The Atlanta Falcons are finally living up to their potential. After the final two seasons of the Mike Smith era ended in a total of 10 wins, the Falcons showed signs of improvement last season under Dan Quinn going 8-8. But still, it seemed like Atlanta was better than it showed on the field. Enter the 2016 edition, which sits atop the NFC South at 8-5 with three games remaining. The Falcons have a shot at posting their first double-digit-win season since 2012 and potentially making some noise in the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers fans knew that the start of the Chip Kelly era would likely result in some lean years, but 1-12 probably isn’t what they had in mind. To compound the mess, the 49ers’ lone win came all the way back in Week 1 against the lowly Rams, which means they haven’t experienced victory since early September. Eight of the 12 losses have been double digits and San Francisco could be staring at another on the road against the NFL’s top scoring offense.
San Francisco at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 18 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Atalnta -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Ailing Atlanta Offense Still Flying
Julio Jones, the NFL’s leading wide receiver, will miss a second straight game because of a toe sprain. And for the second straight game, it likely won’t matter much. Without Jones in the lineup last week, Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense didn’t miss a beat. Ryan connected with eight different receivers for three touchdowns as Atlanta pounded Los Angeles on the road 42-14. This week is likely to be much of the same against the 49ers. San Francisco ranks dead last against the run, so expect a heavy dose of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman out of the backfield. Mohamed Sanu is expected to return after missing last week because of a groin injury, and he and emerging deep threat Taylor Gabriel will serve as Ryan’s primary targets in the absence of Jones.
2. Carlos Hyde
If the 49ers hope to have any chance of beating the Falcons this afternoon, they are going to need another big game from running back Carlos Hyde. Hyde gashed the Jets’ defense, which entered the game ranked fourth in the NFL against the run, for 193 yards on just 17 carries last week. Hyde has been one of the few bright spots for San Francisco’s offense this season with 879 rushing yards in just 11 games. The likely absence of All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley (hamstring) will not help Hyde repeat last week’s strong showing, but he will need to find a way to make something happen when he has the ball if anything to chew up some clock and keep the ball out of Atlanta’s hands.
3. The Rise of Vic Beasley Jr.
The Falcons’ second-year linebacker grew up just 60 miles away from where he now lives out his NFL dream. After a rookie season in which Beasley recorded 20 tackles and four sacks, the former Clemson Tiger star has made a case for him to be considered for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He’s tied with Von Miller for the league lead in sacks (13.5) and is tops in forced fumbles (six). Beasley could be the first player in 15 seasons to lead the league in both categories in the same season. Beasley’s growth has correlated with Atlanta’s recent defensive surge, as the Falcons have held two of their past three opponents to fewer than 20 points. Beasley and his teammates could have a field day this afternoon against a banged-up San Francisco offensive line that has already given up 36 sacks.
Even without their best offensive weapon, and one of the best players in the NFL period, Atlanta’s offense should be just fine against San Francisco — thanks to Matt Ryan. At this point, the 49ers are simply playing for pride and a better draft pick. What the future holds for head coach Chip Kelly and quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains to be seen. But as far as this game, it’s pretty simple. Atlanta rolls.
Prediction: Falcons 34, 49ers 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.