While Romilly Evans expects San Fran to sign off with a win as they bid a fond farewell to Candlestick Park, the home side may not have it all their own way tonight
"Frank Gore rushing behind inexperienced blocker Anthony Dixon appears a potential weak link to be exploited"
Atlanta Falcons @ San Francisco 49ers
Tuesday December 24, 01:40
Live on British Eurosport
I think we're all agreed that the San Francisco 49ers should win this one at a canter. They have the superior form, the superior players, the superior motivation. But win the match by over two touchdowns? That's the more salient question for lovers of a Vegas line. And the answer is not so readily forthcoming.
A year is a long time in the NFL. And much has changed since Atlanta got within a wafer of upsetting the 49ers during the 2012 NFC Championship Game in their own back yard. Not so much in terms of personnel (although key wide men in Julio Jones and Roddy White have struggled with injury for most of the campaign), but more because of collective cohesion. Pivotal playmakers like Matt Ryan (QB) and Steven Jackson (RB) have endured their worst seasons on record.
When a team doesn't add up to the sum of its parts, the whole equation breaks down and Atlanta doubtless can't wait to get home for the holidays and recuperate for 2014. Still, they are finishing the season with admirable professionalism (two victories in their last three), so don't expect them to go quietly into the night.
The Niners haven't hit the heights of last season yet either. Yet they remain in position for the play-offs (the fifth or sixth seed is theirs for Wildcard Week) and even have a faint whiff of snatching the NFC West from Seattle.
Once again, the combined might of Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore has provided their bread-and-butter gains on offense (nearly 1,500 from these formidable foot soldiers), while CK has added another 2,700 through the air. This dynamic duo are peaking at the right time (surfing a four-game streak) and San Fran should prove the most dangerous "floater" in the postseason draw, if their destructive defense also holds up.
This encounter could also be emotional on both sides of the ball. For it marks the Niners' last ever regular season clash at their Candlestick Park home, and the final game of his career for legendary Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (only the fifth receiver in NFL annals to have poached over 15,000 yards).
You can bet the host networks will whip up a tearjerker narrative for each team, but this could actually play out in quite prosaic fashion. I expect the 49ers to jump out to an early first-half lead and then look sustain it and control the clock with Gore. Matt Ryan should consequently enjoy some time and short-lane space in which to throw the ball during the second half. And he should take advantage of these concessions.
Ryan has had a poor season but has not become a poor quarterback overnight. He even enjoys a 2-0 regular season record against the Niners. While the hat-trick may prove beyond him, Matty Ice can stay within hailing distance on some lofty match handicaps.
Nothing much appeals on the First Touchdown Scorer markets (Gore and stud receiver Anquan Boldin are prohibitively short), so skip them and go a little more niche on San Francisco Points. Atlanta blooded five rookies on defense last Sunday - three in the secondary - all of whom should be more up to speed tonight. They shouldn't take long to adjust to the Niners' schemes, with some less creative second-half strategies comfortably residing inside their limited defensive compass. For example, Gore rushing behind inexperienced blocker Anthony Dixon appears a potential weak link to be exploited.
Whisper it, but the last hurrah in the Bay Area could be a bit of a damp squib.
Back San Francisco 49ers (-7.5) to beat Atlanta Falcons on First Half Handicap @ 1.86 or better
Back Atlanta Falcons (+14.5) to beat San Francisco 49ers on Match Handicap @ 1.96 or better
Back Under 29.5 San Francisco 49ers Total Points @ 1.91 or better