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Despite suffering a close loss, why a Falcons’ win is going to help the 49ers long term

The Falcons just handed the 49ers a huge wake up call and that’s actually going to help San Francisco heading into the playoffs.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

After the most important victory in Kyle Shanahan’s career, the 49ers were not facing the Atlanta Falcons this week; they were battling complacency. Sunday’s game was setting up to be a trap game, as San Francisco was coming off of a high with the victory over the Saints and have the Rams in town this next Saturday night.

Dan Quinn’s Falcons were 4-9 coming into this game and were out of playoff contention — but were determined to ruin the 49ers’ hopes of going 4-0 vs. NFC South.

San Francisco came out flat on offense, not taking advantage of a Falcons’ defense that lost defender Takk McKinley to a shoulder injury early in the game. The 49ers’ offense had ten total drives in the game, but punted four times and had a turnover. While they had three drives of at least 50 yards, their poor execution deep in Atlanta territory was the difference in this game.

On the flip side, Robert Saleh’s unit was at a major disadvantage coming into this game, missing the likes of corners Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams, safety Jaquiski Tartt and pass rusher Dee Ford.

While San Francisco’s defense held up for three-and-a-half quarters, they were gashed by quarterback Matt Ryan and wideout Julio Jones late in the game, who finished with 134 receiving yards on 13 catches and the game-winning touchdown at the goal line.

With Seattle’s win against Carolina earlier in the day, the 49ers have momentarily dropped to the No. 5 spot in the NFC playoff race. But breathe easy 49ers’ fans. San Francisco’s playoff destiny is completely in their control. If they win these next two games against the Rams and Seahawks, the 49ers will be the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

While a loss late in the season against a weaker opponent does not feel great, I think it’s actually going to help the 49ers in the playoffs and is one of the best things that could have happened to them.

Walking through the locker room after the game, it’s as angry and upset as I have seen it — and it was not just the players.

49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan stepped up to the podium immediately after the game and echoed the sentiment that San Francisco has to play better.

“I don’t think anyone played well enough to win...they [Atlanta Falcons] had a helluva day, and we need to be on our stuff to win.”

The feeling did not stop there, 49ers’ starting tight end George Kittle came up, and there was a visible frustration on his face.

“Hopefully this lights a fire under us. Hopefully, our team learns from this that if they don’t bring the intensity, then we will be a quick season-ender.”

The feeling didn’t stop with just the offensive players, when I spoke with defensive lineman Nick Bosa after the game, he did not hold back in his evaluation of his play.

“I know I let all of them down...I need to be more of an impact player.”

49ers’ corner Emmanuel Moseley was tasked with covering Jones, and despite some good plays, the Falcons’ wideout got the best of him in this matchup, but Moseley was worried about cleaning up his mistakes for next week.

“We just got to continue to be better, look at that loss, and find out what we did wrong, correct it in film, and move on.”

The veteran left tackle Joe Staley had a bigger picture view, as the 49ers look ahead to their next two games against the Rams and Seahawks.

“I think everybody to a man will tell you they should have played better and can play better. This isn’t going to define our season. It’s going to be something we’re going to learn from. We have two games left. If we take care of business, we’ll be happy.”

The mood amongst the 49ers in the locker room was clear — the Falcons won today, but the players felt like they did not play with the intensity or the urgency they needed to.

While a loss stings right now, it actually seems to be re-focusing the 49ers, and the team seems to be even more determined to come out next week and prove that this week’s loss was just a fluke.

Earlier in the season when the 49ers were rattling off win after win, the team was very determined to prove the doubters wrong. For the first time this season, most of the media critics were starting to praise the team after their big win vs. Saints and it seemed to get to their heads.

I think a loss vs. Falcons is the fuel that Shanahan and the coaching staff need to get this team prepared for the rest of the season and the playoffs. It does not matter who the opponent is — if the 49ers do not bring their A-game, they are going to get beat.

It may not seem like it after today’s loss, but this lesson that they learned today could be the reason that they make a deep run in the playoffs this season.