The Atlanta Falcons' offense completed the comeback during Sunday's rousing 29-22 road victory against the San Francisco 49ers, but it was the defense that made it possible in the first place.
While the latter half of the fourth quarter featured explosive plays and memorable moments, the first three-and-a-half quarters felt more like a heavyweight boxing match with neither combatant flinching. Following the bye week, the Falcons' defense has displayed marked improvement and their most recent performance was among their very best.
"We knew we would have to have a good road mentality to come out here," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "The last couple of times on the road we won at New Orleans and Carolina and here. You've got to really be connected to make sure you're ready for a fight, and we knew this was a very good team."
San Francisco (11-3) entered this matchup ranked fourth in yards per game (388.6), second in rushing yards per game (149.1) and averaging 30.5 points per game, the second-most in the NFL. Against the Falcons (5-9), that prolific offense gained 313 yards, 120 of which came on the ground, and scored just 22 points.
Through the first three quarters, the 49ers had produced 240 total yards and 13 points. The stinginess the Falcons showed, defensively, on the road against a team slated as the NFC's No. 1 seed for the playoffs, was remarkable and had as much to do with Atlanta's win as Julio Jones' 5-yard touchdown catch to actually secure it.
"I think that team played better than us today," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "I didn't see our guys not playing hard. I think our guys played hard, they just played better than us and coached better."
Despite many moments that felt crushing and deflating, such as multiple roughing-the-passer penalties that extended drives, the Falcons rarely made it easy for Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers. Atlanta allowed just one run over 10 yards – a 37-yarder by former Falcon Tevin Coleman in the second quarter – and five passes that went for more than 15 yards.
The 49ers were often forced to meticulously drive down the field, and to their credit, they appeared to have done that enough to win the game. San Francisco's most impressive drive of the afternoon was a 21-play journey that covered 83 yards, took 10 minutes and 43 seconds, and resulted in the first touchdown of the game.
"Whenever you're going against a defense kind of like that, that style, you know it's going to be long drives," Garoppolo said. "They're not going to give up many big plays. Yeah, 21 plays, it was a while and it felt like that out there."
Yet more often than not, the Falcons bent but didn't break. Atlanta held San Francisco to three field goals on other drives, and the only other 49ers' touchdown came after Kenjon Barner fumbled on a punt return that set San Francisco up at the 1-yard line.
On the biggest drive of the game, Atlanta's swarming unit once again buckled down when it mattered.
Holding onto a 19-17 lead with 5:15 remaining in the contest, the 49ers began a drive at their 25-yard line looking to salt the game away or put it further out of reach with a touchdown. A 29-yard catch-and-run by Deebo Samuel, the 49ers' longest pass play of the game, quickly moved the ball to Atlanta's 34-yard line, but the home team wouldn't get much further.
Just two plays later, San Francisco faced a third-and-4 at Atlanta's 28-yard line. Garoppolo, as he did early and often on Sunday, looked towards tight end George Kittle on the crucial down. Kittle, who finished with 13 catches for 134 yards and looked as impressive as his reputation would suggest, fumbled the ball and fell on it just short of the first-down marker. The 49ers opted for a field goal, taking a 22-17 lead with 1:52 left in the game.
As they did throughout the afternoon, the Falcons' defense had done its job. Their reward? Never again having to set foot on the Levi's Stadium turf and watching the offense complete the comeback.
Matt Ryan, Jones and the rest of the Falcons' offense will deservedly get a lot of credit for their role in securing the team's second road victory against one of the NFC's elite, but it was the defense's Rocky-esque resilience that made the final haymaker possible.
"It was a blood-and-guts kind of day for all sides, and it was a helluva fight," Quinn said.