It was bound to happen. We just had to wait almost the entire season for it to occur. The 11-3 San Francisco 49ers finally fell victim to the trap game on Sunday, dropping a disappointing loss to the now 5-9 Atlanta Falcons at Levi’s Stadium. It was as flat as we’ve seen Kyle Shanahan’s team all season in an unimpressive and mistake-ridden performance that kept the Falcons in the game long enough for a last-second, game-winning touchdown.
Here’s are our takeaways from San Francisco’s third loss of the season:
The hangover hurts
The 49ers had completed the most difficult stretch of three regular-season games in NFL history. The Green Bay Packers (11-3), Baltimore Ravens (12-2), and New Orleans Saints (11-3) were the ultimate proving ground, the 49ers emerging 2-1 after falling to the Ravens on the road to a last-second field goal. Shanahan’s team returned to Levi’s as if they’d returned from battle, with a handful of key injuries and a team that appeared weary of the warpath. It was your typical late-season disappointer that’s almost become commonplace, like the New England Patriots losing to the Miami Dolphins in December last season. The 49ers now need to shake it off as they prepare for two must-win games to close out the regular season.
Locked on Kittle
The bulk of the 49ers passing attack ran through Kittle on Sunday. He accounted for 134 of Jimmy Garoppolo’s 200 yards passing. Sunday’s standout performance brought Kittle’s career, receiving total to 2,777 yards, the record for a tight end in his first three seasons, breaking Mike Ditka’s mark of 2,774. Kittle was targeted a career-most 17 times against the Falcons, and it eventually backfired a bit for the 49ers. His fourth-quarter fumble out of bounds both nixed a likely a first down and stopped the clock, giving quarterback Matt Ryan the time he needed to author his game-winning drive.
The 49ers defense gave up 46 points against the Saints in Week 14. In addition to running through the wringer, they also suffered a handful of injuries that proved costly against the Falcons. Defensive end Dee Ford is expected out for the rest of the regular season after aggravating his hamstring injury. Cornerback Richard Sherman also suffered a hamstring injury and might return this week against the Los Angeles Rams. Slot corner K’Waun Williams’ concussion kept him out against Atlanta. Safety Jaquiski Tartt missed his second game with fractured ribs. Defensive lineman D.J. Jones injured his ankle and was placed on injured reserve. All of these injuries clearly hindered the 49ers defense against an effective Falcons offense led by Julio Jones, who caught 13 passes on 20 targets for 134 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.
Where are the wideouts?
Like we mentioned earlier, the 49ers’ passing attack was pretty much Kittle. The momentum built up by the wideouts following the Saints win was nowhere to be seen against the Falcons. Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, and Emmanuel Sanders combined for just four receptions and 49 yards. Garoppolo and the 49ers offense was clearly in a funk, with missed passes and dropped opportunities plaguing the group. We all know that Kittle is elite, but the 49ers can’t plan on targeting their tight end 17 times every game as they fight for playoff positioning. Shanahan will need more of his passing attack along the perimeter.
Still in control
The 49ers are playoff-bound for the first time since 2013. Despite the alarming performance on Sunday, the loss was mostly meaningless in the 49ers’ playoff picture. They were always going to have to beat the Rams and Seahawks to close out the season and earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Even a loss against the Rams would’n’t eliminate the 49ers from winning the NFC West. As you’ve undoubtedly already heard, the 49ers are in control of their destiny, and a win or loss against the Falcons wouldn’t have changed that. If the Seahawks beat the Cardinals, the 49ers beat the Rams this week, which many expect but is far from guaranteed; then Week 17 is the showdown for both the division and the conference. Beat Seattle. Win the division. Beat both. Win the conference. It’s on you, 49ers.