No doubt the NFL schedule-makers thought Monday night’s matchup of the Falcons and 49ers would be a clash of NFC titans.
The teams battled for the conference championship last January, and Atlanta and San Francisco entered the 2013 season among the Super Bowl favorites.
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Unfortunately for the Falcons and their fans, not much has gone right this season. Though quarterback Matt Ryan continues to be one of the best in the league, Atlanta has slumped to 4-10, and the Falcons have been horrible on defense. Atlanta ranks 29th in the league in total defense, allowing 386.3 yards per game, and give up an average of almost 28 points per game.
As the teams head into their Monday night matchup in the last regular-season game ever at Candlestick Park – and most likely the last NFL game ever at the stadium – the Falcons appear vulnerable to a 49ers team that seems to be peaking at the right time.
The Niners have won four straight to get to 10-4 and are in position to clinch a playoff spot this weekend. And, since the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the passing game have been clicking.
The 49ers are 3-0 with Crabtree back on the field and Kaepernick has had his best string of success over the past four games. In wins over the Redskins, Rams, Seahawks and Bucs, Kaepernick has thrown a total of seven TD passes vs. just one interception and has quarterback ratings of well over 100 in three of the four wins. He’s even been more effective running the ball, now that defenses have been forced to concentrate on stopping the passing attack.
“It’s changed the way defenses play us a lot,” Kaepernick told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee this week. “We get a lot more honest looks from defenses because we have a balance across the field, as far as the capability to make plays. That’s opened up a lot of things for Anquan (Boldin). It’s opened up a lot of things for Crab and (tight end) Vernon (Davis). With those three on the field, it’s tough for defenses to match up with them in the passing game.”
Davis, in particular, could be trouble for the Falcons, who have had trouble covering tight ends this season and allowed Davis to catch five passes for 106 yards and a score in last season’s NFC Championship Game. Plus, the Falcons are banged up and inexperienced in their secondary. Last week, in a 27-26 win over Washington, the Falcons started three rookie defensive backs, and Kirk Cousins threw for 381 yards and three TDs.
The 49ers are 7-0 vs. teams with losing records this season, and have plenty of motivation for Monday night’s game. With victories over the Falcons and Cardinals over the last two weeks of the season, the 49ers could clinch the No. 5 playoff seed, which would potentially keep them from having to play in Seattle until an NFC Championship Game. Plus, the team would like to bow out of Candlestick with a victory.
“It’s the last game at Candlestick, and we don’t want to be the guys that screw up the last game at Candlestick,” said head coach Jim Harbaugh this week. “These guys will come back 20-25 years from now and they want to have a good memory of winning at Candlestick.”
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 13-point favorites.