Monday, October 14, 1991

49ERS HIT THE SKIDS

By Nancy Gay
San Jose Mercury News

It's an unsettling scenario that has been played out four times already this season, the bottom line why the 49ers continue to play themselves out of games and contention.

They dazzle and thrill, but when it really counts, the 49ers kill themselves with mistakes down the stretch. The late-game heartbreak continued Sunday at Candlestick Park, and it was just what the Atlanta Falcons needed for a 39-34 victory.

To personify the problem, look no further than quarterback Steve Young, so brilliant at times, so heartbreaking at the finish. He ran for touchdowns of 6 and 7 yards, and his 22-of- 38, 348-yard, two-touchdown passing performance was commendable. But his three interceptions led to a pair of field goals for the Falcons, and a fourth-quarter intentional- grounding call thwarted a 49ers comeback attempt.

Despite outgaining Atlanta in total offense, 437 yards to 368, the 49ers were losers. And in fourth place in the NFC West. That's right, folks. Dead last.

''This is a hard one . . . very hard," said Young, summing it up for everyone.

The 49ers (2-4) now sit where the one-time struggling Falcons regularly dwelled. But those were different times and this is a different 49ers team, seemingly incapable of cardiac comebacks. Or fourth-quarter execution.

Victories Sunday by the Falcons (3-3), Rams (3-3) and first- place Saints (6-0) have sunk the 49ers' playoff hopes to a level on par with their demeanor in the bitter postgame locker room.

''There can't be any more doubt. We've just got to play," tackle Steve Wallace said. "Stop digging and searching for all different kinds of answers, because the hole can only get deeper."

Said linebacker Charles Haley: "You can't point fingers, because if you do, someone will be pointing it right back at you."

To do so would get tiresome, because it settles on the same things every week. Special teams were a game-long headache, but a series of drive-killing mistakes midway through the final period brought the 49ers' chances to a familiar halt. The 49ers were down 36-34 with 8 minutes, 49 seconds remaining when Young took them from their own 16-yard line to the Atlanta 20 on a series of short dump passes to wide receivers Jerry Rice and Mike Sherrard.

But that's as far as it got. On first-and-10, running back Harry Sydney swung right on a sweep, broke one tackle, retreated and was swarmed by Falcons defenders. The play lost 9 yards.

Had the drive ended there, Mike Cofer would have had a 46- yard field-goal attempt; tough, but not out of range.

His teammates ended the suspense. On second-and-19, Young -- who faced a day-long blitz -- tried to get rid of the ball as nose tackle Tony Epps buried him. The call was intentional grounding, moving the 49ers back 10 more yards. On third-and-29 from the 39, Young dashed hopes completely when his throw to John Taylor was intercepted by former 49ers cornerback Tim McKyer.

''It's baffling that we did that. I'm as baffled as all of you are," 49ers Coach George Seifert said.

The Falcons went on to score three more points on a field goal by Norm Johnson before the clock mercifully expired.

''In the last situation, we were in position to win the ballgame. . . . It doesn't get much worse than that," said Seifert, who watched his team plunge to its worst start since the strike-shortened 1982 season, when the 49ers were 2-5 at one point.

After coming back from a 17-point deficit to take a 34-33 lead with 12:05 remaining, the 49ers once again yielded to their own ineptitude.

A series of special-teams breakdowns, though, made it a fight all the way.

* The coverage team allowed Deion Sanders to sprint unchallenged 100 yards on a kickoff return, a touchdown that gave Atlanta a 27-20 lead with 11:16 remaining in the third quarter.

* A blocked point-after attempt following Young's dazzling 57-yard touchdown pass to Rice with 11:33 left in the third quarter left the score tied 20-20 when the 49ers could have taken the lead.

* New arrival Joe Prokop's second-quarter punt was partially blocked. The 17-yard net gave Atlanta the ball at the 49ers' 41-yard line, the impetus for Johnson's 43-yard field goal that gave the Falcons a 20-7 lead.

* An illegal forward pass on the 49ers' final kickoff return was the call when Spencer Tillman tried to lateral to Dexter Carter. That pushed the 49ers back to their own 6 with 1:45 remaining.

''Lack of execution. That's what it all amounted to," said special teams coach Lynn Stiles, noticeably embarrassed.

The Falcons' opening series produced a touchdown when quarterback Chris Miller (16-of-28, 208 yards, three touchdowns) hit Michael Haynes with a 27-yard scoring pass. A fumble by Carter and an interception thrown by Young led to 10 Falcons points, enough to put the 49ers in their 17-point hole.

A 31-yard lob pass to Sherrard helped set up Young's 6-yard rollout into the end zone, cutting Atlanta's lead to 17-7 with 11:00 left in the second quarter. Young threw a 54-yard touchdown pass down the left seam to Taylor, cutting the Falcons' lead to 20-14 with 49 seconds remaining before halftime.

The 49ers followed up on Sanders' 100-yard kickoff return with a 5-yard scoring run by Sydney, tying the score again at 27-27 with 5:55 left in the third. But Miller's 1-yard touch pass to Andre Rison put the Falcons in front again. A missed PAT left it 33-27.

On the next series, Young scrambled left on first-and-goal at the 7, then vaulted into the end zone for a touchdown that gave the 49ers their first lead of the game, 34-33.

But true to 2-4 form, the 49ers came up short.

''We came back, but we didn't win the game," safety Todd Bowles said. "We had a chance, but we just didn't win."