The Atlanta Falcons saw their Super Bowl dreams hit the turf on Sunday. The San Francisco 49ers became one of the few teams to resist the Falcons' fourth-quarter efforts this season. While the 49ers were celebrating a hard-earned win, the Falcons were left to pick up the pieces.
Questioning what went wrong is natural.
The finger pointing on Atlanta sports radio was borderline disturbing.
One caller suggested to Mitch Evans of 92.9 The Game that the Falcons should trade Matt Ryan for Tim Tebow. Throughout the aftermath, callers suggested the firings of Mike Smith and the entire coaching staff. Every positive was seemingly wiped away in one game.
Then there were the conspiracy theorist. The NFL wanted the Harbaugh-Bowl, and the officials made sure it happened.
Calls and No-Call In Question
There were two calls and one no-call that seemed to loom large on Sunday. The 49ers were the beneficiaries of two personal foul penalties that extended drives. The Falcons saw their season end on what appeared to be uncalled pass interference.
The first personal foul came when Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas scuffled with a 49ers offensive lineman. The lineman was trying to sneak his fingers inside Nicholas' facemask, and Nicholas shoved the lineman to the ground. The flag was thrown. With three minutes left in the second quarter, the 49ers moved from the Atlanta 44-yard line to the Atlanta 29-yard line. They would go on to score.
The second questionable call might have been the most crucial one. With a little over one minute left in the third quarter, the Falcons defense came up huge on 3rd-and-7. The shift in momentum was short lived. After attempting to tip the pass, DE Cliff Matthews' fingertips brushed Colin Kaepernick's face mask. Roughing the passer extends the 49ers drive.
Was the Fix In?
Conspiracy theories provide little comfort after close losses. And while the effect on the game is debatable, the intent of the officials is not.
On the first personal foul, it was poor judgement by Nicholas. With officials ready to step in, Nicholas let his emotions get the better of him. Every player in the NFL is aware that it is almost always the second hit that draws the penalty. No need to check the officials' past for gambling debts.
Given the pounding that Matt Ryan would endure in the fourth quarter, one might put the second personal under a more intense microscope. Classifying Matthews touching of Kaepernick's facemask as a blow to the head seems far-fetched, unless seen from the referee's point of view.
The referee was behind the play. He could not see that Kaepernick did not even flinch as he watched his pass fall incomplete. What the referee saw was Matthews' hand come across Kaepernick's face and the helmet move. From behind, the call was justified.
And the 49ers would not score on that second drive extending call.
But what about the 4th-and-4?
No Call for a Reason
When Matt Ryan fired the ball to Roddy White on 4th-and-4, the Falcons seemed to have recovered their fourth-quarter magic, but 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman blew White up well before the ball could arrive. The season was essentially over.
And while fans might cry foul, there were reasons why no call would be made.
First, the contact occurred within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Contact is allowed and basically held to the same standards of holding as an offensive lineman. In this particular spot, even the Falcons were aware of that. Roddy White told Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "You’re not going to get that call there."
But that is not what absolves the official for not throwing a flag.
The official who was in the best position never saw the contact. There was an official just a few feet away from the play. His back was turned to White and Bowman as he kept his eyes on the Falcons backfield the entire time.
There are plenty of theories as to why the Atlanta Falcons lost Sunday. Everything from Ryan's fumble to the 49ers simply being the better team has been bandied about. And in almost every theory, one can find a grain of truth.
But the 49ers won the game with what they did on the field. There was no edict handed down from on high. The officials were not hiding 49ers underoos under their uniforms.
To dwell on such things undermines the feats that the Falcons accomplished in 2012. Even worse, it would cloud the view of what the Falcons might accomplish moving forward.