By Matthew Asher
For the Falcons faithful, the NFC Championship game was almost déjà vu all over again. Atlanta started out strong, pitching a shutout in the first quarter and completely dominated both sides of the ball. Much like the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco’s 49ers tight end kept his team in the game. In the second half, Atlanta essentially self-destructed and gave up the lead late in the fourth quarter. The only difference between this game and the one against Seattle was that Atlanta couldn’t pull off the Houdini act for the second week in a row, this time losing 28-24.
It’s always tough losing a playoff game, but when your team has a legitimate chance to win the game, losing a one-score game makes it that much tougher. Now the big question for the next few weeks is if this was Tony Gonzalez’s last game. Last week Atlanta was able to at least get Tony his first playoff win. Gonzalez said he was 95 percent sure that this season would be his last, but given how close the Falcons came to the Super Bowl, who knows if that five percent will persuade him to stay at least one more season.
Atlanta in the first quarter, specifically Julio Jones, gets an A+. On offense, Julio could not be stopped. In the first 15:06 of the game he picked up 120 receiving yards to go along with two touchdown catches of 46 and 20 yards, respectively. He finished the game with 11 catches for a franchise playoff record 182 yards.
On defense, the Falcons did nothing but stop Colin Kaepernick and company. In the first 15 minutes of the game, Atlanta limited San Francisco to negative two yards. That is not a typo. Negative two yards.
The first half stats for Atlanta’s trio of receivers were very impressive. At halftime Jones had caught seven passes for 135 yards and the two touchdowns, Roddy White pulled down six catches for 91 yards and Tony Gonzalez brought in five receptions for 45 yards and one touchdown.
Matt Ryan’s first half stats were equally impressive. Matty Ice completed 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards with the three touchdowns and no interceptions. Against Seattle, Ryan only threw for 250 yards in the entire game.
Atlanta’s defense in the second, third and fourth quarters get a D. The 49ers didn’t gain a single yard in the first quarter, but by halftime, Colin had completed 9 of 12 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown. He was limited to just one rushing attempt, but it was a 23-yard scamper giving San Francisco a much needed first down.
After Jones’ second touchdown pass, it seems as though the Falcons defense became gun shy. They had trouble tackling, especially tight end Vernon Davis, who caught four of Colin’s passes for 75 yards including the touchdown grab. San Francisco gained 162 yards in the second quarter. By the end of the game, the 49ers had 373 total yards of offense.
The one bright spot for Atlanta’s defense in the second half was due to Asante Samuel. Michael Crabtree has just caught a pass and was just inches away from crossing the goal line. Samuel was able to jar the ball loose and allow the Falcons to recover the ball. Unfortunately, Atlanta was given possession on the one-yard line and went three-and-out on that possession.
Matt Ryan’s turnovers get a C-. Matty Ice was responsible for both of Atlanta’s turnovers. Both occurred in the third quarter when it was clear Atlanta needed to score more to win the game. Atlanta was shut out in the second half, mustering just 125 passing yards in the second half. The first turnover was in the third quarter. Atlanta had second-and-10 on San Francisco’s 47 yard line. Ryan threw the ball low and short, allowing Chris Culliver a chance for a diving interception.
That turnover ended up not mattering since San Francisco couldn’t convert it into points. The second turnover was also deep in 49ers territory, this time on the San Francisco 29. In the shotgun formation, Ryan appeared to take his eyes off the snap because he couldn’t handle the snap cleanly. It was a good snap, but for whatever reason Ryan didn’t catch it.
Much like the first turnover, San Francisco couldn’t turn it into points because of Crabtree’s fumble. However, following Atlanta’s three-and-out upon recovering the fumble, San Francisco was able to march 68 yards on just six plays to score the final points of the game.
The Falcons season is over. For the rest of the fans of the NFL, it’s time to see which of the two Harbaugh brothers will raise the Lombardi Trophy: Jim (San Francisco) or John (Baltimore).
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.