NFL Preview - Atlanta (4-10) at San Francisco (10-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - How about an NFC Championship Game rematch on "Monday Night Football" to celebrate the last regular-season game at Candlestick Park?
Sure sounds like fun on paper but the Atlanta Falcons, who came up just short against San Francisco for last season's NFC crown, haven't held up their end of the bargain this time around.
Injures and ineffectiveness have turned Atlanta from a 13-3 team which had home-field advantage throughout last season's NFC playoff process into a 4-10 bunch which will limp into the Bay Area to take on a 10-4 49ers team on the verge on clinching another trip to the postseason.
In fact San Francisco could be celebrating before the game even kicks off if Arizona becomes the Seattle Seahawks' 15th straight victim in the Pacific Northwest a day earlier. A Cards loss on Sunday or a Niners win over the Falcons will send Jim Harbaugh's team back into the playoffs for a third consecutive year, a fitting way to say goodbye to the team's home since 1971.
"There will be tremendous memories from everybody that's ever played there," Harbaugh said. "That's why it's important for us not to screw it up and make sure we get this win."
Atlanta, on the other hand, will miss the postseason dance for the first time since 2009.
It's looks unlikely that the 49ers will catch Seattle for the NFC West title, meaning this could be the final game ever at Candlestick. The team will be moving to the new Levi's Stadium in nearby Santa Clara, Calif. for the start of the 2014 season.
Over the past four decades, Candlestick Park has played host to five Super Bowl winning teams, the Beatles' final concert in 1966 and a Papal Mass by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
At each home game this season, the franchise has been counting down the top 10 moments in 49ers history at the stadium and has finally reached No.1, "The Catch," Dwight Clark's iconic snaring of a Joe Montana pass deep in the end zone as the Niners edged the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27, in the 1982 NFC Championship Game.
The present day 49ers are trying to create some of their own lasting images and moved closer to a playoff berth in Week 15 with a convincing 33-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
Colin Kaepernick threw for 203 yards with two touchdowns on 19-of-29 passing and also rushed for 39 yards on seven attempts against the Bucs. Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree each hauled in a touchdown on five receptions. Davis finished with 79 yards, while Crabtree recorded 45.
Frank Gore rushed for 86 yards on 22 carries for San Fran, which won its fourth consecutive game.
"They (Tampa Bay) have a great defense," said Kaepernick. "They cause a lot of problems for offenses and they do a lot of things well."
The Falcons are also coming off a win, albeit an ugly one when Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins nearly overcame a seven-turnover nightmare before Falcons CB Desmond Trufant tipped away a potential go-ahead two-point conversion in the waning seconds to give Atlanta a 27-26 victory at the Georgia Dome.
With the Redskins trailing 27-20, Cousins led a crisp two-minute drill that ended in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss with 18 seconds remaining.
Mike Shanahan, just days after making the decision to shut down franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III, made another headline-worthy call by going for the win.
Cousins rolled to his right and flew a floater into traffic, Trufant knocked the ball out of the back of the end zone and Atlanta secured the onside kick to win for just the second time in the past eight weeks.
"It wasn't perfect by any stretch ... but we found a way to win the ballgame," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said.
Steven Jackson rushed for two scores and Tony Gonzalez caught a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan, who finished with 210 yards and an interception on 29-of-38 passing.
The 49ers hold a significant 45-30-1 edge in their all-time series with Atlanta and an impressive 26-11 home mark, which includes a 17-2 edge between 1983-2001 when the Falcons called the NFC West home.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The 49ers' defense has generally been stout all season but the club has taken off and won four straight because the offense and specifically Kaepernick have started to show a bit more consistency.
Kaepernick has thrown seven touchdown passes and turned it over just once during San Francisco's current run, amassing a 104.7 passer rating over that span -- a key number because the 49ers are a perfect 11-0 when the second-year starter finishes a game over the century mark.
Gore has also been heating up recently, rushing for 196 yards over the past two weeks and passing the 1,000-yard plateau for the seventh time in his career against Tampa Bay.
"Frank's an amazing running back," Kaepernick said when asked about Gore, who has 1,017 yards on the season. "I feel like he's the most underrated running back in the NFL. He does everything for our offense. What he means to this team and what he contributes really can't be quantified."
The Falcons will try to quantify it but on paper the 49ers' ground game looks too strong for Atlanta. Spearheaded by Gore, San Francisco ranks fifth in the NFL, averaging 137.1 yards a game on the ground. Conversely Atlanta allows 131.4 ypg and 4.6 yards a carry, a bottom-five mark in the league.
To their credit the Falcons haven't given up on the season and have continued to play hard with the finish line approaching. Atlanta has won two of three overall and has forced 11 turnovers over that stretch.
Meanwhile, Ryan generally excels against San Francisco. He is 2-0 in the regular season against the Niners and completed 30-of-42 passes for 396 yards with 3 TDs and a 114.8 rating in last year's championship game.
"The first (a team has to accomplish) is winning the turnover battle and the second one is winning the explosive battle," Smith said. "You put those two things together, and it's the toxic differential that you look at."
Big plays are something the Niners defense is usually adept at stopping, however. The San Fran D has given up just 36 explosive plays (defined as 20 yards or more), the second-lowest amount in the NFL.
The 49ers have plenty to play for here. They want to give Candlestick a proper sendoff and they also want to hit the postseason running.
"I think for us, we want to leave Candlestick with a win. That's what we're worried about," Kaepernick said.
On the other hand, Atlanta has shown pride but May's draft positioning may be more important than notching a fifth win at this point.
"We desperately want to win," Harbaugh said. "(The Falcons have) had some close losses and some games that haven't gone their way. This year, more than any year I've been coaching or in this league, everybody's fighting tooth and nail for these wins and this will be no different on Monday night."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 27, Falcons 14
12/20 12:15:09 ET