Despite following up their most electrifying win of the season with a flat loss, the task heading into the final two weeks of the season for the San Francisco 49ers is a simple one.
Win two games and the 49ers are assured of having the top seed in the NFC playoffs and home-field advantage throughout. If that doesn’t happen, the Niners (11-3) might look back at the 29-22 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday as a missed opportunity to create some space between them and Seattle (11-3) in the NFC West.
“This loss doesn’t define our season going forward,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “This isn’t something that is going to linger in this locker room. It is a bad loss, and credit to them. Obviously, we would love to be sitting here with a win. It would be a different story. We are going to learn from this, we are going to own it and then have one hell of a week of practice, and that is all we can do.”
The 49ers have been on an emotional ride of late. They lost a showdown in Baltimore two weeks ago when the Ravens kicked a field goal on the final play of the game, then followed by winning a 48-46 thriller in New Orleans on Robbie Gould’s 30-yard field goal with 2 seconds to play.
There wasn’t the same intensity against the also-ran Falcons and that might have contributed to the lackluster performance that allowed Atlanta to rally to win on Matt Ryan’s 5-yard TD pass to Julio Jones with 2 seconds remaining.
“It’s been high drama, but I feel like we’re built for it,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “I just keep saying that this is going to be good experience for when even more is on the line, you know? So, we know that we’ve got some big games coming up with the playoffs and this kind of stuff is just good experience for us.”
TE George Kittle. While much of the offense struggled to get going, Kittle had another big day with a career-high 13 catches on 17 targets for 134 yards. He tied Eric Johnson’s franchise record for catches in a game by a tight end and also reached 2,780 yards for his career. That total surpassed Hall of Famer Mike Ditka’s 2,774 yards for the most by a tight end in his first three seasons.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Wide receivers. While Kittle was Garoppolo’s No. 1 target, the wide receivers were mostly invisible. Only Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne played more than three offensive snaps in the game and Dante Pettis didn’t even get on the field once despite being active. Samuel had a key drop and Garoppolo was 4 for 9 for 49 yards when targeting his wideouts.
DL Sheldon Day. With several defensive linemen, including Dee Ford, Ronald Blair, D.J. Jones and Damontre Moore, all sidelined by injuries, Day got an increase in playing time with 24 defensive snaps and delivered his first sack of the season.
RB Matt Breida. Breida’s playing time has been limited after missing three games with an ankle injury and he did nothing to warrant getting more on Sunday. He had four carries for 11 yards and caught two passes for 6 yards. But his biggest negative came late in the third quarter. He fumbled the ball out of bounds on one carry and then on his next touch lost a fumble with San Francisco in Atlanta territory. He didn’t get a single snap on offense in the fourth quarter.
The Niners reported no injuries from the game but still have several key players working their way back. CB Richard Sherman (hamstring), CB K’Waun Williams (concussion) and S Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) all missed the game against Atlanta and their status for this week remains unknown.
13 —Juszczyk caught a 2-yard TD pass from Garoppolo early in the fourth quarter to become the 13th player on the team with a touchdown catch this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that ties an NFL record for most players with a TD catch in one season.
The Niners have a short week before hosting the division rival Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night. A win in that game would set the stage for the season finale at Seattle on Dec. 29 when the NFC West title would be on the line. A loss could lead to a sixth seed in the playoffs should the Niners also fall to the Seahawks.