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Top 10 Spotlight: 49ers vs. Falcons

Posted Dec 23, 2013

Anquan Boldin approaches 1,000-yard season, Frank Gore approaches 10,000 career rushing yards and other storylines to track for 49ers-Falcons matchup.

The San Francisco 49ers host the Atlanta Falcons in the final regular season game to be played in the 43-year history of NFL games being played at Candlestick Park. The “Monday Night Football” contest is a rematch of last season’s NFC title game, a come-from-behind 49ers victory that sent the franchise to its sixth Super Bowl. San Francisco can clinch a third-straight playoff berth with a win on Monday night.

Here are the top 10 storylines to track.

10. Cold as Ice
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has tied a career-high with 14 interceptions on the year. Atlanta’s offense has been challenged with a season-ending injury to star wide receiver Julio Jones and Ryan, also known as "Matty Ice" has been forced to play more aggressive at times. Harry Douglas has stepped up to be the team’s leading receiver with 963 yards. Veteran Roddy White has battled nagging injuries to post just 479 receiving yards. The Falcons will also face a much improved pass defense on Monday night. The 49ers allow just 199.7 net passing yards per game, ranking fourth-best in the NFL. San Francisco’s defense has also allowed just 36 plays of 20-or-more yards, ranking second-best in the NFL. Lastly, the 49ers have given up 110 points in the past eight games, ranking first in the league. With that being said, Ryan and the Falcons will face stiff competition in a primetime matchup.

9. Iupati Time?
We’ve been monitoring Mike Iupati’s health for the past four weeks here at Top 10 Spotlight. The Pro Bowl left guard has not played in some time, but he’s been getting closer to returning to the field. Iupati is listed as questionable for this week’s game. During his time away, the 49ers have won four-straight games and Adam Snyder has proven to be a quality replacement in the starting lineup. Jim Harbaugh has kept the door open on Iupati returning to the field this week, but once again it’ll likely be a game-time decision.
8. Goodbye Gonzalez

"He's a tremendous talent, number one. And then you combine that with great instincts for the tight end position. And anytime you've got great instincts and great talent, it usually equals greatness. And that's what he's been throughout his career and will be in the Hall of Fame for." That’s what 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Tony Gonzalez who has 740 receiving yards in his 17th season. Gonzalez has said he’ll retire at the end of the year, which means this is his last Monday night game, last road game and last time facing the 49ers. The athletic tight end still looks like he can play for a long period of time, but after this season he’ll be considered as one of the best pass-catchers at any position. Gonzalez has 1,313 receptions, 15,008 receiving yards and 110 career touchdown catches.

7. Bang Bang Dixon
Bruce Miller is out for the season with a broken scapula and his importance to the 49ers offense is tough to measure. San Francisco’s starting fullback was a key player in the running game, passing game and on special teams as a coverage player. The 49ers, however, have complete faith in his backup. Anthony Dixon will get the first crack at replacing Miller and from all accounts, the fourth-year running back is going to handle the job just fine. “You never have to worry about A.D.'s effort and I look forward to watching him compete,” Harbaugh said of Dixon. Frank Gore, too, weighed in on his new fullback by saying Dixon had a strong training camp practicing at fullback.
6. Vernon Moves Up the Charts
Gonzalez isn’t the only tight end under the spotlight on Monday night. Vernon Davis will have plenty attention against the Falcons. With 40-or-more receiving yards against Atlanta, Davis will pass former 49ers tight end Brent Jones to post the most receiving yards by a tight end in team history. Davis would also moved into seventh-place on the team’s all-time receiving list. One more item for Davis: The 49ers tight end needs one touchdown catch to give him six consecutive games with a touchdown reception. Fantasy football owners would love that.

5. Healthy Pass Rush

The Aldon Smith train is picking up steam. The third-year outside linebacker has regained form in recent weeks, posting four sacks during the team’s four-game winning streak. Smith has also been solid in run support. It’s worth noting that Smith is not dealing with a shoulder injury like he was in 2012. The All-Pro linebacker needed offseason surgery to correct the issue, but is not having any trouble with the upper body this season. San Francisco’s front-seven is much healthier than it was at this time last season. The Falcons will see a much different unit than last year’s NFC title game.

4. Boldin Goes for 1,000

The 49ers have a pair of alpha males at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin want the football at all times. However, it’s not a bad thing. San Francisco struggled with wideout depth throughout the regular season but has turned the corner with the emergence of the Crabtree-Boldin tandem. Both receivers even have a healthy competition at practice over which player can make the most plays on any given day. Harbaugh doesn’t seem to mind it. “It's certainly not self-centered,” the 49ers coach said. “If it's competitive and not self-centered that's the best kind." Boldin has incentives to produce against Atlanta. The 11-year veteran needs 42 receiving yards for his sixth, 1,000-yard season and his first since 2009. Boldin never had a 1,000-yard season in three years with the Baltimore Ravens. If Boldin reaches 1,000, it would mark the first time San Francisco had 1,000-yard rusher and receiver in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2000-01.
3. Gore 10K

Frank Gore continues to impress everyone around. He’ll get another opportunity to add to his Hall of Fame career against Atlanta. With 144 rushing yards, Gore would become the 29th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards in a career. The 49ers franchise rushing leader could also move into the No. 29 spot on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 68 rushing yards. Gore would pass former University of Miami teammate Clinton Portis. "Frank's just an amazing person, an amazing player,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week. “You kind of wish everybody, all the fans, could be around him just to see how special a guy he is, how committed he is to his team and it's from the heart. It's not a bunch of fake rah-rah. This guy lives it, breaths it and it means so much to him. He's been a fearless leader for us since we've gotten here. And I know before then as well. Really, approaching 10,000 yards with one team in this day and age, very few do. A lot of those yards have been tough yards, really tough yards. So, I think coming to work with Frank every day is certainly an honor for all of us and love to see him get to 10,000 here."

2. ATL Revenge

Records won’t matter in this Monday night matchup. The Falcons have the chance to play spoiler in the final home game at Candlestick. They can put the 49ers playoff plans on hold and also get revenge from last season’s playoff loss. At 4-10, the Falcons have slid a long way from being the NFC’s No. 1 seed last year. Although many of their games have been close losses, Atlanta still has much of the talent that helped them reach the NFC title game. “We know what the Atlanta Falcons are capable of,” Roman said. “It was less than one year ago that we looked up at the scoreboard and we were down 17-0 against this team. They've got a lot of talented players. Unfortunately, they've lost some key players at certain positions. If you really look at their season, early on they lost some games that could have gone either way. It came down to one play at the end.”
1. Win One for the 'The 'Stick'
Put the playoff aspect of this game to the side for one minute. It’s the final regular season game at Candlestick. The last. No more. Never again. It’s a crazy thing to say, but that’s the reality of Monday’s game. The 49ers have a chance to send the building out in style with a memorable performance and that’s exactly what the team intends to do. Harbaugh wants to represent for everyone who has stepped foot in the stadium. Harbaugh expects a challenge from the Falcons and it’ll take a great performance to win. “Everybody's fighting tooth and nail for these wins and this will be no different on Monday night,” he said.

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