ATLANTA — At long last, it appeared, the losing was over.
And then Nate Clements lost the ball.
A season that's included a pair of punchless losses added its second punch-in-the-gut defeat Sunday as the 49ers lost to the Falcons, 16-14, at the Georgia Dome on Matt Bryant's 43-yard field goal with two seconds left, a boot that gave Atlanta its only lead of the afternoon and was preceded by Clements' soul-crushing fumble.
"We are," said Niners linebacker Patrick Willis, "our own worst enemy."
Indeed, Bryant's game-winner was set up 89 seconds earlier by Clements' apparently game-sealing interception. With San Francisco leading 14-13 and 1:31 left, Clements swooped over the middle to pick off a pass intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez at the Falcons 49 and sprinted down the left sideline.
As Clements ran behind a convoy of blockers, it wasn't clear if he was going to score. But there was little question he had secured the Niners' first win after an 0-3 start — a victory that showed their resilience after the preceding seven days had included a dispiriting 21-point loss, the firing of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye and the loss of starting safety Michael Lewis, who requested his release Friday.
Instead of overcoming all that adversity, though, they couldn't stand prosperity.
With the ball hanging loosely in left hand, Clements had it punched out from behind at the Atlanta 10-yard line by Falcons wide receiver Roddy White. Falcons offensive lineman Harvey Dahl recovered it at the 7.
Clements exited the locker room quickly after the game and did not speak to reporters.
And Niners coach Mike Singletary, in explaining why he didn't speak to Clements after the fumble, underscored just how painful the miscue was.
"I didn't talk to Nate," Singletary said. "There was nothing to say after that."
Tight end Vernon Davis said he thought the game was over as he watched Clements run free.
"I said that to myself that we got this game," Davis said. "I thought that we had it."
Even after Clements' fumble, the Niners hadn't lost it.
With 82 seconds and three timeouts left, Atlanta still needed to go about 60 yards to get into field-goal range. But their resulting 12-play, 68-yard drive had a certain sense of inevitability as the San Francisco defense, which stayed on the field for 19 consecutive plays in a three-minute, 38-second span, finally wilted.
"It felt like the longest three minutes of my life," Willis said.
With 3:40 left, the Niners had limited the high-powered Falcons (3-1) to 260 yards, 125 below their season average. In addition, quarterback Matt Ryan, after completing 10 of his first 12 passes, had misfired on 6 of his next 16 and White, who had a franchise-record 210 yards against the 49ers last year, had been limited to three catches and 44 yards.
But Ryan and White connected four times for 60 yards in the final four minutes, none more crucial than a 20-yard laser White grabbed in traffic on the right sideline to give the Falcons a first down at the Niners 39 with 52 seconds left.
Linebacker Takeo Spikes conceded the defense was gassed, but still seemed shocked the Niners didn't leave with their first win.