Carolina Panthers

NFL odds: 49ers open as 11.5-point favorites over Falcons in Week 15

NFL odds: 49ers open as 11.5-point favorites over Falcons in Week 15

The 49ers emerged from an historically tough stretch over the three last weeks just one Justin Tucker field goal away from completing it with a perfect 3-0 record. All three games came against teams currently ranked among the top three seeds in their respective conferences, and the last two came on the road in extremely tough environments.

You could say they passed their biggest test of the season with flying colors. Luckily for San Francisco, the degree of difficulty should decrease moving forward. After defeating the Saints in a thrilling 48-46 victory Sunday, the 49ers return home to face the visiting Atlanta Falcons in Week 15.

The Falcons, currently last place in the NFC South, earned their fourth win of the season by doubling up the Panthers on Sunday, but will enter their Week 15 game at Levi's Stadium as significant underdogs, and rightfully so.

11.5 points is quite a large spread, but given how both teams have performed so far this season, it seems about right. The 49ers are two last-second field goals away from being undefeated, and the Falcons lost seven of their first eight games. And while San Francisco incurred injuries to some key players in the win over the Saints, the same thing happened to Atlanta in the victory over Carolina. Cornerback Marcus Trufant reportedly broke his forearm, and wide receiver Calvin Ridley left with an abdominal injury and did not return.

Both of those would be big losses for Atlanta. However, it's worth mentioning the Falcons have been playing better football as of late, going 3-2 over their last five games, including a road win in New Orleans. The 49ers would be unwise to take them lightly for fear of undoing some of what they just achieved.

[RELATED: 49ers reclaim NFC's No. 1 seed with Seahawks' loss to Rams]

With a win over Atlanta in Week 15, San Francisco would clinch its first playoff berth since 2013.

Panthers firing Ron Rivera could make opening for 49ers' Robert Saleh

Panthers firing Ron Rivera could make opening for 49ers' Robert Saleh

The Carolina Panthers fired coach Ron Rivera on Tuesday in a move that could have implications for the 49ers this offseason. 

San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has been rumored to be a head-coaching candidate ahead of the 2020 season, with Niners cornerback Richard Sherman and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll endorsing Saleh. Saleh has overseen the 49ers' year-over-year turnaround on defense, using offseason acquisitions Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and injured linebacker Kwon Alexander to full effect.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have allowed the 11th-most total yards -- and the fourth-most on the ground -- this season. Thirty-eight percent of opponents' drives also have ended in a touchdown, the 11th-highest mark in the league. 

Still, the Panthers might focus on the other side of the ball. Rivera himself was a former defensive coordinator, and Panthers owner David Tepper indicated Tuesday that his preference would be to hire a head coach with an offensive background.  

"This is a modern NFL,'' Tepper said in a press conference Tuesday (via ESPN). "There is a preference for offensive coordinators. That does not mean if you find somebody fantastic on the defensive side I won't consider it. The NFL has made rules to lean to the offense. That's why you have more people going that way.''

If Saleh were "fantastic" enough in Tepper's eyes, the 49ers would then have an opening on their staff. Rivera's background could make him a fit. The 57-year-old attended Seaside High School in Monterrey County and then played four years at Cal.

[RELATED: 49ers' Kittle says teammate Warner is favorite teammate ever]

The Panthers struggled with Rivera calling plays this season, and how well his scheme would translate to the 49ers' defensive personnel remains to be seen. Still, his extensive experience and personal ties to the Bay Area seemingly would make him a candidate. 

Saleh, however, first would have to land the head-coaching job that many see as an inevitability. 

This fantasy football stat shows how dominant 49ers' defense has been

This fantasy football stat shows how dominant 49ers' defense has been

The 49ers face a daunting test Thursday night in the form of Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. Facing the dynamic Heisman Trophy winner on short rest could spell trouble, even for a dominant defense. 

"[It's] a challenge," 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Tuesday of facing a new-look team for the first time on a short week. "This is not a simple offense. They've got a lot of cool designed plays and they do a lot of things. Having the quarterback in the run game is a problem. So, on a short week, you're actually more comfortable going against a system that's been in place for a while because you have a good feel for what's going to happen."

But San Francisco's defense has been so ruthless on quarterbacks this season, it might not matter who is behind center or how much time the 49ers have to prepare. Look no further than fantasy football to show how much trouble this group has given opposing QBs. 

If you started a QB against the 49ers' defense, you should just take the loss and move on to the next week. Here's your proof. 

That's right, quarterbacks have averaged 2.9 fantasy points against the 49ers in the last four games. Pro Football Focus' Daniel Kelley is using PFF's scoring system, and says the number could be even lower for other outlets.

The 49ers defense has five interceptions over that span and has forced two fumbles from the QB. The last four quarterbacks they have faced -- Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Case Keenum and Kyle Allen -- have averaged just 103 passing yards per game. Allen's 158 yards top the group, but he was intercepted three times. 

[RELATED: Murray calls Nick Bosa 'a freak' before 49ers game]

San Francisco's defense leads the NFL in yards allowed per game (224.4) and passing yards allowed per game (128.7). The 49ers (11.0) are behind only the Patriots (7.6) in points allowed per game. 

Thursday night will be a new challenge for the 49ers when they go up against Murray and the Cardinals. The same goes for the rookie QB, too. 

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