By Jerrell Richardson
Atlanta Falcons (4-10)
Head Coach: Mike Smith
Players To Watch: Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas, Osi Umenyiora
When the 2014 schedule was announced, the game between the 49ers and Falcons figured to be must-see-TV. The game was slated to have two of the NFC’s best, playing on a Monday Night, in a game that just happens to be the final event at Candlestick Park. While the 49ers have done their part to set up an epic rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game, the same can’t be said for the Falcons, who have been a major disappointment this year. Despite Atlanta’s record, payback remains on the team’s minds as the Falcons know that a loss will hurt San Francisco’s playoff chances this year. This would be a fitting way to payback the 49ers, who cost the Falcons a Super Bowl berth last year.
While this would be the perfect setting for the Falcons to get their revenge, 49er fans looking to send off Candlestick with a win should not be too concerned. The last time the two teams met, the Falcons were full strength at home and couldn’t pull off the win. Therefore the chance of Atlanta traveling to San Francisco without their star receiver and turning the tables is a long shot.
When Atlanta Has The Ball: Advantage 49ers
While all else has gone wrong around them, the one constant for Atlanta this season has been their ability to throw the ball. Despite the loss of their most explosive wide receiver, Julio Jones, to an injury, the passing game has stayed on track. With quarterback Matt Ryan and tight end Tony Gonzalez leading the charge, Atlanta is ranked 8th in the league and the one area the 49ers defense will have to keep an eye on.
Matt Ryan has completed 66.4 percent of his passes which is sixth best in the league, and his 3,887 yards puts him seventh. He has tossed 22 touchdowns, with a team leading seven going to his old reliable target Tony Gonzalez, who is also second on the team with 71 receptions. While it’s no surprise that Ryan and Gonzalez are clicking, Harry Douglas leads the team with 72 catches and 963 yards and has become Ryan’s new favorite target.
Ryan has struggled to protect the ball, though. He has thrown 14 interceptions, and will give the 49er secondary plenty of chances to get their hands on the rock. San Francisco is ranked fourth defending the pass and should be able to force the Falcons into predictable passing situations due to a lackluster Falcon running game.
Atlanta acquired Steven Jackson from the Rams in the offseason, and did not get what they paid for. In his first season as a Falcon, Jackson has only 448 yards on the ground while averaging a mere 3.5 yards per touch. He is the team’s leading rusher, and leads them with five rushing touchdowns, but this is not saying much as Atlanta is the worst running team in the league. A bad running game going against a stingy 49er defense led by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman that enters the game ranked sixth against the run does not equal a successful day for Jackson running the ball.
When San Francisco Has the Ball: Advantage 49ers
The Falcons defense has been awful. They can’t stop the run, are not that much better against the pass, and are allowing 27.7 points per game. The 49ers have dominated the majority of their opponents on the ground this year, entering this game as the fourth best rushing team in the league. For an Atlanta team that is ranked 29th, stopping the run does not bode well. Expect a big game from Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick and the other 49er backs, opening things up for an aerial attack.
During their four game winning streak, Colin Kaepernick has averaged 222 passing yards per contest and has clearly benefited from the return of his security blanket Michael Crabtree. While the team is still ranked toward the bottom the NFL in terms of passing, it is not indicative of how well they are playing as of late. Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Crabtree will all have opportunities to make plays against a Falcon team that is 24th against the pass. Atlanta will need a big game from defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who leads them with seven sacks, in hopes of putting enough pressure on Kaepernick to force him into making mistakes.
San Francisco Has Talent And Emotion On Their Side
The Falcons will be fired up, but so will the 49ers as the importance of this game is almost immeasurable for the home team. First they need a win to get one step closer to a playoff sport. Second, this is the last game ever to be played at the historic Candlestick Park. The legacy of the team and stadium is on the line, as the only way to end the Candlestick era is with a win. Atlanta will have the 49ers full attention, which is bad news for the Falcons, who are already at a disadvantage in every other phase of the game.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.