Monday Night Football: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers
Atlanta Falcons (4-10) at San Francisco 49ers (10-4)
Monday night on ESPN; Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden
When the schedule was made last spring this matchup appeared to be a coup for ESPN and a rare high quality contest on Monday Night Football. Instead the rematch of last year’s conference championship game is destined to be a blowout, which will cause the conversation to turn away from the game and become a trip down memory lane: this will in all likelihood be the last football game played at Candlestick Park. The Niners are probably headed for a wild card spot, so unless they and the other wild card team (perhaps Carolina) meet in the conference final, this is the swan song for The ‘Stick; the club will play in Santa Clara next year.
Rather than a game between two powerhouses we instead have an ineffective Atlanta team with nothing to play for, on a long road trip against a club that has become healthier and stronger over the last several weeks. Although San Francisco can clinch a playoff spot with a win, that situation may have already been resolved by kickoff. The Niners can also gain entry to the post-season if Arizona, who has the unenviable task of playing at Seattle Sunday afternoon, loses to the Seahawks. Ironically, while an Arizona loss clinches a playoff berth for the 49ers it also eliminates them from the division title due to its being a victory for Seattle. In that case the only meaningful goal left for the Niners to play for is the 5th rather than 6th seed; that would be determined their week 16 and 17 results as well as those for New Orleans and Carolina.
On offense San Francisco should be able to play keep away by handing off to Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, despite the loss of fullback Bruce Miller. The Niners’ rushing offense ranks 5th in yards per game (137) and averages 4.2 yards per carry while Atlanta’s defense is allowing 131 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry, both the third worst in the NFL. If the Falcons elect to stack the box then they are playing with fire, as QB Colin Kaepernick finally has all three of his top targets, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis healthy and on the field.
Last week Atlanta scored 20 points off seven Washington turnovers, but the Falcons cannot expect San Francisco to be so helpful. The Falcons still have a potent passing game with Matt Ryan (3,887 yards, 22 TD), Roddy White (23 catches for 270 yards last three games), Harry Douglas (73 receptions, 963 yards) and Tony Gonzalez (71 receptions, 740 yards, 7 TD), but Ryan performs much better at home: 12 of his 14 picks have come on the road. Atlanta needs to get its running game going to open up some passing lanes, but that is easier said than done a front seven that is comprised in part by the NFL’s best group of linebackers. San Francisco is allowing less than 100 yards rushing per game and 3.9 yards per carry, constantly placing opponents in poor down and distance situations.
As far as a possible letdown game goes, that is unlikely. The classic trap game would have been last week at Tampa Bay, since that was immediately after playing Seattle; San Francisco limited the Bucs to 11 yards of offense on nine of their eleven drives. The 49ers have refused to play down to the level of their opponents all season; in their seven victories against teams with losing records this season, the Niners have won every one of those games by double digits.
Pick â˘ 49ers 27, Falcons 13
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