Sunday 3:00pm (EST) 49ers @ Falcons
The early game of today's matchups has two teams that are very different historically and currently. The Falcons are in their third ever NFC Championship game, looking for their second trip to a Super Bowl and their first title. San Francisco is five for five in Super Bowl games and the 49ers are in their 14th. San Fran was in this very same game last year (a loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants). Atlanta won their first playoff game with the current regime. Colin Kaepernick is seen as a dynamic playmaker who is a force, while people question whether Matt Ryan can get the job done. Jim Harbaugh is a loud, strong, offensive-minded risk taker. Mike Smith is a quiet, patient good guy type defensive coach. Based on all these things everyone just assumes the 49ers will waltz to NOLA...but its just not going to be that simple, and a close game seems more likely than most realize.
For the Falcons, first and foremost they need to contain Colin Kaepernick, yes this is easier said then done but it is possible. Atlanta will need to remain disciplined on defense when they see the read option, the must control the edge forcing Kaepernick to give the ball to Frank Gore on the inside. Now of course Gore is still a great runner and can gash you, but 8 yards from Gore is very different from 40-60 yards from Kaepernick....just ask Green Bay.
The one difference with their game plan is expect the Falcons to play more run zones as opposed to the more susceptible to the run man to man defenses that Green Bay played. Against Cam Newton and against Russell Wilson, Atlanta struggled against the run allowing Newton to run for 202 yards in two games and Wilson for 70 last week. Allowing 70 yards to Kaepernick would be acceptable (he averaged 6.6 yards per attempt) as long as none of the plays are absolute back-breakers. Atlanta edge players must make sure to keep their shoulder parallel to the line of scrimmage. Otherwise they are opening themselves up for Colin the gazelle to explode downfield and if Kaepernick is around 100 yards (or over) the game is probably over.
On offense Atlanta's passing game is their bread and butter, and what a nice roll it is. Their top three receiving threats rank up there with the best trios in the league, and no one has a better outside the numbers duo than Julio Jones and Roddy White (a combined 171 receptions for 2,549 yards and 17 TDs), who are equally dangerous and explosive. But there biggest advantage in this game may be their All-Pro ageless wonder Tony Gonzalez.
San Francisco gives up a league low 8.78 yards to tight ends per reception, but 8 of the 19 passing TDs they have allowed are to tight ends. Matt Ryan will need to work the middle of the field, especially in the red zone. Atlanta's run game looked good last week but its hard to believe we will see a repeat performance. San Fran was fourth against the run in the regular season (they were also a stout fourth against the pass). Michael Turner will have to run with a purpose, and I expect the Falcons to use change of pace back Jacquizz Rodgers a decent amount in this game (let's see if he has another Beast Mode type of play like he did against Earl Thomas). If Atlanta can keep San Fran honest by running pretty well, their offensive weapons could just go ham on a very good (possibly great) defensive unit, something like 4.5 yards per carry could be the cut off on whether or not the run game is being efficient enough. Atlanta doesn't have to change their identity but if they can't show balance and some semblance of being mutli-dimensional Matty Ryan could have a long day.
Matt Ryan may not be getting the pub, or even the confidence of the general public but the man is ready and he has the second best home record in the Super Bowl era with a 34-6 mark for an .850 winning percentage (behind only Tom Brady who is 86-15, for an .851 percentage). Atlanta is the biggest home dog for a #1 seed ever, will this underdog role suit them?
The 49ers are the prohibitive favorite to win the game, and to many look like the team that is the most complete and the most poised to take the title. They have a great defense that is stout no matter what and it includes six pro-bowlers (representing each level of the defense). And their offense is no longer just game managing now that they have the charismatic and daunting Colin Kaepernick (sorry Alex Smith but you didn't really lose your job as much as this kid just took it).
The 49ers need to avoid a slow start, which has been one of the only things to hinder them in some games this year. Their last road game against Seattle or their game against the Giants show what can happen to San Fran when they get out of their mold. Atlanta can start fast (like they did against Seattle last week) and the Niners need to stay away from getting in a hole. Although Kaepernick has been great he still may feel too much pressure if he is put in a bad situation. Give the young fella an easier path and come out on point.
Michael Crabtree needs to have a big game. Point blank the Niners have few weapons on the outside other than Crabtree. Manningham is out and Randy Moss is more the ghost of Randy than he is the real Randy. Crabtree had 9 receptions for 119 yards and 2 TDs against the Packers in the divisional round. A similiar effort and the 49ers will have a good shot of moving on.
San Fran also needs Aldon Smith to have an awakening of sorts. Last week he only had two tackles and one QB hit, and the Niners need more from him than that. Seattle was unable to sack Matt Ryan last week and if he isn't under pressure, Ryan will utilize his weapons effectively even on a great defense like San Fran (he did well against the Seahawks). If the 49ers can get a few sacks and make Matty Ice uncomfortable they can force him into mistakes. Atlanta averaged just over one turnover per game (18 all season) but if San Fran can create an error or two from the Falcons, they should win this ballgame.
49ers 34, Falcons 27
Preview stat of the week (from ESPN's stats and information)
The 49ers allowed only 909 yards after contact, fewest in the NFL during the regular season. The Falcons allowed 1,376 yards after contact, 31st in the NFL and better than only the Saints.