The 7-6 49ers want to firm up their playoff hopes, while the 6-7 Falcons need a win to keep theirs alive.
The last time these two teams met, the Falcons pulled off a stunner of an upset against a Super Bowl-bound 49ers team. This team around, both teams look like lesser shades of those 2019 squads.
Atlanta is 32nd in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, one of the more comprehensive metrics for team success out there, and are 6-7 in spite of it. The 49ers are a far better squad on paper and a little better in terms of their record, but they aren’t yet playing like one of the NFC’s true juggernauts, and it seems likely they won’t quite get there in 2021.
For all that, though, this is a matchup between two playoff hopefuls. The 49ers need this win to help them push their way into the postseason, and the Falcons need it to have really any shot of the postseason. Considering it brings together familiar faces on the coaching staff and roster and there are real stakes, this is going to be a fun and hotly anticipated matchup. The question is whether the Falcons can buck a yearlong trend and beat a team with a winning record, and we’ll hope the answer proves to be yes.
Let’s dig into what you need to know for Sunday.
Falcons – 49ers comparison
Not to sound like a broken record in the movie Groundhog Day, but the 49ers rank better across the board than the Falcons. They have an above average offense and defense that intriguingly has struggled a bit in the red zone, and at worst they’re an average team in most aspects. They are likely ticketed for a playoff berth and have the potential to make some noise, though their quarterback limits their upside a bit in my mind.
The Falcons are making tiny strides on defense and running the ball, moving closer to being the sort of rush-first, opportunistic squad that Arthur Smith probably would’ve liked to see sooner this year. That’s been enough to propel them past lousy teams like the Panthers and Jaguars, but it has yet to be enough to beat a good football team. Perhaps this will be the first week they do so.
How the 49ers have changed
These two teams last met in 2019, and that Falcons victory over the 49ers was their most impressive victory of that forgettable season. Fatally, it may have been the win that convinced Arthur Blank to forget ahead with the old regime in 2020, as their wins over the Panthers, Jaguars and Buccaneers around that were against vastly inferior opponents.
That team had several similarities to this team, starting with head coach and quarterback. Despite investing the third overall selection in Trey Lance, the 49ers have not turned the starting job over to him, sticking with Jimmy Garoppolo. The past two years have seen more significant changes to his supporting cast, however.
Gone are Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, who made up the three-headed backfield the Falcons struggled against the last time. They’re replaced by 2021 third round draft choice Trey Sermon, Deebo Samuel, Jeff Wilson, sixth round pick Elijah Mitchell (who may return from injury this week) and perhaps former Falcon Brian Hill. Similarly, there’s no Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne, who have been replaced by the likes of the multi-talented Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Mohamed Sanu.
Defensively, the 49ers are still an intimidating bunch, with familiar elite faces like Nick Bosa joined by Dee Ford and Arden Key. Bosa was a problem the last time out and is better now than he was then, as he’s sitting on 14 sacks for the season. This is a veteran team and a veteran defense, by and large, which means you’ve seen almost everyone this team is trotting out either playing for the 49ers or another team since 2019. It’s a good group that is going to give the Falcons problems, too.
The draft brought in what the 49ers hope will be the next great batch of players, though only Mitchell has been truly impactful thus far. Lance has an extremely bright future as a hyper-athletic, rocket-armed quarterback who is lethal on the move, but he’s parked behind Garoppolo for at least the rest of this season. Second round guard Aaron Banks is a backup, Sermon is a reserve who has lost work to Wilson, Samuel and Mitchell, and the team’s investments at tackle and in the secondary are serving in reserve roles right now. I liked their draft class quite a lot, but it’s likely to bear more fruit in 2022 and beyond than in 2021, even if the 49ers keep the good times rolling and get into the postseason.
The team did make a couple of major additions through free agency. Sanu is a familiar face and has been a useful reserve at receiver, but the biggest splashes ended up being Alex Mack to anchor their offensive line and Arden Key to help out the pass rush. Mack has been very good—you’d expect nothing less—and Key has chipped in four sacks. The team also added Josh Norman, who signed just before the season and has been a full-time starter despite some adventures in coverage. He has, bizarrely, forced six fumbles.
Generally speaking, though, this is a 49ers team that is consciously trying to prop open its current window of contention, which is why there are so many familiar faces. They drafted to start reloading for 2022 and beyond, but their free agent signings and their retention strategies for their current players were aimed at giving them postseason life in 2021, and after a rough start they’re on track to get there.
What to know
This matchup isn’t the hardest one the Falcons have faced thus far, but the 49ers are a pretty well-balanced and talented team. We’ve been waiting all year for Atlanta to best a team they’re not either favored or beat or on somewhat equal footing with, and there’s no time like the present. Right?
To win, Atlanta will need at least a tidy day from Matt Ryan and the ground game against a defense that has forced 18 fumbles and has been very good against the pass in particular. They’re fresh off a couple of uneven efforts against the Seahawks and Bengals, and the hope will be that they’re not at the peak of their powers against Atlanta. The Falcons would very much like to repeat their strong day against Carolina’s pass rush to enable the offense to do, you know, much of anything.
Defensively, Atlanta will need to slow Jimmy Garoppolo, who has thrown for nearly 300 yards in back-to-back weeks. Garoppolo is good or a couple of ghastly throws per game and the Falcons have been on a little bit of a tear of late in terms of punishing errant throws by snagging interceptions, and it’s more than fair to say that a couple of picks would help turn the tide of this game. Particularly if Elijah Mitchell is back, the Falcons must also be much sharper than they have been containing the run, because Kyle Shanahan has weapons at his disposal and is never ever shy about using them. Deebo Samuel has been particularly lethal as a runner of late, averaging 6-7 touches per game over the last four games and scoring at least one touchdown every week over that span.
It will take, in other words, that fabled complete effort that Arthur Smith and company have been talking about. Chances are nothing short of a very good defensive and offensive effort will be enough to carry the day, and while it’s hard to like Atlanta’s chances of suddenly digging deep and coming up with that kind of game, we’ll hope their recent improvements lead to a surprise upset.