Niners throw away opener

To begin their 2004 season of uncertainty, the 49ers seldom have looked much worse in a game they almost didn't lose Sunday afternoon. Killer turnovers, missed golden opportunities and a sporadic offense wasting a pretty good defensive effort were the telling story lines on a dismal day that almost was saved by some fourth-quarter heroics. But the Niners ultimately did too much wrong to deserve victory in their opener, and a 21-19 loss to the Atlanta Falcons seemed like an appropriate reward.

Amazingly, at the end of a yo-yo game that seemed decided long before it actually was, the Niners were lining up for a two-point conversion with 40 seconds to play that could have tied the score and sent the game into overtime.

But quarterback Tim Rattay's pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage, just like San Francisco's hopes were batted down every time the 49ers seemed about ready to get it right on an afternoon when plenty went wrong.

The image of a beaten Rattay afterward spoke volumes about the condition of the 49ers.

His right shoulder heavily taped – and, Rattay said, aching despite pain-killing injections – Rattay talked solemnly about not getting the job done. He took quite a beating, including a second-quarter sack in which he suffered a strained throwing shoulder – not to mention a headache that left him, "hazy," Rattay said – that forced him to leave the game. In came backup Ken Dorsey, who injured his throwing shoulder in the third quarter, forcing Rattay back into the game.

One game. Two injured quarterbacks. Rattay is listed as questionable for next week's game at New Orleans. Dorsey is probable.

There was nothing questionable in Rattay's mind about what was going on out there Sunday.

"It just came down to mistakes," said Rattay, who overcame a rocky start to throw for 175 yards and two touchdowns. "It's all about winning and losing. We didn't win, so obviously I didn't play well."

Rattay's worst moment – besides the sack that left him hurting the rest of the day – came just when it appeared the Niners might be able to salvage the afternoon.

An interception by Jeff Ulbrich midway through the third quarter led to a field goal that cut Atlanta's 14-3 halftime lead to 14-6 entering the final period. Rattay, back in for Dorsey – who had sparked the offense in Rattay's absence – methodically drove San Francisco to a first down at the Atlanta 3-yard line.

But two consecutive passes fell off the fingertips of San Francisco receivers in the end zone and, on third down, Rattay tried to hit Curtis Conway on a quick out near the goal line. Cornerback Aaron Beasley – who was shadowing halfback Kevan Barlow into the corner of the end zone – pealed off Barlow and stepped in front of Conway. Beasley returned the resulting interception 85 yards to set up Atlanta's final touchdown.

The rest of the game was all San Francisco. The Niners went on 72- and 64-yard touchdown drives in the final nine minutes, but the comeback fell short when the same thing happened to Rattay's conversion pass intended for Brandon Lloyd.

"We fought to the end," Barlow was saying afterward. "We almost pulled that one out."

That late rally from a 21-6 deficit with 8:57 remaining left the Niners with some room for encouragement, but it wasn't enough to erase the bungling play and critical errors that characterized San Francisco's performance during the first 50 minutes.

It didn't start out that way.

On the game's third play from scrimmage, Niners linebacker supreme Julian Peterson collared quarterback Michael Vick deep in the Atlanta backfield, stripping him of the ball on a play that resulted in a 21-yard loss.

On the next play, rookie Keith Lewis broke through the line and blocked Chris Mohr's punt, setting up the Niners at the Atlanta 20 for their first offensive play of the season.

End of 49ers highlights. Check back late in the first half for more.

The next 22 minutes were almost surreal for the Niners, beginning with Barlow's fumble on San Francisco's first offensive play from scrimmage, which handed the ball right back to the Falcons and ultimately sent them on their way to taking hold of this game, of which they never let go.

"There's absolutely no excuses," Barlow said after coughing up the ball on his very first carry as the team's featured rusher. "I should have held onto the ball. Who knows? If I don't fumble the first play, who knows what happens? The momentum goes our way and we bury them. But that's part of the game."

The Niners never got the momentum back until it was too late. They were ultimately doomed by their slow start, two critical turnovers and 10 penalties that bogged them down at crucial junctures. Despite holding a 359-227 edge in total yardage and a nearly seven-minute advantage in time of possession, San Francisco ultimately slumped away from a two-point loss in its opener that somehow seemed much uglier and much worse than the final numbers might indicate.

"There's not one area that we don't need to get better, obviously," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said.

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