ATLANTA — There's one moment from the Atlanta Falcons' 28-24 loss to San Francisco in Sunday's NFC title game that won't be fading into oblivion any time soon.
It's going to leave a mark, bring nightmares, cause arguments between those in Falcons Nation who want to move on and those who can't.
It will be the image of the Georgia Dome six seconds into the second quarter, Atlanta having just taken a preposterous 17-0 lead following Julio Jones' second touchdown grab of the day.
At that moment you thought the only threat to this victory was the Dome somehow exploding from the deafening noise and outrageous energy of 70,863 red-clad fanatics going nutso with joy.
"Loudest crowd ever," safety William Moore said. "Best crowd ever. It's why you work so hard to get the home field for the playoffs."
And the home team didn't just lead the favored 49ers by 17 points. It led 202 to minus-2 in total yardage one play into the second quarter. This wasn't a game. This was a coronation for the new NFC champ.
Even San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh admiringly said of those first 15 minutes and six seconds: "[Atlanta quarterback] Matt Ryan and his receivers were perfect. Those guys were perfection."
Or a perfect mirage. For then they disappeared, their perfection as fleeting as the truth around Lance Armstrong or a living, breathing girlfriend around former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
In their place came the Falcons that a week ago blew all of that 27-7 lead against Seattle before a miracle finish saved them. Or the team that lost listlessly to Tampa Bay in the final regular-season game. Or by 10 at Carolina in mid-December.
Over the final weeks of the regular season and their two playoff games, Atlanta became the girl with the curl: When she was good -- as in the 34-0 thumping of the Giants or the 31-18 win at Detroit -- she was very, very good. But when she was bad she was horrid.
This isn't to imply that there's any disgrace in this defeat. Not when the oddmakers in Las Vegas had made the 49ers a 3.5- to 4-point favorite. Vegas doesn't do emotion. Vegas is as cold as Wall Street.
There was a reason San Fran was favored, and it could be argued it's the reason they won.
As Falcons wideout Harry Douglas said afterward, "Give the 49ers credit: They made more plays than we did."
And none of those plays was bigger than the final one, the Falcons facing a fourth-and-4 at the San Fran 10, 1:13 on the clock, Atlanta trailing by four.
History will show that Ryan, with little pressure, chose to go over the middle to Roddy White, whom he had tried to hit the play before, that pass being batted down at the line.
This time 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman bumped White, but apparently not enough to draw interference. Out of downs, the Falcons were about to be out of time.
"The defense kind of fooled us," said tight end Tony Gonzalez. "It looked like it wasn't going to be open, but then it came open."
Added White: "We didn't think they were going to play that. Good job by their coaching staff dialing it up and getting that fourth-down stop."
It was a good job by Atlanta's coaching staff to get the 17-0 lead. It's been an outstanding job by Smith these past five autumns to be the only team in the NFC to post winning records all five years, even if his playoff record is now 1-4.
But this latest loss makes you wonder if Smith isn't the Bobby Cox of the NFL, a coach built for the regular season rather than the playoffs, a coach whose team's standard best isn't often good enough against the best.
Falcons fans have every right to think this might have ended differently if running back Michael Turner hadn't gone to the sideline in the second half with an injured ankle. Maybe if Ryan hadn't turned it over twice in the third quarter. Maybe if a defense gashed by Seattle tight end Zach Miller last week had made corrections before 49ers tight end Vernon Davis totaled 106 yards and a touchdown Sunday.
But the reality is that the Falcons are done, along with the New England Patriots, which will force the sports world to endure two weeks of the Harbaugh Bowl -- the 49ers' Jim about to face his brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, for all the marbles.
And the Atlanta fans need to be careful whom they lash out at in their bitterness. Just after the game ended, a Falcons fan punched a 49ers fan, who then stabbed him with a knife, so the Birds fans couldn't win that skirmish, either. Apparently they haven't heard you never bring a fist to a knife fight.
But Sunday will be remembered mostly for what didn't happen inside the Georgia Dome -- a Falcons victory to advance them to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season.
"We came out like gangbusters in the first half," Gonzalez said. "We should have continued that in the second half."
Maybe next year.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...