After a 3-1 start that made them the talk of the NFL and the team to beat in the NFC West, the 49ers came crashing back to earth on Sunday with a head-scratching and momentum-stopping 45-10 upset loss to Atlanta that was the worst defeat San Francisco has ever absorbed in the 38 seasons it has played at Candlestick Park.
That kind of one-sided debacle, about as ugly as you'd want to see a team with postseason ambitions play, certainly suggests the 49ers at their mid-October bye week aren't exactly the legitimate contender they appeared to be through the first quarter of the season.
Or does it?
The 49ers can let those questions spin around in their heads for a couple weeks as they leave behind the first stage of their season with a 3-2 record that leaves them all alone in first place atop the NFC West.
They don't play again until Oct. 25 against the Houston Texans, a game that begins the telltale stretch of San Francisco's season. The 49ers play three consecutive games against teams from the AFC South, then face two NFC North teams that, like San Francisco, will be scratching for the playoffs.
A week after those games, the 49ers face back-to-back games against Seattle and Arizona, two teams San Francisco already has beaten but must stay ahead of to win its first NFC West championship since 2002.
Here's the question San Francisco will be facing from now until well into November: Will the real 49ers please stand up?
Is this the team that upset defending NFC champion Arizona on the road, routed Seattle at home, then after a last-second loss at undefeated Minnesota, blasted St. Louis 35-0 for the 49ers' first shutout in 119 games and most lopsided victory in 87 games?
Or the team that was blasted by the Falcons by 35 points at home a week later?
"We still have a good football team," linebacker Takeo Spikes said after the 49ers – who entered the game having allowed the second-fewest points per game in the NFL – allowed their most points on a Sunday since 2006. "Don't let anybody even try to put any doubt in your mind about that. It just happens. We learn from it and move on."
"But," Spikes continued, "we know the standard that has been set for us, and that's why it's so disappointing. But is it the end of the world? Absolutely not. You can either fold, tuck your tail like a dog and go run and hide, or you can get ready to scratch again next week. And that's what we're going to do."
The standard that had been set by the 49ers through the first quarter of the season was one that had clearly moved them into the upper half – if not the upper echelon – of the NFL.
Their defense was ranked sixth in the league and playing just about as well as anybody. And their offense, while struggling statistically, was producing points and also producing in the clutch.
The 49ers ranked third in the league in point differential and would have been 4-0 if not for a fluke 32-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre to a third-string receiver on the back line of the end zone in the final seconds of a 27-24 loss at Minnesota.
But then came Atlanta, and there was no putting a pretty face on this one. Real teams – real contenders – don't do 45-10 faceplants at home.
Or do they?
"Our bubble hasn't burst," said quarterback Shaun Hill, who had been superb through the first quarter of the season but also fell down against the Falcons. "Our confidence isn't shaken.
"We knew coming in, even as a 3-1 team, that we weren't all the way there. We're just five games into the season. There are no accomplishments handed out after five games. What we have accomplished is we've come together as a team, nobody can separate us, we fight and we're going to play 60 minutes. We'll continue to stay with that. We'll be a team. We're going to come together and continue to work hard and get better."
If the 49ers were going to do a complete about-face from the way they played during their promising start, this was probably the best time to do it.
Now they have an extra week to regroup, to re-examine who, what and where they are, and also get healthy. Star running back Frank Gore and first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree both should be back with the offense when the team returns to action later this month, and that figures to add a substantial boost.
The defense, despite the difficult-to-fathom Atlanta meltdown, is good, and perhaps very good, when it is on its game. This kind of loss surely is a slice of humble pie for that proud and talented unit and will make it work harder.
"The bye comes at a good time for two reasons," receiver Josh Morgan said. "We've got more time now to fix things and work on things to make us better, and we've got time to let this one sit on our minds so when we come out for our next game we're going to be that much angrier. You're not going to dwell on it, but you're going to remember what it felt like. We got embarrassed, and you don't ever want to feel that feeling again."
But even while they were getting embarrassed, the 49ers never stopped fighting. And they never will stop fighting with Singletary in charge, not even when everything is going wrong and a white-flag appearance might seem the way to go.
In the final minutes against the Falcons, with the Atlanta offense on the field, Singletary used all three of his timeouts while trailing by five touchdowns.
"We may lose the game," Singletary said, "but if I got three timeouts, I'm going to take ever hit I can get – every one of them. Even though we didn't hit the way I would like for us to hit during the game, I'm going to finish the game. Whether it's right or wrong, I don't know about that, but I had them up there, and if I could take one more time to hit somebody, I'm going to take that."
The 49ers took it on the chinstraps against Atlanta, but that is not the measure of their season. They're still the first-place Niners heading into their bye week, with a lot of work to go but the measure of their season still to come.
Still a long way to go for first-place 49ers
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