SANTA CLARA – Jimmy Garoppolo can feel it on the training grounds, in the dressing room and at team meetings.
It’s like playoffs, baby.
“We’ve been in the playoff mood for a while,” said defender Jimmy Garoppolo.
The 49ers have made the playoffs only once in the past seven seasons. They can act as one of three NFC teams in doubt this season, and they will further solidify their bid with their victory on Sunday.
The Atlanta Falcons (6-7) are hungry enough to keep the 49ers (7-6) fair and accurate with four games through the wild card weekend.
“It’s just a little extra pressure, motivation, whatever you call it,” added Garoppolo. “It just helps the guys gain a foothold a little better.”
The 49ers won 5 out of 7 after a losing streak of four games. They’ve come a long way since that rain-soaked riot against Indianapolis on October 24th. And they have a long way to go.
According to data analytics conducted by Fivethirtyeight.com, there is currently a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs, and the 49ers could boost that rate to 88 percent if they beat the Falcons or 33 percent if they lose. Other teams looking for wild card spots are Washington (6-7), Vikings (6-7), Eagles (6-7), Saints (6-7), Panthers (5-8) and Seahawks. (5-8).
Here are five keys to defeating the Falcons and avenging the loss of your home in December 2019:
1. “UNITS” AT THE DARK END
There is no hotter tight end than the 49ers’ George Kittle. He has scored six touchdowns in his last six games and has posted 332 yards and 22 receptions in his last two games.
Kittle’s blocking ability – see: The boisterous moment of 2019 when he hit Ricardo Allen in the end zone – also prompted his agent to refer to Kittle as “the unicorn” prior to his 2020 contract renewal.
– Coach Yak ? (@Coach_Yac) December 14, 2021
Well, in the Falcons’ pre-game notes this week under the headline “Unicorn Sighting,” they tout the exploits of their all-star tight end rookie Kyle Pitts.
Not only did his 163 yards in Week 7 set a record for one tight end game for the Falcons, but his 770 yards this season is the second most scoring NFL tight end in 11 games. (Mike Ditka, 974) …
So who will be at Pitts? The 49ers midfielder corps is not a beacon of health, as are Fred Warner (ankle) and Aziz Al-Shaair (elbow) injured in last year’s victory in Cincinnati.
Both Warner and Al Shaair think they have to play and hold on to themselves. But the 49ers can get help from the self-proclaimed tightness limiter, Jimmy Ward’s safety.
“He takes pride in trying to cope with difficulties. One more week to prove it, ”Warner said of Ward.
2. STOP RUNNING
Wait, is our # 2 assignment also about protecting the 49ers? Even though the Falcons averaged only 18.8 points (26th in the NFL) and 316.4 yards (24th)? Even though they still have quarterback Matt Ryan, whose veteran endurance ensured a touchdown pass to (now the former Falcon) Julio Jones in the final seconds of that 2019 comeback at Levi Stadium?
Yes, the Atlanta race is a threat because he found the groove over 100 yards in three games in a row.
The 49ers ‘running defenses revived last week to slow Bengals’ 1000-yard runner Joe Mixon, but the allowed 16 quick landings are already the highest in a season at Shanahan.
The Falcons turned the landing-returning Cordarrell Patterson into a hybrid weapon. He is their lead snatch (547 yards, five touchdowns) and their second lead receiver (519 yards, five touchdowns). He is their Dibo Samuel, roughly speaking.
“He’s listed as the host and they often play with him on the run, so it’s very similar,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. “Yes, they are both of these two types of players.”
Falcon’s starting backback is Mike Davis, who was eliminated from the 49ers, averaging 2.0 yards in his first two seasons with them in the NFL (2015-16). Davis has averaged 3.4 yards this season, with two touchdowns out of 111 transfers.
3. STAY FREE TURNOVER
Of all the defining characteristics, none more reflects the weekly fate of the 49s than their turnover, or Jimmy Garoppolo in particular.
The 49ers are 6-0 this season with no interceptions from Garoppolo. He narrowly escaped one last week – a potential fourth-quarter pick-six – and then pulled himself together with sensational overtime effort (6 out of 6, 78 yards, Brandon Ayuk win).
Good news for Garoppolo’s defense (attn: Tom Compton’s right tackle): The Falcons have just 16 sacks. Dante Fowler has three strip bags but is questionable due to a calf injury. Grady Jarrett (30 pressings, 11 quarterback hits) is an internal threat to watch out for, and full-back A.J. Terrell is not the one to target.
The Falcons have achieved five revolutions in their last two wins (over the Panthers and Jaguars) and at least one revolution in their other four victories. If you take one or less food, there will be 3-7.
On the other hand, 49 have made 11 defensive and special team conclusions in their last five games (four wins).
4. DEFENSE WARNING
The words “prevent defense” can make you cringe, but the secondary player 49 has to use it for survival mode, caring so much about the full-back.
Even if the 49s get a comfortable advantage, they have repeatedly allowed opponents to rally with deep passes, and Ryan definitely has the opportunity to outshine the 59,000 yard mark this game (58,871).
Ryan has no Jones (traded for the Titans) or Calvin Ridley (personal leave), but remains successful on shots outside 20 yards: 11 out of 23, 421 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions for the best NFL passing rating of 123.0 this situation.
With Josh Norman on one side and the undiscovered C’Von Williams in fifth, Ryan will target the other outside full-back, as Joe Burrow did on rookie Ambry Thomas’s opening debut last Sunday.
Whether it’s Thomas, rookie Demmodore Lenoir, or veteran Donta Johnson starting in a different full-back spot, all minors must watch Russell Gage fall third (43 receptions, 31 conversions). And Nick Bose needs to add to his record 14 sacks.
5. SUCCESS AT HOME
The 49ers have averaged 31 and 34 points in their last two home games, beating the Rams and Vikings. Remember how? Running on the ball like crazy.
In that Taranovs 31-10 rout on November 15, the 49ers ate 44 carries for 156 yards and it is highlighted that the effort was a 93-yard touchdown with 18 games (13 runs, three conversion passes from third down), Ate 11 minutes to lead 7 : 0.
In a November 28 34-26 win over Minnesota, the 49s had 39 carries for 208 yards and finished the first half with 15 games at 85 yards.
Backward runner Elijah Mitchell has scored 27 carries in each win, but he will be eliminated in the second game in a row due to chronic knee pain. Kyle Yuschik can still go ahead of Samuel, Jeff Wilson Jr., or whoever Shanahan calls.
Falcons’ 5-2 road record is debatable, but consider this: none of these victories went to the team currently in the playoffs (Giants, Saints, Dolphins, Jaguars, Cardinals) and their losses were huge (43- 3 in Dallas, 48-25 in Tampa Bay).
If the 49ers win that match, they will lose to the Houston Texans on January 2, marking the first time they have won four straight home games this season since 2011.