ATLANTA – It was theirs for the taking. But in the end, the Falcons took the ball away when it mattered most, and then they took the game too.
Leading 14-13 at the two-minute warning, the 49ers needed one last defensive stop to preserve their first win of 2010. It seemed like it would happen, they had been stopping the Falcons all game long.
They got the stop all right, but did not get the win.
Nate Clements intercepted Matt Ryan with 1:31 left in the game and proceeded to run 37 yards down the left sideline, but he was stripped from behind by Falcons wideout Roddy White.
With possession and new life at their own 7, Ryan marched the Falcons down the field on 12 plays to set up a 43-yard field goal by Matt Bryant. It put the finishing touches on Atlanta's improbable 16-14 home victory.
"All we needed was a stop to get the ball back and then we could run the clock out. We had our opportunity… we just didn't get it done," linebacker Joe Staley said on a day in which the 49ers held the Falcons out of the end zone on three of four red zone possessions.
The self-inflicted wounds were the main reason the 49ers could not pull out a victory. Two costly interceptions by quarterback Alex Smith also figured in the outcome.
"Two critical errors. In the end you look back and it cost us the game," Smith said after he completed 21-of-32 attempts for 188 yards with one touchdown and the two aforementioned interceptions.
For all the lack of offensive production in the second half, it appeared as if the new-look 49ers offense was off to great things at the beginning of the game.
With Mike Johnson making his debut as offensive coordinator, the 49ers marched 88 yards on 10 plays to score their first touchdown on an opening drive since Dec. 28, 2008 against Washington.
"I really think Mike did a nice job, putting a plan together that could attack them effectively and made them protect the whole field," head coach Mike Singletary said. "I think we kept them off-balanced for the most part, we kept them thinking."
Eight different receivers caught passes for the 49ers, most notably seven catches by running back Frank Gore for 60 yards, five catches by wideout Michael Crabtree for 58 yards, and four catches by tight end Vernon Davis for 36 yards.
Davis scored the game's first touchdown on a quick 12-yard pass that saw a herculean effort from the Pro Bowl tight end. Davis received a great downfield block from rookie right tackle Anthony Davis on the play, who paved way for the tight end with his last name to run through multiple defenders before stretching over the goal line to score his first touchdown of the season.
The 49ers weren't done scoring in the opening quarter.
The punt return team provided the first special teams points of the season when wide receiver Dominique Zeigler rushed up the middle to block Michael Koenen's punt from Atlanta's 12-yard line. Taylor Mays, who made his first career start at safety and finished with a team-high 11 tackles, did an excellent job of catching the ball in mid-air while sticking both feet in bounds.
"We went for an all-out rush and blocked the punt," Mays said. "I saw the ball in the air and I knew I needed two feet in bounds. It was kind of like I was a receiver on the play."
It was the 49ers first punt blocked recovered for a touchdown since Oct., 5, 1987 at New York, and an excellent way to start on the road. The 49ers had only totaled 16 points in their two prior road contests of the season.
The Falcons responded by way of their own 12-play, 71-yard scoring drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to wide receiver Harry Douglas to make the score 14-7.
Atlanta looked to be in good standing to add more points to the scoreboard, but the 49ers red zone defense put a stop to it.
Cornerback Shawntae Spencer picked off Ryan at the six-yard line when the third-year signal caller's pass went through the arms of Takeo Spikes and would stay up in the air long enough for Spencer to make the diving interception.
And while Smith started strong completing his first eight passes of the game, he made a crucial mistake in the two-minute drill to close out the first half. With the ball just outside of field goal range, Smith's dump-off to Frank Gore sailed over his running back's head and into the arms of linebacker Curtis Lofton.
Ryan took advantage of the mistake. He found Tony Gonzalez over the middle for a nine-yard gain (it put Gonzalez over the 12,000 receiving yard mark) and then found Douglas on a post pattern for 34 yards.
But for the second drive in a row, the 49ers defense prevented a red zone touchdown. Ryan's third-down deep ball for Roddy White was well defended by Spencer, forcing Matt Bryant to trot out to make a 37-yard field goal. It put the halftime score at 14-10 in favor of the 49ers, but it wouldn't be Bryant's last field goal to close out a half.
On the opening drive of the second half, Smith threw his second interception of the game. Atlanta safety William Moore sagged off Davis and read Smith's ball intended for wideout Josh Morgan.
On the next play following the turnover, Michael Turner carried 27 yards over left tackle to put the Falcons at the 49ers 27-yard line. It was the longest run of the game by the NFC's No. 2 ranked run offense entering the game. Turner picked up 50 yards on 16 carries for an average of 3.1 yards per carry.
Gore, his counterpart, led all rushers with 77 yards on 21 carries.
After a personal foul penalty on linebacker Parys Haralson, the 49ers defense toughened up once more in the red zone, forcing another Bryant field goal, this time from 31 yards out.
For Smith's two interceptions, two field goals would be the difference. The 49ers did not score after the opening quarter and saw their two-touchdown lead finally dissipate as Bryant's game-winner sailed through the upright s with two seconds remaining in the game.
As Singletary pointed after the game, the 49ers need to stop beating themselves if they want to win.
"We have to stop doing things to hurt ourselves. In the first four games," he said. "That's kind of the story of the 49ers right now.
"We're shooting ourselves in the foot…We've got to grow up real fast."