When the San Francisco 49ers announced their schedule before the start of the season, a Week 16 tilt with the Atlanta Falcons had all the makings of a classic. In the final contest at Candlestick Park, the last Monday night of the NFL season would be a battle of the league's elite.
Unfortunately, reality didn't quite live up the billing. While the 49ers enter the home stretch with a 10-4 record, the Falcons have crashed down to 4-10.
A rematch of last season's NFC Championship Game may not seem as imposing on the surface, but the game is still critical for the 49ers. According to Matt Verderame of SBNation.com, the 49ers clinch a playoff berth with a win and would position themselves for the fifth seed in the NFC.
The records aren't balanced, but the 49ers have a lot at stake against this Falcons team that has won two of its last three games. To avoid an untimely letdown, these four individual matchups will hold the key for the 49ers.
1. Frank Gore vs. Paul Worrilow
The 49ers boast the league's fifth-ranked rushing attack, and running back Frank Gore has remained in his familiar role at the head of it. In recording his seventh 1,000-yard season out of the past eight, Gore has defied age and expectations to remain a productive back.
In a similar underdog role is Falcons rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow, leading the team with 109 total tackles. After going undrafted out of the University of Delaware, Worrilow has started 10 games this season and has quietly put together one of the stronger rookie campaigns of 2013.
Despite Worrilow's inspiring play, Atlanta still ranks 29th against the run. While Gore has scored only one touchdown since Week 8, the Falcons should be just the right matchup to get "The Truth" going in time for the playoffs.
2. Eric Reid vs. Matt Ryan
The 49ers have faced their fair share of injuries in the secondary, but they still rank fourth against the pass in 2013. Part of this ranking can be credited to the stellar play of rookie safety Eric Reid, who leads the team with four interceptions.
Reid has stepped in and stepped up after the departure of All-Pro starter Dashon Goldson last season, including an interception against Goldson's Buccaneers last week. Meanwhile, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has tied a career high for interceptions with two games to go, tossing 14 so far this season.
Despite the turnover problem and injuries to star receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta still boasts the eighth-ranked passing attack in the NFL. However, the Falcons also feature the worst ground game in the league, even with running back Steven Jackson back from injury.
With these rankings in mind, it's clear that stopping the pass is the key to taking this Falcons offense down.
3. Vernon Davis vs. William Moore
Falcons safety William Moore leads the team with two interceptions after appearing in his first Pro Bowl last season. Unfortunately, the Falcons rank 25th against the pass this season, and Moore has faced several fines for illegal hits.
While the 49ers' passing game has faced several struggles of their own this season, tight end Vernon Davis is in the midst of his best campaign since making the Pro Bowl in 2009. Leading the team with 12 touchdowns, Davis is also second in catches, targets and receiving yards.
The Falcons will most likely utilize a combination of Moore and other players to cover Davis on Monday night, but the team as a whole has greatly struggled against tight ends in recent weeks. As seen in the chart below, Atlanta has allowed tight ends to score four times in the past four weeks alone.
|Atlanta Falcons vs. Tight Ends: Weeks 12-15|
|Week 12||New Orleans||8||117||2|
|Week 14||Green Bay||10||101||1|
|ESPN Fantasy Sports|
With a line like that, Davis has to be salivating at the chance to make a final end-zone visit at The 'Stick.
4. Aldon Smith vs. Lamar Holmes
Linebacker Aldon Smith was off to a torrid start in 2013, recording 4.5 sacks over the 49ers' first three games. However, an early season arrest in connection with DUI charges forced Smith to miss five games thereafter.
Smith has been slowly re-acclimated to the team since returning in Week 10. However, two sacks in last week's win over the Buccaneers could signify the spark that 49ers fans have been waiting for.
On the other side, Falcons left tackle Lamar Holmes is struggling since replacing the injured Sam Baker earlier in the season. According to ESPN's Vaughn McClure, Holmes' slide continued last week with a rough performance against Washington's Brian Orakpo, who recorded 1.5 sacks, two QB hits and several pressures.
With Smith waiting on the horizon, the outlook isn't good for the Falcons' young tackle.
If the 49ers are able to win these individual battles, they should be able to escape this Monday Night Football matchup with a victory. Beyond the playoff implications, it's also safe to say that this team wants to avoid a sour ending note for its famous stadium.
Candlestick Park has been the site of many thrilling moments, and there are 60 minutes remaining to create a few final memories. With so much at stake, expect a strong performance from this 49ers team.
All statistics according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. NFL team rankings according to NFL.com. Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For thoughts on the 49ers and the NFL, reach out on Twitter by following @smeaton49.