When the 2-3 Atlanta Falcons marched straight down the field on their first, seven-ish-minute drive early on Sunday for an eventual touchdown, it was clear that the game — which on paper favored the San Francisco 49ers — was going to be tougher than expected. When Jeff Wilson fumbled the ball on the next possession and Atlanta recovered and scored to make it 14-0, it became even more painfully obvious that this wasn't going to be an easy W for the 49ers — and maybe not a W at all.
Niners fans no doubt took comfort on the next few possessions: San Francisco drove decisively down the field for a Brandon Aiyuk touchdown pass. Atlanta didn't hang onto the ball for long when they got it back, as the 49ers defense sacked Falcons' QB Marcus Mariota on a 3rd and 7. "Fourth down forced, and the Niners defense looking like the number 1 defense in the NFL," said the announcer.
Ray-Ray McCloud fielded that 4th-down punt and looked like he was going to get stuffed immediately, but he bounced off a tackle, exploded up the middle of the field, and ran the ball back nearly 40 yards, deep into Atlanta territory. Two minutes later, Brandon Aiyuk was running into the end zone again after a 10-ish yard catch and run to tie the game at 14-14.
Ok, then: Maybe Atlanta had just gotten a little lucky to start the game, before the favored red-and-gold began to assert itself. Mariota would be sacked again late in the second quarter, but had a 25-ish yard run on a 3rd and 13 to keep a drive alive, which culminated in an 8-ish yard Mariota touchdown run for a score of 21-14. Ok, then, that last analysis was wrong: Atlanta is definitely for real, and the prognostications on that piece of paper could officially be crumpled up and thrown out the window.
There were very few 49er highlights after that (and no more 49er scoring, as it turned out), while the Atlanta offense continued to roll, roll. Marcus Mariota didn't throw his first incomplete pass until early-ish in the fourth quarter; he had a 92.9% completion percentage and rushed for 50 yards. Even though the 49ers actually out-gained the Falcons 346 to 289 yards on the day, Atlanta's offense was lethally efficient, scoring again to make it 28-14.
Oh yeah, and turnovers. A Jimmy Garoppolo throw to Deebo Samuel early in the fourth bounced high in the air like a volleyball and was hauled in by Atlanta for the third 49ers giveaway of the day. The Falcons didn't score on the next possession, but managed to pin the 49ers on their own one-yard line with a surgical punt. San Francisco made a valiant drive late which showed some promise. Sure, they were down by two touchdowns, but maybe they could find a way. Maybe crumpling up that paper was a mistake, and the Niners were destined to realize their providence after all.
Alas, on a 4th and 1 around the Atlanta 25, Garoppolo threw and incomplete pass for an incomplete and unrealized comeback. Final score: 28-14. Final analysis: The 49ers were beaten by the better team; Atlanta's #11-ranked offense had its way with San Francisco's now #3 ranked defense. Current standings: The 49ers have fallen to 3-3, and are tied with the LA Rams, who won yesterday and are also 3-3, for the lead in the NFC West.
What sort of oversimplified conclusions can be applied yesterday's 49ers' loss?
Surely, the slew of Niners' injuries has taken its toll. "While the San Francisco 49ers technically might not be the most injured team in the NFL (as that's a pretty tough metric to quantify) it sure feels like they are," writes Clutch Points. "For seemingly the sixth week in a row, the team left the game with a few fewer players than they entered the contest with." (This reminds me of a quote from the TV show The West Wing: "It's really ok that after almost every play, somebody requires medical attention?")
Neither Nick Bosa nor Trent Williams played yesterday, but both may be back next week. "According to Kyle Shanahan, the calvary may soon be here, as Williams and Bosa, arguably the team’s top two players, could be back on the field in as little as seven days."
And what of even more simplified conclusions about what yesterday's loss means for the rest of the season? Yesterday was supposed to be easy, or at least totally doable, and it wasn't. (The Chicago Bears should have been easy in Week 1, as well, not to mention the Denver Broncos in Week 3.)
Piece-of-paper predictions for Week 7, anyone?
The 49ers will host the Kansas City Chiefs — who narrowly lost to the Buffalo Bills yesterday in the game of the day — next Sunday in Santa Clara. On paper, the Chiefs are favored, and the Niners are hoping to crumple up that narrative, and throw it out the window.
Top Image: Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images