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Loss to Falcons low point of 49ers’ season

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SANTA CLARA — Humiliating loss.

The 49ers, who aspire to win the Super Bowl this season, lost at home to the four-win Atlanta Falcons Sunday afternoon. Lost 29-22 and gave up two touchdowns in the final five seconds. Afterward, the Falcons, who were eliminated from the playoff race weeks ago, did backflips on the 49ers field.

Humiliating.

“We didn’t come out to play nearly as hard as they did,” rookie defensive end Nick Bosa said bluntly at his locker.

The 49ers were coming off the most difficult three-game stretch in NFL regular-season history — they played three teams with excellent records and beat two of them. Plus, the 49ers have two big upcoming games against division rivals, the Rams and Seahawks. The Falcons were the 49ers’ weakest remaining opponent, and the 49ers still lost. Now, they’ve dropped three of their past six games.

Humiliating for a team that started the season so well.

“I don’t think we played with any type of intensity,” tight end George Kittle said.

Kittle certainly played with intensity, although the rest of the offense did not, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who threw for just 200 yards. Most of his throws went to Kittle, who caught 13 passes for 134 yards and broke Mike Ditka’s record for most receiving yards by a tight end during the first three seasons of his career. Ditka’s record was 2,774 receiving yards. Kittle now has 2,780.

“That does not matter at all,” Kittle said about breaking the record. He couldn’t enjoy his own accomplishment.

The defense played with intensity most of the game, even though the 49ers were missing several key defensive players, including cornerback Richard Sherman, nickelback K’Waun Williams, strong safety Jaquiski Tartt and defensive end Dee Ford. The 49ers still held the Falcons to just 10 points through the first 54 minutes.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the 49ers led 19-10. That’s when their beat-up, undermanned defense began to wear down. With 5:28 left, free safety Jimmie Ward grabbed Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones in the end zone as Jones tried to catch a touchdown. The officials flagged Ward for pass interference and gave the Falcons the ball at the 1-yard line. One play later, running back Qadree Ollison burst into the end zone and cut the 49ers’ lead to just two points.

The 49ers got the ball with 5:15 left. They didn’t have to score — they merely had to run out the clock. And they almost did. With 1:59 left, Garoppolo completed a short pass to Kittle, who had room to run for the first down, but he fumbled and the ball rolled out of bounds short of the first-down marker.

Not humiliating, but uncharacteristic for such a terrific player.

“Just dropped it,” Kittle admitted. “Tried to switch hands with it so I could stiff arm (the defender). Didn’t work out well for me.”

At this point, the 49ers faced fourth and one from the Falcons’ 25-yard line. Head coach Kyle Shanahan could have tried to pick up the first down and win the game with his offense. Instead, the 49ers kicked a 43-yard field goal and took a 22-17 lead with 1:52 left in the game. Shanahan hoped his wilted, fading defense could keep the Falcons out of the end zone.

“I wanted to make them go the whole field and see if they could get a touchdown,” he said.

They got the touchdown.

With eight seconds left, Matt Ryan threw a touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper. This play would have won the game, but the officials reviewed the catch and determined the ball hit the ground. Incomplete, and the 49ers in control.

On the next play, with just five seconds left, Ryan threw a short pass to his top receiver, Jones, and Ward appeared to tackle him one inch in front of the goal line. The 49ers ran on the field to celebrate a sure victory, but the officials waved them back to the sideline and reviewed the play, and the replay showed the ball broke the plane of the goal line. The Falcons took a 23-22 lead.

On the final play of the game, the Falcons kicked off to Deebo Samuel, who larteralled to Richie James Jr., who lateralled to Raheem Mostert, who threw the ball back across the field to no one. The Falcons recovered the ball and walked into the end zone.

Humiliating.

“I hope our team learns from this game that if we don’t bring the intensity, we will have a quick season-ender,” Kittle said.

The 49ers can’t afford to play this poorly the rest of the season.

But, despite this humiliation, the 49ers clinched a playoff berth, because the dismal Los Angeles Rams lost. If the 49ers win their two remaining games, they will earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. They still can achieve all of their goals.

“That’s cool,” Shanahan said, “but it doesn’t make me feel better right now.”

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