The Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers will renew a formerly bitter rivalry from the days of the NFC West, when they were in the same division prior to re-alignment in 2002. As a result of being matched in the same division from 1967-2001, Atlanta and San Fran have met a lot in their respective histories, with the Niners owning a 48-32-1 advantage in head-to-head meetings. It’s fitting that Atlanta showcase the red helmets for this game — the Niners are an opponent the Birds faced as much as anyone else during that era.
After winning three straight division titles and then watching the Las Angeles Rams own the West in the ‘70s with seven consecutive titles, the Niners absolutely owned the division throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, winning it a record 13 times between 1981-1997. They were the class of the league, also winning five Super Bowls in that time period.
The Falcons, conversely, only won the NFC West three times — more than only the New Orleans Saints — with one of those titles coming during the shortened 1982 season.
As a result of the Niners dominating the league in the Joe Montana and Steve Young eras, they had a lot of success against Atlanta throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, going 26-12-1 against the Birds throughout those two full decades despite getting off to a 2-5 start between 1980-1983. The Falcons did, however, have the most consequential win in that time period in the 1998 Divisional Round — the first time these teams ever met in the postseason. That set the stage for Atlanta to upset the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and to make their first ever Super Bowl appearance.
Distance has done the Falcons good in this rivalry, as they have gone 6-4 against the Niners head to head since they were moved away to another division in 2002. That included four straight wins from 2004-2010.
The Niners had their own bit of revenge for ‘98 when they beat the Falcons in the 2012 NFC Championship Game after overcoming a 17-0 deficit in the first half. They also poached Atlanta’s stellar offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and made him their head coach in 2017. The teams are 1-1 since that appointment.
The Week 15 matchup between these teams last season was of great consequence, unlike the previous meeting in 2019 where the Falcons were just playing for pride. An inside track to an NFC Wildcard spot was on the line when the 6-7 Falcons traveled to Santa Clara for a date with the 7-6 Niners, with the tiebreaker being of potential great importance.
Atlanta squandered a golden opportunity at the very beginning when they recovered a fumble off of the opening kickoff, got to first-and-goal at the 1-yard-line and proceeded to be kept out of the end zone on four straight opportunities. They scored once but video replay ruled Cordarrelle Patterson short of the end zone.
After forcing a three-and-out, Atlanta once again failed to make the most of good field positioning, merely kicking a field goal. From there, the 49ers offense woke up and scored on five straight possessions, including four straight touchdown drives in the second and third quarters. Atlanta’s defense was overmatched, and their offense kept sputtering, with the result being a 31-13 blowout that more or less killed their playoff aspirations in a theoretical sense, even they were still alive mathematically.
The 49ers went on to secure that Wildcard spot and made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game, where they narrowly lost to division rivals and the eventual champion Las Angeles Rams. Atlanta went 1-2 down the stretch and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year.