopped at the goal line, but a replay review ruled that Jones just barely crossed over for a Falcons touchdown. The Falcons had stunned the 49ers.
Two seconds remained in the game, and the 49ers were all but finished. The Falcons would kick off, and the 49ers would try for a miracle. A series of laterals would result in a 49ers fumble and a Falcons scoop-and-score touchdown. The Falcons had just pulled off a massive upset, beating the 49ers 29-22.
After the crushing loss Sunday afternoon, Kyle Shanahan left his players with this message as they play their last two regular-season games with a chance to still secure the number-one seed in the NFC:
“Whoever you play, if you want to win you have to play and coach better than we did today. Again, I give those guys credit because it wasn’t like we played terrible, but we didn’t play good enough to beat that team. They played better than us. We have a short week here with the Rams coming in. On a short week, I know how important it is for guys to recover, get tomorrow off, adjust their bodies, really be smart on how they live their life every single day right here. Everything matters right now and you get towards the end of the year, there’s not a lot of guys left, guys are wearing down. Everything is about right now, so our guys need to bring their best. It’s not just what you do on Sunday, it’s what you do every single day to prepare for Sunday.”
- Losing nose tackle D.J. Jones to a season-ending injury, the 49ers run defense was more vulnerable than ever. After the game, DeForest Buckner discussed how the 49ers adjusted after losing an important piece to their defensive line.
- For the third-straight week, the 49ers defensive line was handled well by the opposing team’s offensive line. Recording just the two sacks today, the 49ers defense has suffered as a whole without the abundance of sacks that they are used to. With a depleted secondary, the pass-rush needs to get back on track to allow 49ers defensive backs better coverage opportunities.
- Take away the bizarre scoop-and-score by the Falcons to add on when the game was already over, the 49ers have now lost all three of their games on final-second scores. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was asked if losing all three games by last-second scores, and having a chance to win every game helps establish experience in pivotal, close games.
“The next close one we win, I will give that to you and say that we won it because of this one. Until then, I don’t like losing close or any type of losing. As far as learning from it, we go in and watch tape on the cloe losses, just like we do the blowouts. I think learning is each and individual play on getting better on coverages. I don’t think you really learn by getting beat by only two points. It is just about football and getting better every week.”
- Joe Staley, the longest-tenured 49er on the team reiterated what the rest of his team was saying about clinching a playoff spot in a loss. The veteran talked about using this loss as a learning experience heading into the playoffs:
“Yes it is weird. I don’t even feel good. We want to clinch by winning. I think the main thing is we have two games left in the season and we take care of business, and we play how we know we are capable of playing in this locker room. I think we will look back and this is a huge learning experience from the season, and we will carry that forward to the playoffs.”
After the 49ers (11-3) crushing loss to the Falcons, (5-9) Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers still secured a playoff spot with a Rams loss to the Cowboys. The 49ers will welcome the Los Angeles Rams (8-6) to Levi’s Stadium next Sunday. Wrapping up the regular-season home schedule against Jared Goff and the Rams, the 49ers will look to remain atop the NFC before heading into Seattle to face the Seahawks.