By Bruce Macgowan
Special to The Examiner
Take a look at the NFL standings. How many teams are still alive in the playoff chase? Outside of Tampa, Green Bay, the Patriots and the Cowboys, who will probably win their divisions, there are 19 teams that still have a shot at the postseason. And the Niners are one of them.
San Francisco currently holds the second spot in the NFC wild card chase. Considering that the Niners have won five of their last seven games, including Sunday’s stirring overtime thriller at Cincinnati, the team has to be feeling good about its chances.
But this Sunday another one of those playoff hopefuls visits Santa Clara, and the Atlanta Falcons will not be easy pickings. Led by veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, who took the Falcons to the Super bowl in 2017, Atlanta is just a game back of the 49ers with a 6-7 record, along with four other teams in the NFC.
The Falcons had to scrape to win last week’s game against lowly Carolina, but you might remember that one of the Niners’ three losses in their NFC title-winning season of 2019 came at the hands of Ryan, who fired a winning TD pass on the last play of the game.
Ryan has survived 14 years in the NFL but he has detractors, including former Super Bowl winning quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner tweeted this week that he’s not a fan of the Falcons’ field general.
“Few quarterbacks frustrate me more watching film than #MattRyan…. he makes so many big time throws, but equally many confusing reads & decisions!!! I have no idea what to make of it… not sure how it’s possible, but it’s every week???”
Meanwhile, after all of the chatter and nonsense about rushing the Niners’ top draft pick Trey Lance onto the field, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s play for much of of the last couple of months has silenced most of the doubters, at least for now. And he really seems to enjoy the pressure as he’s taken his team on a number of long scoring drives, many in the final minutes of games these last few years.
“I think he does really good in those situations,” explained head coach Kyle Shanahan.
“The game never seems too big for him. When you’re going fast, there’s not a lot of time to sit there and think. You just react. And usually, when Jimmy’s reacting, he’s letting it rip and not hesitating and he’s pretty automatic.”
When given the time, Jimmy G usually get it done, but he certainly has lots of help. His brilliant receivers — George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and the multi-talented Deebo Samuel — make up the core of what is arguably the best group of pass catchers in football.
Aiyuk made the play of his young career last week against the Bengals, stretching just far enough inside the left pylon of the end zone to score the game winning touchdown in overtime. Kittle caught 13 pass for 151 yards and a touchdown and did his usual thing, carrying defenders with him while grinding other would-be tacklers into the turf.
And Samuel, who sat out the previous week’s game at Seattle because of a groin muscle strain, returned to action, catching a key third down pass for 22 yards while carrying the ball eight times. One of those runs was a stunning 27-yard touchdown scamper that left frustrated Bengals’ defenders grasping at air.
The offensive line needs to continue to keep Garoppolo upright, and it certainly would help if rookie running back Elijah Mitchell is able to return to form. But Mitchell, who didn’t play against Cincinnati because of a recent concussion, might not be at full strength or perhaps not even available Sunday.
Meanwhile, second-year defensive end Nick Bosa continues to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. Bosa only had one sack of Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow last Sunday, but he was constantly being double-teamed by Cincinnati lineman and that opened up opportunities for other defenders, such linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. He’s emerged as a possible star of the future, who had a team-high eight tackles and a sack against the Bengals.
Atlanta’s defense, meanwhile, has given up the third-most points in the NFL this year (353). But last week at Carolina they came up with three takeaways, including an interception that was returned for a score by linebacker Mykal Walker. The Falcons also recovered a fumble by Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton that led to another score.
Even though Atlanta’s offense wasn’t brilliant against Carolina, they did enough things right to win, especially with their ground game.
“If we’re going to be a physical team and win in December we have to run the ball and I thought we did that today,” head coach Arthur Smith said after the win.
Atlanta certainly doesn’t have an elite running game, but keep on eye on 30-year-old veteran Cordarrelle Patterson, who has been averaging right around 4½ yards per carry while crossing the goal line five times this year.
This is a game the 49ers should win but given the logjam of teams fighting for the four wild card spots in the two conferences, don’t count it as automatic. There have been too many surprises and last-minute stunners this season.
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.