In all likelihood, Monday night’s matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons will be the final game played at Candlestick Park, home to the Niners since 1971. While the preseason hype for this game would lead you to believe this could be a showdown for the number one seed in the NFC and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Falcons (4-10) have watched their season spiral downward while San Francisco is sitting at 10-4, battling with the New Orleans Saints (10-5) for the fifth spot in the playoffs.
While it is still possible for the 49ers to win the NFC West outright, they would need Seattle (12-3) to lose to the Rams (7-8) next week at Century Link Stadium, where the Seahawks have only lost once since Christmas Eve 2011, and still beat a surging Arizona Cardinals (10-5) team that has won 7 of their last 8 under possible repeat Coach of the Year Bruce Arians. Bottom line, Monday night means win-and-in.
Looking at the Falcons, the seat couldn’t be any hotter for coach Mike Smith. A blowout loss tomorrow night could mean a very unhappy Christmas with a pink slip in the head coach’s stocking. And, unfortunately for Atlanta, all signs point to a one-sided victory for the red and gold. The Dirty Birds are 29th in total defense, including having only 28 sacks on the year (coincidentally their league ranking in that stat), and are dead last in rushing offense, getting only 79.3 yards/game.
As Jeff Vandersnick pointed out in his keys to victory, the 49ers will have to devise a scheme to limit the impact of the loss of FB Bruce Miller. Miller, dubbed the “Swiss Army knife” by head coach Jim Harbaugh, has been Frank Gore’s lead blocker and has helped Gore and backup Kendall Hunter rush for 137.1 yards/game, enough for fifth in the league. While he was also 3rd on the team in receptions with 25 grabs for 243 yards, San Francisco finally has their full host of receivers back, and with the Falcons poor pass and rush defense, Colin Kaepernick should have ample time to sit in the pocket and throw. Despite a knock on Kap for being unable to progress past his first read for large portions of the year, he showed solid patience reading his targets last week at Tampa Bay, including his touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, his first to a receiver not named Anquan Boldin or Vernon Davis all season.
A confluence of factors have me leaning towards San Francisco in this contest. The combination of the final game at the ‘Stick, the Niners superior defense (4th in passing and 6th in rushing) and the fact that the 49ers can lock up a playoff spot with a win have all the makings of a Niners’ blowout. This one shouldn’t be close. Final score: 31-13, 49ers.
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