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A Wild Falcons-49ers Finish Set Up an All-Time Great NFC Playoff Race

With Atlanta’s 29-22 win over San Francisco, the Niners, Seahawks, Packers, and Saints all have three losses and are locked into an intense battle for the conference’s bye weeks. Which teams come out on top will set the stage for the postseason.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Dean Blandino, Fox’s NFL rules analyst, earned his paycheck at the end of the Falcons’ 29-22 win over the 49ers on Sunday. The game finished with two consecutive plays that needed review and, to top it off, a wild touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.

With the Falcons trailing 22-17 and less than two minutes left in the game, Matt Ryan engineered an eight-play, 65-yard drive to the Niners’ 5-yard line. With just seconds remaining, he hit Austin Hooper in the end zone, and, well, you tell me whether this is a catch:

This was ruled a touchdown on the field, but as can clearly be seen on replay, the ball touched the ground and then was jarred loose before Hooper proceeded to resecure it between his legs. As Blandino explained, the ball is allowed to touch the ground during a catch, so long as the ground doesn’t contribute to the player gaining control of the football. And while the ball does come loose, it’s not until after Hooper had lifted it free of the ground himself.

Adding to the mess—are we sure it touched the ground and not Hooper’s foot? Usually with these types of messy replays, officials will stick with the call on the field, as the rules state. Not this time: The NFL overturned the call, giving the Falcons a third down with five seconds left to try again. That’s when this happened:

Live, this dart to Julio Jones was called just short of the goal line. With no timeouts left to stop the clock, that ruling would have meant a San Francisco win, and the Niners started rushing the field in celebration. But the replay showed that Jones clearly broke the plane of the goal line before being pushed back, and the officials overturned this call too. They awarded the Falcons the touchdown, which all but ended the game.

Yet the fun wasn’t over. On the ensuing point-after-touchdown attempt, the Falcons … took a knee? With just a one-point lead, you’d think Atlanta would have gone for two to try to extend their lead to a field goal. But with just two seconds left, they weren’t concerned about the exact margin; they kneeled to avoid the possibility of the rare defensive two-point conversion, which could have swung the game to the Niners. This isn’t impossible: The Broncos got a win over the Saints thanks to a defensive two-point conversion in 2016.

Just to cap off all the drama, the Falcons scored a touchdown on their kickoff:

The Falcons are already long out of the playoffs, but the wild finish has equally dramatic consequences for the Niners’ playoff race. San Francisco, Seattle, and Green Bay are all now 11-3, and the Saints are 10-3 with a Monday night game against the Colts on deck. Two of these teams will have a first-round bye. The Saints have clinched their division and will, at the very least, host a playoff game, while the Packers just have to fend off the Vikings (Green Bay just has to win one more game to put them away) for the NFC North title. But the Niners and the Seahawks are in one of the most dramatic playoff races in memory: The two play in Week 17, the winner of which could get the top seed … or fall all the way to fifth.

It’s absolutely wide open. Per The New York Times, all four squads have between a 43 and 55 percent chance of earning a bye. But only the Niners and Seahawks are in real danger of not having their first playoff game come at home.

In most scenarios, the NFC West crown comes down to which team wins the Week 17 matchup. But there is one situation where it doesn’t: If the Seahawks beat the Cardinals in Week 16 and the Niners lose to the Rams, it’ll come down to a complicated tiebreaker. In this scenario, a win by the Niners in Week 17 would put both teams at 12-4. Since Seattle already beat San Francisco in Week 10, a win by the Niners in Week 17 would put the teams tied at 1-1 in their head-to-head matchups. The two teams would also have the same divisional record (4-2), same record against common opponents (10-4), and same record in the conference (9-3). The tie would be broken by strength of victory, which currently favors the Seahawks (.477 to .447).

Think of it like this: If the Seahawks win next week and the Niners lose, their Week 17 matchup would be meaningless. That would be a huge bummer, the worst possible timeline for this playoff race. In all other scenarios, Week 17 will decide the NFC West champion—and possibly a top-two seed in the NFC. Given that the overwhelming majority of Super Bowl squads earn a first-round bye, that Week 17 tilt is nearly as important as any playoff game. The 49ers and Seahawks are locked in a battle for the ages. We have the Falcons to thank.