FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It’s hard to refer to this as a true rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game, considering how far the 4-10 Atlanta Falcons have fallen as they prepare to face the potent, 10-4 San Francisco 49ers.
Couple that disparity with the emotion the 49ers will play with in their final regular-season game at Candlestick Park and it could make for a long night for the Falcons.
Here’s what to watch on ESPN's "Monday Night Football’’ as the Falcons make their second West Coast voyage of the season:
Tale of tight ends: Tony Gonzalez couldn’t have scripted it better for his final NFL road game as he returns to the area where he made a name for himself as a two-sport star at Cal. The California native will get every opportunity to shine as the Falcons try to send him into retirement on a winning note. Meanwhile, the 49ers have one of the fastest tight ends to ever play the game in Vernon Davis. He’ll be a matchup nightmare, no matter how the Falcons try to defend him.
On edge: Left tackle Lamar Holmes had his struggles last week against Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Well, it doesn’t get any easier for Holmes this week against edge-rusher Aldon Smith, who has 8.5 sacks in just nine games. "You really can’t compare him against anyone else because he’s a different type of athlete,’’ Holmes said of Smith. "He’s long. He’s tall. He’s fast. He has a lot of different moves. He can go speed rush or he can come straight out and bull you. He’s strong. Aldon, he’s a dominant player in the NFL. He’s a dominant rusher.’’ In other words, the Falcons might want to give Holmes some help in the form of chips or double teams.
Catching up: Roddy White had a slow start to the season due to injuries, but he’s had 23 catches for 270 yards over the past three games. And Monday, he’ll return to the same stadium in which he compiled a career-high 210 receiving yards on eight catches in 2009. Can White have another big game at Candlestick? "Well, they have some more explosive players on their team now. That defense is fully loaded,’’ White said. "They’re a whole lot better. They’ve got a lot better just playing with each other. And, they didn’t have Aldon Smith (in ’09), and he makes a big difference out there, I’ll tell you that.’’
Happy returns? Falcons punt returner Robert McClain traded text messages with 49ers special-team ace Kassim Osgood last week. The two played together in Jacksonville during the 2011 season, and McClain said the veteran Osgood took him in like he was a family member. But the friendship will be put aside for a moment as McClain hopes to break a big return against his good friend Monday night. With no rain in the early forecast, McClain should get some opportunities. "I know he’ll be at gunner a couple of plays, and I’ll be at returner, so I told him I’m going to try and get him,’’ McClain said. "He’s a good player, but it’s competition out there. Everybody fighting for their job, so I can’t let him tackle me now.’’