They’re coming off of a draining, emotional victory against a top-level opponent, finishing the brutal gantlet of games against Green Bay, Baltimore, and New Orleans by winning two out of the three.
Naturally, there will be a letdown against the 4-9 Falcons, and coaches will be sorely tempted to rest up their injured players (hello, Richard Sherman! Yo, Jaquiski Tartt!) in preparation for the big showdown with Seattle during week 17.
That tiff will almost certainly decide who wins the NFC West (and first seed in the NFC), versus who plays on the road against a bad NFC East team during the Wild Card round.
Another risk factor: the Falcons know a lot about the Niners’ offense since Kyle Shanahan was their offensive coordinator just three years ago. Furthermore, three of the 49ers’ offensive lineman used to play for Atlanta — Mike Person, Daniel Brunskill, and center Ben Garland, who will be starting in place of injured center Weston Richburg for the rest of this season.
Garland and Person will face off against veteran defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who is having a career season (5.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss).
Take a deep breath before you consider picking the Falcons to upset the Niners or even beat the spread, though. Because while some serious injuries have hurt the Niners, the Falcons can match them body for body, and they don’t have nearly the same depth to fight it with.
Start with cornerbacks. Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant (broken arm) is out for the season, just as the Niners have settled on a strong receiving corps of Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel, and Kendrick Bourne to help out star tight end George Kittle. Whether Trufant’s replacement will be rookie Kendall Sheffield or veteran Blidi Wreh-Wilson, the dropoff is steep.
Atlanta’s other starting corner, Isaiah Oliver, missed practice Wednesday (shoulder) and was in a black, no-contact jersey Thursday. He’s officially questionable for the game. (Atlanta had no practice Friday, or at least none listed on the official Practice Participation and Game Status Report.)
The Falcon’s wide receiver corps is dinged up as well. Megastar Julio Jones, who already has over a thousand yards this year, is nursing a shoulder injury that limited him in the last two practices, and the season is over for Calvin Ridley (866 yards, seven touchdowns). The team also traded Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots mid-season.
Their offensive line also has problems — not good news against the NFL’s leading pass rush. Starting left guard James Carpenter (concussion protocol) and backup tackle Ty Sambrailo (hamstring) are officially out for Sunday.
Keeping this game competitive would already have been an achievement for Atlanta, but with these injuries, the chances are slim indeed. The Niners can’t afford to overlook this game, as Atlanta has a lot of talent even so, but Kyle Shanahan also has something to prove.
If you’re wondering how these counterbalancing factors balance each other, the Falcons’ website listed “expert picks” for the game from eight major media outlets on Thursday. And all eight picked the Niners.