ATLANTA — They didn't throw helmets or curse the officials. There weren't even many tears inside the Atlanta Falcons locker room following Sunday's 28-24 loss to San Francisco in the NFC championship game.
Given the 17-0 lead the Falcons held six minutes into the second quarter in their own Georgia Dome, perhaps they were just too numb to react at all.
Especially after they reached the 49ers' 10-yard-line with 1:18 to go, victory 30 feet away, but could advance no farther.
"One play, 10 yards, and we're going to the Super Bowl," tight end Tony Gonzalez said after what is expected to be the final game of a 16-year, Hall of Fame-caliber career.
"But it didn't happen. In a way it feels like all the other losses I've had in the playoffs. They all hurt."
They may all hurt, but not many are as difficult to explain as what happened to Atlanta in the final 38 minutes as the 49ers staged the greatest comeback in NFC title-game history.
In what is surely bitter irony for Falcons followers, Atlanta's 13-point winning rally against Minnesota in the conference finale was previously the largest ever.
"Everything went well for us in the first half," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said of Atlanta's 24-14 lead at intermission. "I felt like if we didn't turn it over, we'd have a good chance to win."
To the dismay of the 70,863 jammed inside the Dome, the Falcons did just that. Twice. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan lost a fumble and threw an interception.
Neither miscue directly led to points. San Francisco missed a field goal following the interception, then fumbled on the goal line after the fumble.
But Atlanta couldn't move from the shadow of its own goal line after the 49ers' lone miscue, and San Fran's next drive -- begun at the Falcons' 38 -- led to the game-winning touchdown. Running back Frank Gore scored in from 8 yards out to put the visitors up 28-24.
"Those two turnovers gave them the advantage in turnover ratio," said Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose team outgained San Francisco 396-233 in total yards. "When you don't win the turnover ratio in the playoffs, you're not going to win the football game."
Yet in those final two minutes, the Falcons looked as if they would do just that, reaching the San Francisco 10 for a third-and-4 play with 1:18 on the clock and two timeouts, if needed.
Ryan fired first toward White, who appeared to be open around the 5, but the ball was batted down by linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Then his fourth-down pass to White over the middle fell incomplete.
Just like that, the 17-0 lead six seconds into the second period was over. So, too, the 184-yard statistical advantage in total offense after one period. All those red and black Mardi Gras beads the Falcons' fans had expected to tote to New Orleans for the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 were now being stuffed into purses and pockets.
"We were trying to accomplish this for the city of Atlanta," said safety William Moore, mindful that the Falcons franchise has never won a Super Bowl in its 47 years in the NFL.
"The fans have showed us such support all season -- the noise today was amazing -- but we fell short for them. We had it in our hands, and we let it get it away."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...