This wasn’t a game that felt like it should have playoff implications. The Falcons are a dreadful team, entering Sunday with the fifth-worse point differential (-108) in the NFL. But there they were, with a 6-7 record, a game off the wild-card, and a win away from leapfrogging the 49ers via tiebreaker.
Aside from a shaky start borne out of a JaMycal Hasty game-opening fumble — a primer for what was another dreadful special teams performance — this was not a competition between two equally-matched teams. It concluded with a 31-13 49ers win, effectively knocking the Falcons out of the playoff picture.
It gives San Francisco tiebreakers over Atlanta, Philadelphia and Minnesota, with Washington, New Orleans and, somehow, Seattle, as the only teams that could really knock them out of playoff contention at this point.
The 49ers’ offense made mince meat of Atlanta’s defense by playing all the hits. It was as dominant as that group has looked at any point this season.
Deebo Samuel featured as the hybrid player he is, and was utilized as more of a receiver than he’d been allowed to in previous weeks. He had the game’s opening touchdown as a rusher, for his team-leading seventh of the season. He caught his patented deep/middle crosser for a 30-yard gain, and took a slant for 21 yards. He also cleared a path for a 36-yard Brandon Aiyuk completion, and nearly tossed a touchdown to Aiyuk on a trick play.
In total, Samuel carried the ball six times for 29 yards and the touchdown, while adding four catches for 60 yards.
Aiyuk, by the way, was immense as a blocker. He sealed the edge for at least a handful of Jeff Wilson Jr. runs and a few George Kittle touches, and caught that 36-yard slant.
While we’re on the subject of blocking, there was Jauan Jennings, who has suddenly become a steady, and ever-present force in this offense. His blocking remained phenomenal.
Jennings has taken on the Kendrick Bourne role, who offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel compared him to this week. Jennings came through with a Bourne-esque stat line of three catches for 28 yards, including this touchdown on the type of quick out route Jimmy Garoppolo loves to throw.
That’s all before mentioning George Kittle’s performance, which was somehow the weakest of this ridiculous three-game stretch. He had six catches for 93 yards, after last week setting a tight-end record of two-straight games with a touchdown and 150-plus yards.
This, of course, wasn’t possible without Garoppolo executing. He was mostly great, hitting on the quick slants, quick outs, and deep middle throws which are his bread and butter. There were two bad misses; an inaccurate throw behind Trent Sherfield which turned a possible touchdown drive into a field goal drive, and a near-interception in the fourth quarter when he didn’t see an underneath linebacker. That seems to happen once a game.
Aside from those throws, however, Garoppolo was excellent. He finished 18-for-23 for 235 yards, a TD and 123.7 QB rating.
It should be stated, again, that the Falcons are a mess. They had three opportunities on fourth-and-one attempts deep inside the 49ers’ half. Two of those attempts were at the one-yard line. Both were pass attempts which failed miserably. The other was a deep pitch in the backfield — from the 49ers’ 8-yard line — to Cordarrelle Patterson which Jimmie Ward stuffed.
The safety play from Ward and Jaquiski Tartt has to be singled out. They have been impressive all year, and the nature of their position means that when they play well, they often don’t receive the praise they probably deserve, unless it results in a turnover or a massive hit.
But they were imperious forces on Sunday. Tartt was a one-man wrecking crew, leveling Falcons players with the ferocity the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom was known for. He was there to crunch Matt Ryan on a third-and-goal scramble attempt, then flipped Christian Blake on the failed fourth-and-goal on the ensuing play, to effectively ice an already-iced game.
Fred Warner, who was without Azeez Al-Shaair or Dre Greenlaw, looked like himself, turning much of the middle of the field into a no-fly zone, and plugging gaps to limit the Falcons run game.
And then there was the defensive line, which, after looking so unreliable for much of the season, has become a force. Arden Key was robbed of a two-sack game because he fell on Matt Ryan. It was probably the correct interpretation of one of the NFL’s many horrible rules.
Key was joined in the sack brigade by Samson Ebukam and Nick Bosa, who was cleared of a concussion later in the game, and came up with his 15th sack of the season. He’s now 4.5 sacks shy of Aldon Smith’s single-season 49ers record with three games left to play.