The Atlanta Falcons have been through a rough stretch of football lately. After starting 5-0, losses to the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – and a tight game with the Tennessee Titans – were less than ideal.
But they absolutely cannot afford a loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. It simply can’t happen.
Ignore the fact that the game is being played 3,000 miles from home. If the Falcons want to have any chance at a good second half of the 2015 season, this is the kind of game they need to win. Where the Bucs, who beat the Falcons last week, have been steadily improving, the 49ers have been getting steadily worse.
(Also read: The Atlanta Hawks are still very, very good)
Going into Sunday’s game, the San Francisco defense ranks No. 27 against the pass and 23rd against the run. Their offense ranks worst in the league. They’ve lost six of their last seven, and in most of those losses, they were beaten badly.
Now, they’re going to bench quarterback Colin Kaepernick and go with Blaine Gabbert, who hasn’t started a game, anywhere, since 2013. During the week, reports leaked that San Francisco was looking to get Gabbert his first start against a lower-rated defense like Atlanta, giving him experience before the Seattle Seahawks come calling next week.
We know East Coast teams struggle when they go way west, but whether this game is played in Atlanta, San Francisco or Timbuktu, the Falcons have to beat this 49ers team. This should be considered a must-win game, especially after they dropped two of their last three against a trio of teams that aren’t all that good.
Let’s not mince words here – the Falcons are still not a very good football team. They have glaring holes, and their lack of depth has become a major concern in recent weeks as expected injuries pile up. The offensive line still struggles to protect quarterback Matt Ryan, and the defense isn’t capable of carrying the team yet.
That alone explains how they could lose to an up-and-comer like Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston. The Falcons aren’t likely to make a Super Bowl run this year, but they have a real shot at the postseason, and they certainly have a schedule that favors 10 or so wins.
If they can beat the cupcakes like San Francisco, that is.
The 49ers have seen a lot of personnel turnover in the past year, but the Falcons should have an advantage in their head coach, Dan Quinn. He coached Seattle’s defense against this San Francisco franchise twice a year, sometimes more, as the two division rivals squared off frequently. He knows this opponent front and back, and he had a fair amount of success against them when they were good, so I’d expect him to continue that trend Sunday.
And while the Falcons have clearly established themselves as a second-half team, they would be flirting with danger if they start slowly against San Francisco, especially on defense. Letting Gabbert get into a groove is a worst-case scenario; the Falcons’ defense must make him uncomfortable for all four quarters.
This is a great opportunity to get the second half of the season started on a good note, and it’ll make for a much happier bye week ahead if they can get a win. The Falcons need to take advantage of a bad 49ers team and come back from San Jose with a win.
Anything less might spell real trouble for Atlanta’s playoff hopes.
Photo: AP/David Goldman