What happened on Monday night felt like an omen. The San Francisco 49ers were on the verge of coughing up a guaranteed win against one of the NFL's worst teams in what was possibly the last game at beloved Candlestick Park.
The Atlanta Falcons, spurred by a miraculous onside kick recovery with two minutes left in the game, had the ball on the 10-yard line and were ready to exact revenge on the team that detonated their Super Bowl bid last season.
Once again, NaVorro Bowman was right there in the middle of the field, scooping up a deflected pass by Matt Ryan and running 89 yards the other way to send the Stick into a screaming frenzy. Even the squirrels on the field joined in the end-zone celebration.
It was a great moment, but it was also a necessary punch to the head for the Niners, who played horrendously for three quarters and nearly got pansed in the final minutes.
Just as it's been all year, Kaepernick and the offense failed to impress anyone, scoring just three points in the first half and piling up enough three-and-outs to make Trent Dilfer shake his head.
But for once this season, the defense was also a disappointment.
The front line routinely failed to put pressure on Ryan, and during the few times it actually managed to get to him, he easily evaded the sack and managed to get a good throw downfield. This was bad considering the play of the usually reliable secondary.
Against a receiving corps that was missing Julio Jones, the 49ers were lit up for 348 yards through the air and allowed the Falcons to convert 8-of-15 third-down opportunities. That's over 50 percent. I know because I have a calculator.
Tramaine Brock was burned on several deep throws, though it has to be noted that he provided his patented physical coverage throughout most of the game. Receivers like Roddy White and Harry Douglas just made fantastic catches on some perfectly placed passes by Matt Ryan.
On the game-sealing play, Douglas got tangled up with Brock again and the result finally swung towards the 49ers. Bowman got the glory, as he should have, but Brock's suffocating coverage was what knocked the ball in the air and gave the defense its chance.
He was rewarded on the last play of the game with an easy interception on a Hail Mary throw in the end zone, his fifth pick of the season.
Once again, the defense managed to finish off the win, but 400 yards and 24 points against a one-dimensional offense missing over 60 percent of its offensive line is just not acceptable.
Vic Fangio also shoulders some of that responsibility. He rarely sends more than four linemen to pressure Ryan, who often looked bored waiting for a receiver to get open downfield. The all-out jailbreak blitz in the 11th hour made it easy to forget what happened during the first 59 minutes, but jeez, the 49ers can't continue giving quarterbacks a month-and-a-half to throw the football.
Still, the defense has played well enough all season to get a pass. The offense is another story.
One of the 49ers' biggest problems is an inability to drive the ball consistently for four quarters. They managed to score on every one of their possessions in the second half against the Falcons, but they were completely out of rhythm for the first 30 minutes, failing to move the ball and control the clock despite facing one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL.
To this point, I've blamed injuries, Greg Roman and Colin Kaepernick for most of the team's problems on offense. Now that everyone's healthy, I only have two people to throw under the bus.
Roman's a clever guy who often outsmarts himself. He also runs plays that would cause a four-year-old to scream profanities at the TV.
The best example was when San Francisco had the ball in Atlanta territory and handed the ball off on 3rd-and-2 with 10 defenders crowding the line. Jon Gruden called out the play-calling almost as accurately as he describes an offensive playbook.
While the 49ers were able to limit the amount of timeouts they usually burn to avoid delay-of-game penalties, it took a long time for the offense to break out of its funk, something that might cost the team when up against high-scoring units like Philadelphia or Chicago. The defense can't be expected to force a stasis whenever the offense stops moving the football. Remember the Super Bowl?
I do, even though I try not to.
Given how good the 49ers defense is, the strength of the offensive line and the weapons in the running and passing game, you could stick Mark Sanchez in at quarterback and this team would only lose by 10 points.
How tough are the 49ers when Kaepernick is throwing the football well?
San Francisco is 14-0 when its starting quarterback has a QB rating of 90.0 or higher.
Kapernick's 108.6 rating on Monday looked impressive on paper, but he threw for under 200 yards and played badly in the first half. Several of his throws were off-target and failed to hit the receivers in stride, and on one play he did a hilarious 180 in the pocket and ran into a defender when there was relatively little pressure up front. He also made the inexplicable mistake of throwing the ball in the direction of Vance McDonald.
Just as it was when Alex Smith was under center, the offense only seems to score touchdowns when it absolutely needs to. In the last two games, the 49ers' final TDs were scored by the defense and special teams.
Kaepernick needs to continue working through his progressions and looking in another direction if his first read is bottled up. That shouldn't be too hard to do when there are four viable targets running around the field. If he can sling the ball around like Joe and Steve used to do so often, the 49ers can't be stopped.
It's actually a good thing that the Niners are being tested in every game, and unlike last year, the season finale against the Cardinals won't be a cakewalk. Both teams have something to play for, and if the 49ers can thrust into the playoffs with their sixth straight win, winning three games on the road won't seem improbable.
And who knows, considering how terrible the Seahawks played last week, maybe the 49ers haven't played their last game at Candlestick Park. Unlike the Beatles, the players want to return to the field a few more times.
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