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.
Stuff like Nick Bosa sacked a veteran quarterback (Matt Ryan) and created a fumble that Fred Warner recovered to open the second half.
16 of 19 passes go through three quarters, like Jimmy Garoppolo, as George Kittel needs nine defenders to stop him at the reception, like Jeff Wilson Jr. runs for 110 yards.
The 49ers (8-6) won for the fifth time in six games, essentially confirming their reservations for the NFC’s wild-card 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 an initially ruled 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 dispel the 49ers was their admirably efficient offense as well as the coverage-saving rush of passes. Samson Abukum produced a sack on the first snap after halftime, followed by a strip-sack fumble from Bossa 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. ,
Bosa came out briefly after a hard fight with Patterson but was cleared of a possible injury. (The 49ers better hope he doesn’t follow a trend in which two other players — Marcel Harris and Elijah Mitchell — were allowed back into games the day after the game before entering concussion protocol.)
Offensively, the 49ers did not turn over, as Garoppolo (18-ki-23, 235 yards, one touchdown) sensibly bowled Samuel (four catches, 60 yards), Kittel (six catches, 93 yards), Ayuk the ball. Gave. (drive-sparking 30-yard catch) and John Jennings (three catches, 28 yards).
The biggest concerns of the 49ers entering the game are their cornerback coverage, special-team miscalculations 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 is helping the 49ers overcome those issues is how well their stars are responding.
He also put Samuel for more action in the final two minutes, ending a busy day that included six runs (29 yards, a 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.