First Down/Fourth Down: 49ers' defense stands its ground in second half
For 30 minutes on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers did not appear to have any answers for Atlanta's explosive passing game.
Matt Ryan sat in the pocket untouched, while Julio Jones and, to a lesser extent, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez ran free downfield. The Falcons scored a touchdown on their first drive, added a field goal on their second drive and another TD on their third and then, following a punt, punched another one into the end zone just before halftime to take a 24-14 lead.
And then, the pendulum swung back the other direction, as San Francisco rallied for a 28-24 win.
The 49ers helped themselves, after falling into an early 17-0 hole, by establishing their ground game. That improvement allowed them to get their defense some rest and minimize Atlanta's possessions -- each team had the ball just five times in the second half, and the Falcons' final "drive" consisted of a harmless last-second pass to Jones.
But the 49ers also managed to take away a (possibly hobbled) Jones after the break, too. Jones caught seven balls for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, then struggled to find any space until late in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta also shot itself in the foot on two occasions in the third quarter: White slipped as Ryan fired a pass, leading to an interception; then Ryan mishandled a snap on Atlanta's next possession, with the 49ers recovering the fumble.
In the end, San Francisco needed its defense to make one last stop. It delivered, breaking up a pass intended for Roddy White on a 4th down deep in 49ers' territory with just over a minute left (more on that controversial play in a moment).
The 49ers still have their issues defensively, with the Super Bowl their next stop, but they stepped up Sunday.
First Down: The threat of Colin Kaepernick running the football.
Last week, Kaepernick ran for an NFL QB-record 181 yards (plus two touchdowns) in San Francisco's dismantling of the Packers. On Sunday, he gained 160 fewer yards on the ground -- but proved just as valuable to the 49ers' run game.
That's because the Falcons found themselves so concerned with the possibility of Kaepernick breaking off a big run, that they overcompensated for his presence. The result: 124 combined rushing yards for Frank Gore and LaMichael James, including three touchdowns.
All three of those scores came on similar plays, too -- Gore or James coming from left to right on a read-option, and Kaepernick handing them the football. The Falcons clearly made it a focus to corral Kaepernick on those plays (and on San Francisco's passing attempts), leaving huge gaps up the middle for Gore and outside for James.
Kaepernick rushed the ball just twice: a 23-yard scramble and a 2-yard loss on a sweep wide.
Fourth Down: Stephen Nicholas.
There will be plenty of defenders to point fingers at when the Falcons roll back Sunday's game tape. Nicholas had a very tough day, though, and he was at the attack point for a number of San Francisco's big runs.
The Falcons' linebacker did recover Michael Crabtree's fumble at Atlanta's 1, but that was a rare highlight on a rough afternoon.
First Down: Julio Jones.
Jones, as most players are wont to do, tends to see his performance fall off dramatically when he's playing at less than 100 percent. There may not be a more logical explanation for what happened to Atlanta's receiver from the first half [si_launchNFLPopup video='c9160b17914d4faf8cbbc94913e628c6'](when he dominated)[/si_launchNFLPopup] to the second half (when he went quiet for a long stretch). Jones appeared to injure his hand early Sunday, then asked the Atlanta trainers to check out his knee before halftime.
Still, through the first two quarters, Jones played as well as a wide receiver can play. He absolutely torched the San Francisco secondary -- Jones kicked off the scoring by blowing by two defenders for a 46-yard TD, then bumped Atlanta's lead to 17-0 with a ridiculous catch over Tarell Brown.
All in all, Jones finished with 182 yards receiving and caught all 11 balls thrown to him.
Aldon Smith came up with a key fumble recovery, ending an Atlanta drive, and he also provided pressure of Ryan on a couple of plays. The 49ers' two dynamic pass rushers were kept mostly in check by the Falcons, however -- something San Francisco will have to correct before Super Bowl Sunday.
Justin Smith is playing at less than 100 percent, a partially torn triceps limiting his effectiveness.
Aldon Smith's drop-off in production recently (he has no sacks in San Francisco's last five games) is tougher to figure. A theory, though: As an every-down player this season, Smith has played 400-plus more snaps than he did in 2011. He might just be wearing down in his second NFL year.
First Down: Ahmad Brooks and Carlos Rogers.
Brooks and Rogers led the 49ers' second-half defensive revival.
Brooks actually finished without a tackle, but he came up with two big pass break-ups in the second half, including one on 3rd-and-4 with less than two minutes remaining. Just prior to that, Brooks also planted Ryan into the turf, leaving Ryan clutching his non-throwing shoulder.
Rogers, meanwhile, helped stabilize the 49ers' secondary against the Falcons' passing game. His best moment came when he prevented a touchdown by swatting away a deep ball intended for White. Later, fittingly, he brought down Jones to end the game.
Fourth Down: Atlanta's big mistakes.
The 49ers had a pair of key misses themselves: David Akers clanged a 38-yard field goal off the upright, and Crabtree turned the ball over just inches shy of the end zone.
But Atlanta left the door open on a comeback with two key turnovers: Ryan's interception intended for White, and then Ryan's fumble. The Falcons then had the ball deep in San Francisco territory late, only for Ryan to fire back-to-back incompletions.
First Down: Tight ends.
Here's hoping Tony Gonzalez comes back for one more season, because he clearly has enough left in the tank. He and Vernon Davis battled back and forth Sunday in an enthralling matchup of elite tight ends.
Gonzalez wound up catching eight balls for 78 yards, while Davis one-upped him with 106 yards receiving and a touchdown. The Falcons had no luck covering Seattle TE Zach Miller last week, either, and Davis found a lot of the same holes, coming free on crossing patterns and off of play-action.
If Gonzalez does indeed hang 'em up, he may look back on the Falcons' final failed fourth-down attempt with frustration. After the Falcons headed over to the bench, Gonzalez appeared to mouth to White: "I'm open."
A Gonzalez TD grab to send Atlanta to the Super Bowl would have been a Hollywood ending. Given Gonzalez's long wait to pick up his first playoff win (a moment that came last week), this ending somehow seems even more appropriate.
Fourth Down: Officiating controversies.
What would an NFL week be without confusing moments from the officiating crew at critical junctures of the game? Both Atlanta and San Francisco fans have something to crow about, based on the game's final moments.
Had Atlanta pulled off its late comeback, 49ers fans likely would have jumped in line behind head coach Jim Harbaugh in crying foul on a Harry Douglas catch. On a third down in the fourth quarter, Douglas came open down the sideline, only to trip himself as he attempted to make a catch.
The Falcons' receiver still came down with it, according to the ruling on the field. Replays showed it was close -- the ball moved when Douglas hit the turf, but not enough, apparently, to overturn the play. Moments later, on that decisive fourth-down pass by Ryan, NaVorro Bowman came close to drawing a flag for holding or pass interference. But no call came, and the 49ers punched their ticket to New Orleans.