Four Downs: Falcons fall to 49ers on late pick-six
DEC 24, 2013 1:14a ET
Here are four things we learned from the Atlanta Falcons' entertaining, yet ultimately deflating 34-24 loss to the 49ers on Monday night, most likely the final NFL game at venerable Candlestick Park (1960-2013):
With the ball on the 49ers' 11-yard line and the Falcons trailing by just three points, the stage was set for another patented comeback for Matt Ryan and Co.
The quarterback had already racked up 300 yards passing on one of the NFL's best defenses, thanks to a late run of eight completions (in nine attempts). For good measure, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez were catching fire at the optimum time.
But alas, things went quickly awry, with roughly 80 seconds left on the clock, after Ryan dropped back and fired a curl pass to Harry Douglas, who momentarily clasped the ball before tangling with Niners cornerback Tramaine Brock.
As the pair clashed, the ball then popped up and landed into the waiting hands of Bowman, who sprinted down the right sideline, unfettered, for a game-changing, playoff-clinching return TD of 89 yards.
In hindsight, the Falcons might have been better off running the ball on 2nd and short, with the dual purpose of collecting a first down and draining the clock. At the very least, they were already in point-blank field-goal range for Matt Bryant and seemingly possessing all the momentum for overtime.
Had the 49ers (now 11-4) lost on Monday night, next week's road tussle with the Arizona Cardinals (10-5) would have been a de facto playoff game -- with the winner qualifying as an NFC wild card ... and the loser missing out on the postseason entirely.
Instead, San Francisco still has a shot at winning the NFC West and claiming one of the coveted byes for the NFC playoffs (top two seeds).
And from the Atlanta perspective, Douglas (five catches, 46 yards) and his crestfallen teammates have a few months to reflect on a loose ball, on an eminently winnable game that was there for the taking.
2. There are no moral victories in the NFL, but there are idyllic losses with clubs 'chasing' a high pick in next spring's draft
Obviously, the Falcons players, coaches and front office execs will be crushed on the plane ride home from San Francisco, falling just short of earning a signature road win against an elite-level club.
But in the long-term view of things, Monday's loss keeps Atlanta -- one of eight teams with four or less victories -- in position for a top-five selection next May.
And if you think draft position gets overrated in media circles ... then why do so many general managers move heaven and earth on Day 1 to inch up a few spots? Why do teams spend millions of dollars and devote countless man-hours to the process, in hopes of landing a superstar in the first round?
With one week to go in the regular season, the Falcons are one of six teams clustered at 4-11, meaning their Round 1 range currently varies from the third overall pick to No. 8.
Even better, within that group of downtrodden clubs (Texans, Vikings, Bucs, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders and Rams -- who own the Redskins' No. 1 pick), only the Falcons are redoubtably set at quarterback for the next four or five years.
Sorry, Mike Glennon and Sam Bradford.
As a result, the Falcons should be in prime position to corral the best defensive end (Jadeveon Clowney) or premier offensive tackle (Jake Matthews) ... or maybe even draft a Patrick Willis-esque impact talent at linebacker (UCLA's Anthony Barr or Buffalo's Khalil Mack).
3. Lamar Holmes was trending nationally on Twitter during the game ... for all the wrong reasons
Officially, the Atlanta offensive line surrendered only one sack against San Francisco.
Unofficially, Holmes, the Falcons' left tackle du jour, had his share of struggles against 49ers defenders Aldon Smith, Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald, with the latter spending time in the Atlanta backfield with nary an opposing stiff-arm from Holmes.
The Falcons' woes along the O-line have been well-chronicled this season, from the bevy of injuries to key personnel to the high number of hits allowed on the quarterback Ryan.
But on this night, the corps probably deserves a little more slack for keeping an overactive Niners defense -- led by linebacker Patrick Willis (18 tackles, three tackles-for-loss), Bowman (11 tackles, one pick-six) and defensive lineman Justin Smith (one sack, two TFLs) -- relatively in check.
In this age of instantaneous reactions, though, it only takes a single calamitous play or bad series to become fodder for social media.
Especially when the announcers are lamenting your foibles on the air, with slo-mo footage to match.
4. There's a downside to the Falcons' hearty comeback in the fourth quarter
With Tony Gonzalez (eight catches, 63 yards, one TD) just one game from retirement and Roddy White (12 catches, 141 yards, one TD) set to earn a base salary of $5 million for his age-33 season in 2014 (the final year of his contract), it's possible that Atlanta won't have either pass-catcher on the active roster next season.
If that's the case, no other Falcons playmaker (outside of Matt Ryan) played a major role in the second half -- unless you count Jason Snelling's one-handed snag of Atlanta's onside kick in the final minutes.
That also includes Steven Jackson, who notched his sixth touchdown in five games ... but only ended up with 49 total yards on 18 touches.
Citing Monday's effort, obviously the Falcons would be smart to reopen negotiations with White on a long-term deal past next season. But in this salary-cap age of constant turnover, there are no guarantees with roster construction.