ATLANTA -- It was power against power, blocker against tackler, face mask to face mask. It was the type of situation Mike Nolan, who has emphasized a power-running attack since taking over the San Francisco 49ers 2½ years ago, relishes.
On the shadow of the goal line in the fourth quarter Sunday, the 49ers needed just one yard on third down to take the lead and take over the game from the quickly fatiguing Falcons. And even if the 49ers were stuffed for no gain, Nolan said later, he was prepared to go for the touchdown on fourth down.
He never got the chance.
Running back Michael Robinson lost three yards when he was chased down from behind by safety Lawyer Milloy, forcing the 49ers to settle for a short field goal that brought them within one point.
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San Francisco would get no closer. Its final three offensive possessions ended in a punt and two interceptions, and the 49ers fell 20-16 to the Falcons, a team that entered the game with one win and a locker room full of issues.
"This was a very winnable game for us," said defensive end Bryant Young, who returned for a 14th season because he felt the 49ers would return to the playoffs. "We hoped this would be the beginning of a winning streak, but it wasn't. You've got to give Atlanta credit. They fought hard. The team that won made the least mistakes."
Heading into this game, the 49ers (2-6) had managed to convince themselves that all was not lost by pointing to last year's 2-5 start.
Beginning with a narrow win at home over Minnesota, the 2006 team won three consecutive games to crawl back to .500 and put itself back into the playoff race.
Early on, it looked as if a new streak might begin in Atlanta.
On their first offensive possession, the 49ers put together a 10-play drive that ended when Maurice Hicks -- filling in for injured starter Frank Gore -- found room on the left side and ran into the end zone from nine yards away. Quarterback Alex Smith was 4 of 6 on the drive and looked more comfortable and pain-free than he did last week when New Orleans dealt several shots to his still-mending right shoulder.
Smith, however, continued to struggle on some of his deeper passes. In the second quarter, he overthrew receiver Bryan Gilmore on a third-and-nine pass that, if accurate, likely would have resulted in an 87-yard touchdown. Smith overthrew several other receivers until the third quarter when he took something off his pass and floated a nice-looking throw to Vernon Davis for a 20-yard gain.
Smith threw three interceptions one when he tried to force a pass to Davis and fumbled once when he was hit from behind by defensive end John Abraham.
Asked if he was compensating for his shoulder injury, Smith said no.
"I felt good today," he said. "The shoulder felt healthy. It will get better and better every week. It's only been five weeks since I tore it."
Despite the turnovers, the 49ers seemed poised to take control of the game midway through the fourth quarter.
Down four points, they marched 76 yards and looked very much like the team that dominated opponents in the running game last season.
After a 20-yard run by Robinson, left guard Larry Allen raised his arms in exultation and Davis started pumping his fists.
The Falcons were on the ropes.
On second and goal from the 10, a harried Smith dumped the ball to Davis, who looked as if he would score before being tackled from behind at the 1. Nolan called timeout, the first of two he would burn early in the quarter. Nolan said he not only wanted to go over the third-down call, but also what the 49ers would do on fourth down if the they were unsuccessful on third.
In a scenario reminiscent of last year's loss in St.Louis, however, the respite seemed to give the tired defense a chance to catch its breath. Not only did the Falcons stuff the offensive line, they tackled Robinson for a loss when he tried to run to the outside.
Still, nearly eight minutes remained in the game at that point, but the 49ers couldn't muster any more offense.