What if Falcons had given this effort all season?

Credit: Kelley L Cox

Credit: Kelley L Cox

When the Falcons made pedestrian quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon resemble stars, they responded to criticism by preaching it wasn’t for lack of toughness or resiliency, and vowed the mistakes would be corrected.

When they were smacked four straight weeks by an average of 18.5 points and it became clear that not only had toughness and resiliency indeed fled town but they took urgency, passion and maybe consciences with them, we were scolded for suggesting this team had quit on the season.

So consider what unfolded in game No. 15 Monday night as affirmation.

Good and bad.

The Falcons nearly pulled off an unfathomable upset — on the road, against a Super Bowl contender, amid the pageantry of a stadium closing — before losing to San Francisco 34-24 at Candlestick Park.

Question: Where has this team been all season?

Because if the Falcons had shown this degree of effort, even an edge, against the Dolphins, Jets, Bucs, Cardinals, Seahawks, Panthers and the equally wounded Packers, they wouldn’t be 4-11 going into the final week of this miserable season. Any lip service to the contrary is just organizational spin.

“We didn’t get the outcome we wanted and it hurts to lose — especially to the 49ers,” wide receiver Harry Douglas said. “It’s personal against them. I don’t ever want to lose to the 49ers. If you talk about us and teams [the Falcons dislike], the 49ers are right below the Saints in my opinion.”

OK. So the Falcons don’t like New Orleans. We know that. And after a series of comatose performances, they showed up for a Nov. 21 game against the Saints and played like it mattered.

OK. So the Falcons don’t like the 49ers. That was expected residual following last season’s NFC championship loss in the Georgia Dome. In Monday’s relative rematch, they played with purpose, even if not always great.

They lost both games but they had opportunities to win in the end. It’s easy to wonder if they could’ve stayed in a playoff hunt for a while if they had played with this drive all along, even with the injuries and shortcomings.

Effort leads to close games – games often decided by one play, one series.

“It’s not in this team’s character to quit playing no matter the situation,” guard Justin Blalock said. “We’ve been in lots of dire situations before and we’ve scratched and clawed our way in. Often times we’ve had some kind of gratuitous bounce in our favor. Obviously it didn’t play out like that [against San Francisco] but we didn’t give ourselves enough of a chance earlier in the evening to do so. … There were a plethora of plays that we could have made so the game wouldn’t have to hang in the balance on something that requires a lucky bounce.”

True. But the Falcons aren’t a very good team. That’s what made Monday’s near upset impressive.

They trailed 20-10 and 27-17 in the fourth quarter. The defense, after holding the 49ers to a field goal in the first half, got trampled in the second half. The net of four San Francisco possessions: 266 yards, three touchdowns, one field goal.

But the offense kept the team in it. Ryan threw touchdown passes to Roddy White (39 yards) and Tony Gonzalez (two). The Falcons trailed by a field goal (27-24). An onside kick was recovered by Jason Snelling. So the Falcons had the ball at the San Francisco 30 with 2:09 left and three timeouts (and the two-minute warning). They already were in position to at least tie the game and go to overtime.

Ryan completed consecutive passes to Douglas and Gonzalez, bringing a second-and-one at the 49ers’ 10. Then he looked over the middle for Douglas again. Douglas and defensive back Tramaine Brock both went for it. Four hands were on the ball before it bounced into the air. San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman lunged and grabbed it. He went 89 yards in the other direction. Checkmate.

Douglas: “I was just hoping [the ball] would hit the ground.”

Ryan: “I got hit after I threw so I didn’t see it. But I heard the crowd and then it got loud so you know it’s probably not good.”

He was asked if Monday’s game carried a little extra motivation for the Falcons.

“I think so,” Ryan said. “I think there’s a little bit extra because of the way [last] season ended for us against them. It was an emotional game. They played with a lot of passion. There probably was a little bit more to it, especially it being a Monday night game and the last game at Candlestick.”

Grudges, national TV and pageantry all can serve as extra motivation. But even in defeat, the Falcons only reaffirmed what they were capable of this season, even when wounded. Maybe they wouldn’t be 11-4. But they certainly wouldn’t be 4-11.