San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) throws against the Atlanta Falcons defense in second half action on Sun Dec 18, 2021 at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara (AP News photo)
by Marko Ukalovic
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — These are the games you’re supposed to win if you want to be playoff contender.
The San Francisco 49ers took care of business in a 31-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons (6-8) on Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
San Francisco has won two games in a row as they continue their playoff push for in the NFC playoff race. They are currently the sixth seed in the NFC and in the second wild card position. Atlanta has lost two of its past three games.
It was a start JaMycal Hasty would soon like to forget as he fumbled the opening kickoff that was recovered by the Falcons at the 49ers 14-yard line.
San Francisco’s (8-6) stout defense let Hasty off the hook as they made a goal line stand on a fourth and goal from their own one-yard line when Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw incomplete to Kyle Pitts.
“I thought our defense played really well in the first half,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanhan. “The two drives before our final drive, I think we went three and out on both. We needed to stay on the field and finish them right there. (Our) D came up huge with those four down stops which made us survive it.”
After a 48-yard field goal by Yonghoe Koo the 49ers offense revved up the engine on their second offensive possession. They drove down 79 yards on 11 plays which resulted in a 30-yard field goal by Robbie Gould. The drive was set up with receptions of 25 and 28 yards to tight end George Kittle from Jimmy Garoppolo.
San Francisco went up 10-3 on its third possession. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk rumbled in for a six-yard touchdown run to complete an eight play 77-yard drive. Brandon Aiyuk contributed a 36-yard reception and Jeff Wilson Jr. had a 17-yard rush to help set up Juszczyk’s first rushing TD of the season.
Atlanta (6-8) responded with an eight play 65-yard drive of their own capped off with a 20-yard touchdown from Ryan to wide receiver Russell Gage who leaped high up in the air over Aubrey Thomas for the reception. The drive was aided on a controversial roughing the passer penalty on Arden Key, who had sacked Ryan one play earlier.
Garoppolo marched the 49ers down the field on just six plays and 75 yards in 3:27 that resulted in a 10-yard rushing touchdown by Deebo Samuel to close out the half. Samuel had a 30-yard reception to open the drive.
Samuel now has seven rushing touchdowns on the season, compared to his five receiving touchdowns.
“I just saw it on the install,” Samuel said regarding his new hybrid role on offense. “He (Shanahan) knows my mindset when it comes to just playing the game. I’m never going to shy away from any contact or shy away from anything that they ask me to do.”
San Francisco made the second half a living nightmare for Ryan and the Falcons offense.
Ryan was sacked in back-to-back plays in their opening drive of the second half. The second sack resulted in a fumble by Ryan with Fred Warner recovering for the 49ers.
“Our pass rush is coming alive and they’re coming alive when we needed them to,” said 49ers linebacker Fred Warner. “They’re the ones who start it, penetrating on first and second down so they can earn the right to rush on third down.”
San Francisco only needed four plays to make the Falcons pay for their miscue as Wilson Jr. rushed for a five-yard touchdown to increase the Niners lead to 24-10.
“Our guys were locked in today,” Garoppolo said. “It was a big game. NFC opponent, playoff picture and everything like that. It’s December football. We knew what we were in for.”
It was Wilson’s first rushing touchdown of the season as he made his second consecutive start for the injured Elijah Mitchell.
Atlanta drove 71 yards on nine plays capped off with a 22-yard field goal by Koo.
The 49ers put the game away with another quick drive. They went 75 yards on five plays when Garoppolo completed a four-yard touchdown reception to Jauan Jennings with 5:11 remaining in the third quarter.
San Francisco’s defense held the fort late in the fourth quarter as they stopped back-to-back drives by Atlanta’s offense forcing the Falcons to turn the ball over downs icing the game for the 49ers.
Ryan, who was under duress for the majority of the game, finished 19 of 32 for 236 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions with a QB rating of 92.7. Gage led Atlanta in receiving with eight catches for 91 yards and one touchdown.
San Francisco rushed for 162 yards while holding Atlanta to just 62 yards as both the offensive and defensive lines for the 49ers dominated the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Atlanta’s playoff push took a severe blow, but the team is not ready to concede their season with three games left in the season.
“We know nothing is set in stone,” Gage said. “You know we have three games left, anything can happen. The season has been crazy as we’ve all seen. So we’re gonna go out here and try to find a way to win these last three (games).”
Garoppolo finished 18 of 23 for 235 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions and a QB rating of 126.1. Wilson Jr. led all rushers with 110 yards on 21 carries. Kittle led the 49ers in receiving with six catches for 93 yards.
GAME NOTES: San Francisco finished 6-for-11 on third down conversions. Atlanta was 5-for-13.
UP NEXT: San Francisco travels out to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans on Thursday Night Football 11/23 at 5:20pm at Nissan Stadium