There’s been an air of calm around the Atlanta Falcons this week. Last Sunday’s shellacking of the Los Angeles Rams dispelled the demons of the week previous, and any worry that this 8-5 outfit would miss out on postseason play for the third straight season was swiftly beaten back. It’s a good time to be a Falcons fan, that much is clear.
Following the 42-14 blowout of the Rams, the Falcons return to the Georgia Dome with the aim of improving to 9-5. Incredibly, playing at the Dome has been something of a mixed bag for a Falcons unit that, historically, win more than they lose in front of the Georgia crowd. Currently sat at 3-3 at home, and with two more left before the doors close at the Dome completely, the Falcons will be keen to right the wrongs of this season, and really give their fans something to get excited about in the run up to January.
And they couldn’t have asked for it better. Next up for the Falcons is the languishing San Francisco 49ers. There was a time when this tie would have held major implications for both sides heading into the playoffs. You may recall 2012, where the Falcons hosted the 9ers in the NFC Championship game; a game that resulted in Atlanta 4 points down and on the San Francisco 13, failing to convert on fourth down. (Na’Varro Bowman held Roddy White…no I’m not bitter). Indeed, that season was the last time Atlanta posted a winning season.
Atlanta has faced San Francisco twice since the 2012 SWINDLE I mean…incredibly well officiated Championship game. Following the travesty of 2012, Atlanta made San Fran sweat in their last game at Candlestick Park, before Bowman, the bane of Falcons fans, returned a tipped pass for a touchdown in the dying moments of the tie, winning 34-24.
The Falcons traveled to the bay area again last season, sat at 6-2, and managed to lose to a Jim Tomsula-coached aberration of a side. Recent history has not been kind to these Falcons. If this recent history has taught us anything, it’s that the 49ers will come to Atlanta and walk away with a victory.
What that same history doesn’t tell us, however, is that the 2016 San Francisco 49ers are actually the worst team in football.
Now under the guidance of ex-Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly, the 49ers sit at a valiant 1-12 for the season. Opening the season with an emphatic 28-0 victory over the Rams on the opening weekend, the 49ers have managed to lose the following 12 games. It’s fair to say the San Fran faithful aren’t particularly happy right now. And rightfully so; their draft picks have been pretty atrocious across the board, their on field product has been woeful for the best part of two and a half seasons, and the state of the art stadium they’re only three seasons into is struggling to sell many more than 50% of its capacity.
Know Your Enemy
Fortunately for me, I have a friend who is a 49ers fan. Adam Brown (check @abrown31 if you’re at all interested in Oxford United, Baseball, Basketball, the NFL in spells, mainly) initially helped me get into the NFL way back when. He has seen his team go from terrible to terrific and back again. I asked him if he could give me an idea as to why the 49ers fell so drastically, whether or not there’s any positives to take from the current crop, and whether his boys stand a chance this weekend.
Harbaugh was/is the key. Under his stewardship, we made three consecutive NFC championship games, one Super Bowl, and restored our place amongst the games elite franchises. With Harbaugh, we won 44 of 64 Regular Season games. That’s an astonishing record. His personality clearly irked the higher-ups of the 49ers, meaning we lost a top 3 coach.
We then subsequently replaced him with another Jim, a lesser Jim. Whilst Tomsula would have been more fun to have a beer with, he cost the team a year of rebuilding with no structure, no real gameplan and turning them into a basket case.
He has been helped in that endeavour by Trent Baalke, the almost certainly soon to be ex-General Manager. His absurd recent history in the draft has set the team back years. Quickly google “49ers 2012 draft”… Exhibit A.
Unfortunately his fascination of picking value by taking players coming off ACL injuries and complete reluctance to be aggressive in the draft has contributed massively to the current predicament.
The 2016 49ers have surpassed the 2015, any Mike Singletary coached team of yesteryear, and even the horrific 2-14 of 2004 in being the worst team I’ve seen in Red and Gold. I can’t fathom a team with a less threatening receiving corp, (hands down Rams fans) a more anemic rushing defence, and just an outright hideous offensive line.
Colin Kaepernick attracts a lot of attention for the right or wrong reasons depending on your political bend, but since he supplanted Blaine Gabbert the team has been notably more dynamic and dangerous. For a half they obliterated the Jets last week, and played the Patriots, Dolphins and Cardinals tight for long periods in recent weeks. Signs of improvement have been there, but sadly 11 losses without reply tells its’ own crippling, depressing tale of woe.
On a more positive note, our first round pick from this year, DeForest Buckner out of Oregon, has had a decent rookie year. Adding to a defence that is seeing Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward blossom. Positives are seldom however, and we will approach next year’s draft with the number 2 pick. This almost definitely results in drafting a new Quarterback, or a can’t miss prospect like such as Myles Garrett from Texas A&M.
As for Sunday’s game. It could be a total massacre. The Falcons are 14 point favourites and FiveThirtyEight gives them a 90% chance of victory. For reference the Patriots only had 75% in Cleveland. The last two times we were double digit underdogs, however, were home for New England and @ Arizona. These two games resulted in two of the better performances of the season. I think it ends up with a Falcons win, but the Niners cover.
On the Falcons side of the ball, question marks are still lingering over the status of part-human, part-cyborg Julio Jones, who’s seen his “turf toe” injury devalued to a “sprained toe”. While it doesn’t sound much different, the recovery time between the two is vast. Typically, a sprained toe can take between a week and four weeks to heal fully, whereas turf toe can take anywhere between a day and the end of time. Either way, this is a positive move that worrisome Falcons may well welcome. While I expect the official story to be a gametime decision will be made, I also expect Julio will not be active on Sunday, as the Falcons look to protect their most valuable weapon from further damage.
Mohammed Sanu and Jake Matthews returned to full practice coming off a week where they were inactive with a groin injury and vastly limited with a knee injury respectively. Jalen Collins is (very) questionable following a knock vs the Rams, and Nick Williams remains in concussion protocol. Blidi Wreh-Wilson has been re-signed to provide depth at cornerback, and it’s widely presumed that JD McKissic will get a call up from the practice squad should Williams fail to gain clearance to play.
Even if injury rules out the most dangerous receiver in football, as it did vs Los Angeles, Atlanta should really come away from this tie with a W to add to the pile. This 9ers side is that they’re actually finding incredible ways to lose. While it cannot be denied that the return of Colin Kaepernick under centre has given their offence something resembling competency, a lack of talent among their receivers have seen his efforts left unrewarded. I expect Alford and… whoever plays on the outside opposite him to handle what little passing threat the 49ers possess with relative ease, leaving our soft run defence to handle the genuine talent that is Carlos Hyde.
And that puts everything on this stellar offence of ours to pick apart one of the worst defences in football. Gabriel, Hardy, and Robinson proved that they can be productive against a good defence, imagine what they’d be like against a horrible one? And add Sanu into the mix…let’s just say Matt Ryan might not be the only Falcon throwing touchdowns this weekend…
I’ve tried to stay as grounded as possible this season, often adopting a pessimistic approach to games, so avoid too much disappointment should we come up short. Even I’m struggling to find anything that points to a Falcons loss this weekend. The key for San Fran will be putting Ryan off early and often, as well as getting Hyde the ball as often as possible. The reality is, for the Falcons to lose this, Hyde would have to put together a 250 yard rushing game, and Kaepernick would have to rediscover the form that earned him a $126 million contract. Fortunately, I can’t see it happening. By Monday, we should be 9-5, and have guaranteed the clubs first winning season since 2012.
Score Prediction: 38-20