According to ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner, for as ugly, sluggish and disappointing as the San Francisco 49ers' loss to the Atlanta Falcons was on Sunday, there were a couple of pieces of good news to take away -- even if the team wasn't up for hearing them in the moments after the loss.
First, the Niners clinched a playoff berth. In itself, that's a good thing for any team, especially one that hasn't been to the postseason since 2013.
Second, and perhaps more important, the 49ers still remain in total control of their positioning in the NFC playoff picture as they head into the final two weeks. If they can beat the Los Angeles Rams at home and then the Seattle Seahawks on the road the following week, the Niners will still be NFC West division champions, hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC and have home-field advantage in the playoffs.
In those regards, Sunday's loss to lowly Atlanta, which entered Sunday at 4-9, doesn't mean much. In the bigger picture, it should serve as an alarming reminder that nothing is to be taken for granted and as the games get bigger and mean more, there's no time to take your foot off the gas.
"If we don't play at our level, like we played last week or like we played all season, anybody can get beat on any Sunday," tight end George Kittle
said. "And we definitely have to play better. I don't think that we played at any type of intensity like we've been playing all year, and we've got to figure that out."
"I hope our team learns from this game that if we don't bring the intensity then we will be [headed to] a quick season ending."
At 11-3, the 49ers are sitting at the No. 5 spot in the NFC playoffs and would have to hit the road for a wild-card game if the season ended today. Of course, it doesn't, but the Niners now have little margin for error over the next two weeks, lest they want to find themselves on the bumpiest road possible toward a Super Bowl bid.
Before Sunday, San Francisco had just completed the toughest three-game stretch for any team this late in the season in the Super Bowl era, playing three straight teams with an .800 or better winning percentage. The Niners proved capable of slugging it out against the best of the best, obliterating the Green Bay Packers at home before losing on a last-second field goal at Baltimore and outlasting the New Orleans Saints in a high-octane shootout that left both teams nursing a variety of injuries.
As the Niners learned against the Falcons, every team is battling attrition at this point and the teams that go on deep postseason runs are often the ones who best handle themselves in those big games, even when they aren't at full strength.
There are a handful of paths remaining for the Niners as they angle for the division crown and top spot in the NFC. If the Niners stumble against the Rams next week, their chances to win the division actually won’t go away, though it would put a bye and a top-two seed in peril. A San Francisco loss combined with a Seahawks win in Week 16 would still leave the Niners needing to win in Seattle to win the division, which would remain possible via the strength of victory tiebreaker.
But the simplest scenario to understand is also the hardest to execute: Beating the Rams and Seahawks in the next two weeks. Do that and the road to the Super Bowl runs through Levi's Stadium.
"When it's in your control, it's a good feeling," Kittle said. "You don't have to rely on anybody else to lose. It's our first time in the position. ... I think we'll definitely be back to that, and hopefully this lights a little bit of a fire under us. ..."
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Sanders
is coming off a poor showing last weekend and it's fair to question his ability to deliver in this one.
As ESPN's Mike Clay noted this week, since joining the Rams prior to Week 7, Jalen Ramsey has shadowed Julio Jones
(6-93-0 receiving line in the game), JuJu Smith-Schuster
(3-44-0), Allen Robinson
(4-15-0), DK Metcalf
(6-78-0) and, most recently, Amari Cooper
Sanders was acquired to function as the 49ers' No. 1 receiver, so there's a good chance Ramsey will shadow him.
Sanders primarily aligns on the perimeter, which means these two will face off often, regardless of whether or not Ramsey shadows. The Rams have allowed the fewest fantasy points to perimeter receivers over the past month, so Sanders owners should keep their expectations in check.
Clay added, Deebo Samuel
could end up in a good spot on the other side of the field if Troy Hill (doubtful, thumb) is unable to play.
Samuel stumbled to one catch for 29 yards on three targets against Atlanta on Sunday. Remember, he entered the day having produced at least 109 scrimmage yards or a touchdown in five-consecutive games and was a top-30 fantasy receiver during each of those outings. After Sunday's dud, however, the rookie receiver has now failed to clear four targets and three touches in three of his past four games.
The good news is Samuel has been on the field for 84 percent of the pass plays for the league's No. 2 offense in touchdowns.
As Clay suggests, that's something fantasy owners can hang their hats on.
Another thing along those lines?
As NFL.com noted, no matter how the regular season ends, though, one aspect somewhat overlooked in an 8-0 start and the 3-3 following has been that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo
is producing at a consistently impressive rate
in his first fully healthy season as a starter.
He's completing 69 percent of his passes, tallying a 102.8 QB rating, 3,445 yards passing, 26 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions (just one over the last four games) -- numbers better than any Niners quarterback since the days of Jeff Garcia