The executives of ESPN got an early Christmas present when the Arizona Cardinals upset the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon. The result has a double meaning for the San Francisco 49ers, who play on Monday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons (8:30 PM ET, ESPN), and instead of a meaningless MNF finale, ESPN now gets one chock full of significance.
If Seattle had beaten Arizona it would have clinched the NFC West title for the Seahawks and knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs. Which in turn would have locked the 49ers into a wild-card berth. Instead, San Francisco has to win to make into the postseason, and in doing so can keep themselves alive to catch Seattle for both the division title and a first-round bye.
When the schedule first came out, this game was an anticipated rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game. But the Falcons’ season has gone awry from the get-go. Julio Jones was lost for the year and without all their offensive weapons, problems on both lines were exposed.
Atlanta deserves credit for continuing to compete and play hard in a lost season, but even last week’s 27-26 win over Washington showed how poor the secondary is. There is a little reason to think a resurgent Colin Kapernick won’t play well, and there’s never been a reason–even last season–to think Atlanta could stop Frank Gore and the potent 49er running attack. Nor is there a reason to expect faulty Falcon pass protection to allow Matt Ryan to stay upright in the pocket.
It’s with good reason the 49ers area (-815) betting favorite on the moneyline and you can get (+650) odds if you really want to take a flyer on a Falcons upset.
If San Francisco wins, they clinch a wild-card and stay alive in the NFC West. If they lose, they’re forced into a winner-take-all battle with Arizona in Week 17 for a playoff spot. Is that enough motivation? I’ll take the easy way out and pick the favorite.