As a lifelong fan of football, and someone who vividly remembers back to the Bartkowski years, I'd be lying if I said that the loss to the 49ers didn't hurt more than almost any game I've watched the Falcons play. More than the 1998 Super Bowl loss. More than the 1980 loss to Dallas. More than the Vick lead loss to the Eagles in the NFC Championship.
As a fan, my initial reaction was to look for who to blame. Was it Ryan and the fumble in the fourth quarter? Or maybe it was the defense and their inability to stop Kaepernick. Maybe it was the coaches - maybe they did something that kept this team from excelling. Or maybe it was special teams - unable to pin back the 49ers deep enough when we needed it.
And here's the thing: all of those were factors. But none of them was the sole factor. Football is deeper than that, where a single play or a single call is never the deciding factor of the whole game. There are always plays and points left on the field and there's always another team across the line of scrimmage. To say a team "lost" a game often ignores the fact that the other team was also capable of winning it.
When the final score is 28-24, you were likely treated to a close and hard fought game between two equally matched teams. And I believe that's what we saw on Sunday. Does that mean San Francisco is the better team? Yes - on Sunday, they were. Does it mean if these teams played again we'd see the same outcome? No - not necessarily. And it is in that fact that I take some solace.
Here's the thing: In the 2010 playoffs, the Green Bay Packers exposed this team. They dominated our defense and our offense and embarrassed the team in the process. The 2011 playoffs saw our offense go completely scoreless and lose in another disheartening and disappointing fashion. This year was different. Were some flaws exposed? Absolutely. But we were not destroyed or embarrassed. This team showed up for both games and fought back when the other teams responded. In the end, we were one or two passes away from a Super Bowl berth, but that is light years better than having never competed at all.
In many ways, our season mirrors what San Francisco went through last year. Garnering a 13-3 record and home field advantage, the 49ers were largely dismissed as certain losers in their home playoff game against the Saints. The 49ers managed to put down a hot Saints team in the last minute of the game and go on to the NFC Championship game. Against the Giants, the 49ers fought hard but a few critical mistakes ultimately cost them a trip to the Super Bowl. And that same team is now going to the Super Bowl the year after.
The 2012 season for the Falcons is over, but this is not a franchise that is done. Many of the critical pieces for success are in place, and our QB took a huge step forward. While my heart was broken, it still remains hopeful that next season WILL be better and that our team will finally take that final, grand step.