SANTA CLARA – The opening kickoff cough hasn’t ruined these 49ers like they did before this season.
Sunday’s immediate turnover followed the stuff that made the team a playoff contender, as evident in the Atlanta Falcons’ 31–13 round at Levi’s Stadium.
Stuff like Deebo Samuel running for a go-forward touchdown, then pushing so hard later in the open field he yanked out a defender’s mouthpiece on impact.
Or as Nick Bosa sacked a veteran quarterback (Matt Ryan) and created a fumble that Fred Warner recovered to open the second half.
Or as Jimmy Garoppolo completed 16 of 19 passes through three quarters, as George Kittel needs nine defenders to stop him at the reception, as Jeff Wilson Jr. runs 110 yards.
The 49ers (8-6) won for the fifth time in six games, essentially confirming their reservation for an NFC wild-card spot in the playoffs.
Then there’s a Thursday night date at the Tennessee Titans, which fell 9-4 after losing Sunday for the third time in four games.
At Levi’s Stadium, the Falcons (6–8) were doomed by the 49ers’ inability to capitalize on the opening gift: Jamichael Hesty’s poor kickoff led to a goal-line stand in which Atlanta came without a point.
The 49ers then scored enough points to surpass Ryan’s successful goals against rookie cornerback Embry Thomas, who struggled in his second straight start.
Along the way, the 49ers’ defense came with enough big-time stops, thanks to Jimmy Ward’s fourth and -1 on hard hits by Jakiski Tart and Marcel Harris.
Where did it turn? The first indicator was the defense’s goal-line stand on the opening drive, followed by Hesty’s kick return and a replay reversal of a touchdown run by Cordrell Patterson.
Samuel’s seventh rushing touchdown this season – 33 seconds before halftime – gave the 49ers a lead they would not miss, as opposed to a fourth-quarter lead they surrendered a week before Cincinnati won in overtime Had given.
What helped elude the 49ers was their efficient crime and coverage-saving crowds of passes. Samson Abukum produced a sack on the first snap after halftime, followed quickly by Bosa’s strip-sack which was recovered by Warner.
It was Bossa’s 15th sack this season, and he has been good for at least one sack in six consecutive games to raise his credentials for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, or perhaps NFL Defender of the Year, as a defensive Coordinator Demeko Ryan insisted last week. ,
Bossa came out briefly after a hard fight with Patterson, was assessed for an injury and cleared to return to the sport. (The 49ers better hope he doesn’t follow the trend in which two other players – Marcel Harris and Elijah Mitchell – were allowed back into games before entering concussion protocol a day later.)
Offensively, the 49ers did not turn over, as Garoppolo (18-of-23, 235 yards, one touchdown) sensibly shot Samuel (four catches, 60 yards), Kittel (six catches, 93 yards), ball to Ayuk. Gave. (drive-sparking 30-yard catch) and John Jennings (final touchdown).
The 49ers’ biggest concerns are their cornerback coverage, special-team mistakes, and untimely penalties. Example: Thomas dropped a touchdown catch on his second straight start; Haste not only thwarted the opening kickoff but he thwarted his second attempt to pin the 49ers at the 49-yard line; And Arden Key had a third-down sack, which was annulled by a rough-the-passer penalty, as did the dubious call.
What’s helping the 49ers overcome those issues is the response from stars like Samuel.
The 49ers kept Samuel in the game even in the final two minutes, ending a busy day with six runs (29 yards, one touchdown), four catches (60 yards) and his first career pass (incomplete).
There will be more Samuels to come, and more games after the regular season, it appears.