The Sports Xchange
Atlanta Falcons (6-2) at San Francisco 49ers (2-6)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
*Keys to the game: After a red-hot start to the season, the Falcons’ offense has sputtered through a rash of penalties and turnovers and a lack of production inside the red zone. Atlanta is now minus-two in turnover margin, including six red-zone turnovers over the past four games, and is coming off 11 penalties accepted last week. Those types of miscues are the quickest way to keep the reeling 49ers in the game.
San Francisco turns to QB Blaine Gabbert, the former first-round pick who makes his first start for the 49ers and his first since 2013. He has spoken confidently of his growth as a player since three awful years in Jacksonville, but the fact remains he has thrown only seven regular-season passes since the ’13 season, has a subpar offensive line and perhaps a new roster addition starting in the backfield. RB Carlos Hyde (foot) did not practice midweek while Reggie Bush (knee) and Mike Davis (hand) underwent surgery – potentially leaving newly-signed Pierre Thomas and Shaun Draughn to log significant playing time.
The good news for Gabbert is the Falcons have struggled to apply consistent pressure and he may have success peppering the underbelly of the defense with quick passes and let his receivers make plays after the catch.
*Matchup to watch – Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Falcons CBs Dontae Johnson/Keith Reaser: With Keith Acker going through the league’s concussion protocol, the brunt of the assignment of containing Jones is likely to fall to Johnson or Reaser. Johnson played 10 snaps last week, Reaser two. Jones has 70 receptions for 892 yards and six touchdowns in eight games this season.
*Player spotlight – 49ers TE Vance McDonald: Vernon Davis was shipped to Denver and Garrett Celek is recovering from a concussion. McDonald is a versatile player, but has only seven catches on the season.
*Fast facts: In six games as a starter, Falcons RB Devonta Freeman has 956 scrimmage yards (159.3 per game), 666 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. … Gabbert has a 5-22 career record as a starter.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
This isn’t a case of a change at quarterback spurring a slumbering team. The 49ers are rudderless, and the issues range from the talent drain to a slew of injuries. The Falcons cruise to an easy win leading into their bye.
*Our pick: Falcons 30-19.