By Sam McPherson
Only time will tell how the San Francisco 49ers handle the disappointment of their Week 14 overtime loss at home to the New York Jets, but the team has little time to worry about it now. The 49ers have a Week 15 date at the Georgia Dome with the high-flying Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Considering the Falcons have the highest-scoring offense in the NFL this season, that’s bad news for a San Francisco defense that has given up the most points in the league this year. All in all, this may turn out to be the biggest character test of 2016 for the 49ers organization as a whole.READ MORE: Storm Watch: Evacuation Orders Issued for CZU Burn Zones in Santa Cruz County
As rumors fly about San Francisco GM Trent Baalke’s future with the team, the 49ers have just three more chances to avoid becoming the first one-win team in franchise history. Three times before, San Francisco teams have finished with 2-14 records (1978, 1979 and 2004), and 49ers head coach Chip Kelly would like to avoid sinking below that threshold in his first season with the team. However, this match-up against Atlanta probably isn’t going to yield a victory for San Francisco, and that makes the mental preparation for this game even more challenging.
Falcons Season Record
With an 8-5 mark right now, Atlanta is tied atop the NFC South Division with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Falcons currently occupy the 4th spot in the NFC by virtue owning one of the tiebreakers over the Bucs. That makes this game all the more a “must-win” situation for Atlanta. The Falcons are better than their record indicates, as they have suffered some odd late-game losses this year. In fact, all five of their losses have come by single digits, and four of those losses have been by a touchdown or less. Three times, Atlanta has lost by three points or less. This team could easily be 11-2 right now, so the record is a little misleading.
The Atlanta schedule has been full of challenging opponents this year, but the Falcons’ final three opponents all have losing records currently. The table is set for Atlanta to close out the season on a high note.
Falcons On Offense
Quarterback Matt Ryan is having an MVP-worthy season with 4,050 passing yards already and 30 TD passes to go along with his 113.2 QB rating, which is the best mark in the league right now. The Atlanta offense also has two very capable running backs to support Ryan: Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The top receiving targets are wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, with 121 combined receptions.
Interestingly enough, both Jones and Sanu missed Week 14 with injuries, and the Falcons still managed to score four offensive TDs on the road against the Los Angeles Rams. There is plenty of depth on this roster to overcome even the loss of key players, so Atlanta is clearly a formidable challenge for any defense.READ MORE: Police Activity Temporarily Shuts Highway 17 Saturday Afternoon
Falcons On Defense
While the offense is one of the best in the league, the defense is not. In fact, the 14 points scored by the Rams last week was the best defensive effort from the Atlanta defense this year as the Falcons rank 28th in both points and yards allowed in 2016. Atlanta also doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, which means the Falcons are often playing in high-scoring shootout affairs. Atlanta has held the opposing offense to under 300 yards just once this season, and that was back in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos.
Five of the Falcons’ top-six tacklers are secondary players, which emphasizes the Atlanta front seven is not dominating or intimidating. Linebacker Vic Beasley does have 13.5 sacks this season, but he has just 34 tackles this season total.
Falcons Players To Watch: Vic Beasley, Matt Ryan
When the 49ers are on offense, they should be able to do what they want against the Atlanta defense. Look for Carlos Hyde to have another big game on the ground, but the San Francisco offensive line will have to protect QB Colin Kaepernick from Beasley’s relentlessness. Kaepernick takes a lot of sacks, and that feeds right into Beasley’s game.
When the Falcons have the ball, it’s hard to pinpoint any single player to keep an eye on. Chances are the Atlanta coaching staff will rest Jones again, because they will believe they can win this game without him—just as they did last weekend in Los Angeles. But Ryan is the MVP candidate, so the 49ers will want to do whatever they can defensively to take him out of a rhythm with his RBs.
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There’s no way to sugar coat this: The Falcons have the best offense in the league, and the 49ers have the worst defense. Even without a full contingent of offensive starters, Atlanta will score a lot of points on this San Francisco defense. Look for this game to be similar to the 49ers’ previous game against the New Orleans Saints. San Francisco could ring up 400 yards on offense and still lose by 20 points. The Falcons could score 50 points in this one, and considering the 49ers’ mentality after the overtime loss, look for Atlanta to do just that on its way to a 52-28 victory.