The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the NFL season, in large part thanks to the offensive creativity of head coach Kyle Shanahan. Despite lacking name-brand players, the Niners rank fourth in the league in passing offense.
Of course, it wasn't so long ago that Shanahan was calling plays for the Atlanta Falcons, against whom the 49ers will play on Sunday. He was the Falcons' offensive coordinator in 2015 and '16, during which they went to their second Super Bowl in franchise history and led the league in scoring.
Since Shanahan's departure in 2017, the two franchises have gone in different directions. The Falcons were okay at first — going 10-6 but losing in the Divisional Round of the playoffs — but have already clinched a second straight losing season. The 49ers, meanwhile, took two years to get a healthy, quality quarterback but now look like the toast of the NFC.
San Francisco won its biggest game of the season last week, a 48-46 win at New Orleans on a Robbie Gould 30-yard field goal with mere seconds remaining. That it came one week after narrowly losing to the Ravens made the win even sweeter. At 11-2, the 49ers control their own destiny for home-field advantage in the playoffs, although a looming Week 17 matchup with the Seahawks could be the difference between the No. 1 and No. 5 seed.
The Falcons have won three of their last five games — all against division rivals — but that hasn't been enough to offset a 1-7 start. At this point, the team is playing to save head coach Dan Quinn's job and determine its draft position. And potentially to exact some revenge on their former offensive coordinator.
Atlanta at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: 49ers -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Jimmy Garoppolo will show up?
The Niners took a giant leap of faith when they traded a second-round pick for Garoppolo in 2017 and handed him a $137.5 million contract three months later. And that seems to have paid off. Mostly. Although he's only played in nine games during his first two years with the team due to the trade coming in October and a 2018 ACL injury, he ranks eighth in quarterback rating this season (103.9), fifth in completion rate (69.5 percent), and fourth in yards per attempt (8.3).
The problem has been that Garoppolo can disappear at times. The 28-year-old has had five games this season with fewer than 200 passing yards and has thrown interceptions in all but four starts. However, he's been hot in his last four games with 286.5 yards per game and 12 touchdowns to three picks.
Atlanta should provide ample opportunity for him to continue that strong play, though, especially with the emergence of rookie wideout Deebo Samuel, who has 413 yards on 25 receptions in the last five games. The Falcons rank 24th in the league in pass defense at 258.4 yards per game and have coughed up at least 290 yards through the air in four of their last five games.
2. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object
Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration for the Falcons' offense, but the matchup of Atlanta's passing attack against San Francisco's defense will be perhaps the most exciting aspect of the game. Matt Ryan keeps plugging away, as the Falcons rank third in the league at 295.7 passing yards per game, while the Niners have the league's stingiest pass defense (150.8 ypg).
A sizeable amount of Ryan's stats have been padded during garbage time, which the Falcons have had plenty of this year. Still, Ryan has a dangerous group of receivers, even after losing Calvin Ridley for the season. Julio Jones is as dominant as ever, breaking the 1,000-yard barrier in Week 13, and Russell Gage has stepped up since cracking the starting lineup three weeks ago. Austin Hooper is also Ryan's best threat at tight end since Tony Gonzalez retired in 2013.
Ryan's one big weakness this season, though, has been turnovers. His 12 interceptions are tied for fifth-most in the league — although a 2.5 percent interception rate is a more modest 11th-highest — and his eight fumbles are tied for eighth-most. Meanwhile, only three teams have forced more turnovers than the Niners, so Atlanta will have to be extra careful on Sunday.
3. Which running back will take over for San Francisco?
The 49ers' lack of big names or consistency with touches on offense may infuriate fantasy football owners, but it's become one of the team's biggest strengths. They don't have to depend on one workhorse as they did for years with Frank Gore. Instead, they have three quality running backs who have led them to the league's second-best rushing attack.
Last week, Raheem Mostert got 10 carries, while Matt Breida got six rushing attempts and Tevin Coleman had three. That may seem like a fairly even split of touches, but the snaps make it far clearer who Kyle Shanahan and the coaching staff prefer. Mostert was on the field for 60 percent of snaps, while neither Breida nor Coleman eclipsed even 20 percent. Mostert appears to be the new lead back for San Francisco, but Shanahan has shown he's willing to change before.
Atlanta may make this one close at the end by racking up garbage-time points; Matt Ryan's fantasy owners will be thankful. But the 49ers' defense is playing on a different level right now, and they know better than to look ahead at games against the Rams and Seahawks to end the season. Look for Good Jimmy Garoppolo to show up on Sunday and the Niners to jump ahead early at home.