Believe it or not, halfway through the second quarter, everything was fine.

We'd had some early jitters. Shaun Hill's first pass was tipped and picked, and Atlanta drove a short field for a score. Then, after another of our patented three-and-outs, the Falcons cut through our defense with frightening efficiency. They gobbled up 5, 8, 9, and 16 yards, inducing Mike Singletary to spend a timeout and conduct another of his "gather 'round, boys" pep talks. The TV cameras love these, and they do look good. And they work, too. In Arizona, some said it inspired our defense to save the game.

This time, it inspired our defense to give up a 31-yard touchdown pass.

Maybe this just isn't our day.

But then we answered, with Josh Morgan picking up 61 of the 78 yards that we drove for our first score. 14-7. Our defense held, and then we scored on a drive of 40, 18 of which came on another of Jimmy Raye's pass-plays for fourth and a foot. (Seriously, does this guy have a middle gear between prehistoric and almost crazy?) 14-10. Our defense recovered a fumble, and though we couldn't move the ball, we downed a punt at the Falcons' four. Two plays got them to the 10, setting up a huge third-down. Another stop, and we'd get the ball back, with great field-position and all the momentum in the world.

Like I said, halfway through the second quarter, everything was fine.

Over the next six minutes, though, we were simply destroyed. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the Falcons definitively ended the game. And the turn was so sweeping, so dramatic, that it's not unfair to ask whether they ended our season as well.

This is how you describe a total collapse. On that third-and-four at the Atlanta 10, Matt Ryan throws a harmless ball to Roddy White. Tackle him there, and the Falcons will punt. Instead, Nate Clements takes a ridiculous stab at the ball, allowing White to spin around him and go 90 yards for a gift of a backbreaker. On the ensuing kickoff, the Falcons recover a "fumble" that was obviously caused by terra firma, but the Niners are out of timeouts and unable to challenge. (Fox's announcers spend a good five minutes lighting into Glen Coffee, whose missed assignment forced us to blow our second timeout; they leave alone Singletary's wholly ineffectual pep talk.) Our defense, still in shock and in no condition to be back on the field, promptly gives up a 33-yard run and a touchdown two plays later. Now, desperately needing to sustain a drive that ends in points, our offense comes up with yet another three-and-out, which takes all of 43 seconds. After a punt, and a personal foul for good measure, the Falcons take over at midfield against a defense that still doesn't know what hit it. They pick up yards in clumps of 12, 12, 10, 5, and 24 before they punch it in from the one.

At third and four, everything was fine. Six minutes later, the Niners' offense had picked up two yards, and the Falcons' offense had picked up three touchdowns. When halftime mercifully arrived, Atlanta had racked up 340 yards and set a franchise record for first-half points, a record that'll probably stand forever.

That, my friends, is a total collapse.

The second half only cemented the disgrace. Sure, the Falcons let up on the gas a little, giving our defense a reprieve. But on offense we went into catch-up mode, throwing on nearly every down and proving how poorly equipped we are to do so. Yeah, there's Hill's lack of a big-play arm, but behind our offensive line even Peyton Manning would be reduced to quivering goo. I think the verdict's in: three fifths of this line—including two very high draft-picks—just shouldn't be playing. So before you demand Hill's head on a platter, you might want to see how he does when he's not, as Singletary aptly put it, "running for his life the whole game."

Throw in Singletary's embarrassing breach of "coaching etiquette" (so much for the unflappable tower of strength), and Dre Bly's rank and utter stupidity (which Singletary disturbingly decided to ignore), and we've got what we swore was gone for good.

We knew we'd lose a game or two. We knew we'd struggle, here and there. What we swore was gone, though, was the humiliation. The dread of watching a team that was unprepared, unfocused, and unprofessional. The horror of seeing the fire go out at the first sign of trouble. Of watching our Niners just pack up and quit.

So it's no big deal that we lost to the Falcons, who are obviously good. What's put us suddenly on the brink is the way we lost, and what it says about Singletary. He didn't promise us the best team in the league, and of course he couldn't; Scot McCloughan hadn't done nearly a good enough job for that. What he did promise us, though, was a team that simply would never quit. A team with unshakable intensity, discipline, and guts. A team that simply would fight to the end.

Through our first four games, he kept his promise, and we saw what a difference it made. But on this bloody Sunday, he broke his promise, into thousands of pieces, and our future depends on whether he can put it back together.

As we head into the bye week, with the teeth of our schedule looming on the other side, we find ourselves at a dangerous crossroads. It's possible, and perhaps even likely, this horrible loss is just an aberration, an inexplicable pothole on the road to glory, much like a memorable 40-to-8 pasting we absorbed 15 years ago. But there's another possibility too. A bunch of us have wondered, how long can this go on? How long can Singletary, through sheer force of will, continue to spin this straw into gold? For a lot of us, the abiding fear is that he can only carry this roster so far. The fear is that eventually his spell will wear off, and that another strong start will devolve into another miserable season. The fear, quite simply, is that it's just a matter of time.

It's possible, and perhaps even likely, the time is now.