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Falcons vs. 49ers: Three Pivotal Plays

The Falcons very nearly put themselves in a position to win in Candlestick Park on Monday, but the issues that have plagued the Falcons throughout the 2013 season reared their ugly heads to seal the loss.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

If you just looked at the stat line, and not the score, you might think the Falcons had won against the 49ers on Monday. Matt Ryan threw for 348 yards and two touchdowns, and Steven Jackson added a touchdown on the ground. Roddy White had 141 receiving yards on 12 catches. The Falcons defense limited the Niners to 44% third down efficiency and sacked Colin Kaepernick three times. Atlanta managed 30:28 in time of possession.

It really came down to a handful of plays that sum up the 2013 season. Weird play calls, getting gouged for big gains on rushing plays at crucial times, dumb penalties and turnovers at the worst possible time all contributed to the loss against the Niners.

Our first pivotal play came on the first offensive series of the first quarter. The Falcons had managed to get a fresh set of downs and were starting from their own 31 yard line. The Falcons have tended to throw short passes this season that rarely work out very well, and this was one of those situations.

Matt Ryan takes the snap out of the shotgun, and he has Steven Jackson in the backfield beside him. You can see all of the offensive linemen turning to look at Ryan for the count. The silent count was a pretty reasonable approach, considering the noise in Candlestick. Hey, I'm not sure if you heard, but Monday's game was the last regular season game in Candlestick Park. People were pretty excited about it.

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At full speed, this doesn't look like a check down, it looks like a designed play. I think Ryan was going for the quickest release possible to keep the 49ers pass rush at bay. You can see that, if Jackson is the intended receiver, he's not going to get far. Patrick Willis is right there. It's not a great idea.

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And, Jackson is dropped for a loss, giving the Falcons a second and 13. Steven Jackson would gain two yards rushing on the next play, but third down was an incomplete pass to Roddy White, forcing the Falcons to punt. It was an inauspicious start.

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Regardless of the slow start, the Falcons went into halftime with a lead. Things would shift in the third quarter to Atlanta's disadvantage, as they often do. The 2013 Falcons have been extremely susceptible to giving up big plays, on the ground and through the air, and Monday's game was no different.

The Falcons really needed to get the third quarter off to a strong start, but the idea of a strong third quarter from the Falcons this season is pretty far-fetched. Regardless, the Falcons forced a third down and five on San Francisco's 22 yard line on the first Niners series of the third quarter, despite a five yard penalty assessed on Osi Umenyiora that negated the previous third down attempt, which was an incomplete pass.

Colin Kaepernick is in the shotgun with Kendall Hunter in the backfield with him. The Falcons defense is in the nickel. Both safeties are deep, and Omar Gaither and Paul Worrilow are in at linebacker.  Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are lined up on receivers at the line of scrimmage. Robert McClain is playing nickel, lined up against Michael Crabtree.

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Gaither adjusts the coverage prior to the snap, and moves up to the line of scrimmage, while Worrilow adjusts his position, also.

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The Falcons rush five, and Gaither very nearly beats his guy on the edge, but Kaepernick releases the ball to Crabtree before any Falcons can get to him.

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It's a 20-yard reception for Crabtree, and I don't really even know what McClain is doing here.

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Crabtree has position on McClain, and he adds several yards to the catch before being pushed out of bounds by McClain at the Atlanta 31 yard line. It's a 47-yard play, one of 16 passing plays of 40 or more yards the Falcons defense has surrendered this season.

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The pivotal play that put the game out of reach for the Falcons was extremely representative of this heartbreaker of a season. The Falcons were in a position to execute a signature fourth quarter game-winning, or at least game-tying, drive, and alas, they did not.

It's late in the fourth quarter. The Falcons are down 27-24 with 1:31 to play, and they've got a second and one on the San Francisco ten yard line after Jason Snelling recovered a Falcons onside kick with just one hand. Everything appears to be going their way. With a touchdown, all they have to do is keep the Niners from scoring again, and the win is theirs.

Ryan takes the snap out of the shotgun, with Steven Jackson in the backfield. Harry Douglas and Roddy White are spread wide to either side, and Drew Davis is in the slot. The Niners are clearly going to blitz, and they send eight guys at Ryan.

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Now, people have given Ryan a ton of grief for this play, which was a pass intended for Harry Douglas. Ryan, however, is hit as he throws, yet the pass is still generally on target.

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Douglas and Tramaine Brock fight for the ball, and it's bobbled right into Navorro Bowman's hands. Bowman is gone.

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Drew Davis, to his great credit, does his best to run down Bowman to no avail, but I appreciated the hustle.

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And, that was pretty much the moment that all hope slipped away. Trailing by ten points, the Falcons got the ball back for another shot, but the game ended when Brock intercepted a Matt Ryan pass in the end zone intended for Levine Toilolo.

What were your pivotal plays of the game?