The football left Matt Ryan's right hand and floated gently toward the left corner of the end zone, a tantalizing testament to the home team's bravado. When Julio Jones rose up to seize it, the catch stood as a perfect metaphor for the way the Atlanta Falcons were grabbing hold of during Sunday's NFC championship game at the Georgia Dome.
As Jones ignored the flailing arms of cornerback Tarell Brown, corralled the ball and gracefully dragged his feet on the last available inches of green turf, the San Francisco 49ers absolutely seemed headed for a hard, inglorious fall.
Following the replay confirmation of Jones' second touchdown catch and Matt Bryant's extra point, the Niners – one play into the second quarter – trailed 17-0 and seemed to have misplaced their "Silver Linings Playbook". San Francisco had been outgained 202-to-minus-2 (yes, negative 2 yards) and had yet to record a first down. With the cacophonous cheers of 70,863 fans swirling through the climate-controlled air, the 49ers couldn't help but confront the distasteful possibility of a second consecutive NFC title game defeat.
"Obviously, it was stressful," San Francisco Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith said later. "We thought, 'What's going on here?' But we stayed calm. It was, 'Do your job, make plays, keep going.' This group never quits."
A lot of players on a lot of teams talk about plowing through adversity and fighting to the finish. On Sunday, the 49ers shook off their miserable start with deliberate, defiant dexterity.