As Julio Jones fell to his backside less than a foot short of crossing the goal line, the 49ers rushed the field to celebrate what they thought was a game-sealing stop as time expired.
After officials reviewed the play, however, it was the Atlanta Falcons’ turn to storm the field from their sidelines as Jones did, indeed, score a game-winning touchdown with just two seconds to play in the game.
“I was confident [that I stopped him],” said 49ers safety Jimmie Ward, who’s hit appeared keep Jones out of the end zone. “But I didn’t know how close he was to the goal line and it was a bang-bang play.”
After an emotional win against the New Orleans Saints last week, the San Francisco 49ers fell flat at Levi’s Stadium Sunday, dropping its third game of the season in a 29-22 loss to the Falcons. The loss will force San Francisco to run the table in its final two games in order to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
“If we want to win, we have to coach and play better than we did today,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Give those guys credit because it wasn’t like we played terrible. But we didn’t play good enough to beat that team.”
Coming off of a massive 48-46 win over New Orleans last weekend, the 49ers felt the direct impact of a game that took a physical toll on their team.
Suffering a laundry list of injuries, San Francisco was forced to play without five defensive starters including cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Jaquiski Tartt and nickel corner K’Waun Williams.
Understanding that the 49ers were trotting out a severely compromised secondary, Atlanta’s offensive game plan was simple: Get the ball to Julio Jones.
The Falcons did so 13 times, allowing the four-time All-Pro wide receiver to rack up a game-high 134 yards, primarily against second-year corner Emmanuel Moseley, who started in place of Sherman.
“We just wanted to play our coverage and play what we normally do against him,” Moseley said. “He got us a couple of times and made some good plays.”
One of Jones’ most impactful plays aside from the game-winning score, was a 28-yard reception down the right sideline in which he dragged both feet in bounds to complete the catch.
Moseley, who appeared to be in good position to break up the pass, said he wasn’t surprised by Jones’ athletic play considering his history of making tough catches like that on a routine basis.
The play led to a five-yard touchdown pass from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to Jones eight plays later, tying the game at 7 following a 21-play drive from the 49ers a possession earlier.
Apart from that drive, however, that took 10:43 off of the clock in the first and second quarters, San Francisco’s offense looked flat and played what looked like uninspired football just seven days after a 48-point showing in New Orleans.
“If we don’t play at our level like we did last week or like we’ve played all season, anyone can get beat any given Sunday,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “I don’t think we played at any type of intensity that we’ve been playing with all year.”
The only other offensive touchdown San Francisco scored was on a two-yard pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to fullback Kyle Juszczyk. The play was set up by a fumbled punt from Atlanta after tight end Ross Dwelley knocked the ball out of Kenjon Barner’s hands.
Juszczyk picked the ball up, nearly taking it all the way to the end zone before he was stopped at Atlanta’s two-yard line.
After the 49ers defense gave up a one-yard touchdown run to Falcons running back Quadree Ollison, San Francisco had a chance to bleed the rest of the clock out with another lengthy drive.
Driving 47 yards down field and taking over three minutes off of the clock in the process, the 49ers needed a first down on 3rd-and-4 to complete their game ending drive. Of course the go-to option was Kittle, who had recorded 13 receptions for 131 yards to that point.
But as Garoppolo hit Kittle in the flat, the third-year tight end fumbled in an attempt to switch the ball to his right hand and stiff arm an Atlanta defender. While he was able to recover the fumble, Kittle was a yard short, putting San Francisco in a 4th-and-1 situation at Atlanta’s 28-yard line.
Opting for the safe route, Shanahan elected to kick a field goal, giving the 49ers a 22-17 lead with 1:52 to play.
“The competitor in me, obviously, [wanted to go for it],” Garoppolo said. “But we were playing the numbers game going up a touchdown instead of just two. But yeah, as a competitor, you always want to but Kyle [Shanahan] makes the decisions and we’ll always follow him to battle.”
With a shot at stealing a victory on the road, Ryan and the Falcons offense drove the field in nine plays, setting up one final shot at the end zone from the 49ers five-yard line after tight end Austin Hooper dropped what appeared to be a game-winning score.
Dropping back in the pocket, Ryan fired a dart to Jones at the goal line. With his back the end zone, Jones appeared to be inches shot of breaking the plane, prompting a massive celebration from the 49ers defense and bench.
If Jones was short, time would have expired ending the game but like all potential scoring plays inside the final two minutes of a game, Jones’ catch was reviewed and reversed.
“Yeah, that’s what I saw on the scoreboard, too,” Shanahan said, agreeing with the officials’ decision to overturn the call.
On the ensuing kickoff with just two seconds to play, the 49ers were forced to run a series of laterals, eventually leading to another Falcons touchdown as the ball rolled into San Francisco’s own end zone.
With the loss, the 49ers now fall back down to the No. 5 seed in the NFC as the top wild card team after the Seattle Seahawks 30-26 win over the Carolina Panthers.
The good news for San Francisco, though, is that it will control its own destiny. For the 49ers win both of their final two games of the regular season against the Rams and Seahawks, they will earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which comes with home field advantage and a first-round bye.
“When it’s in your control, it’s a good feeling,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “You don’t have to rely on anyone else to lose. It’s our first time in this position. We didn’t get it done today but we played a lot of really good football … Hopefully it lights a fire under us.”