NFC Championship Game: San Francisco 49ers At Atlanta Falcons
- QuarterbackNFL scouts could see why Jim Harbaugh had replaced Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick. The young quarterback’s are strength, accuracy, foot speed and ability to make explosive plays was a big advantage for the Niners. However, until he did it in the postseason with a record-setting game against the Packers, it was hard to be sure if he could come through at big moments. That is no longer an issue.The Falcons came out with guns blazing in the divisional playoffs against the Seahawks and rolled to a huge lead. However, when Seattle roared back, it seemed like Matt Ryan would not be able to get the postseason monkey off of his back. Then he made two clutch throws to set up the game-winning field goal and the pressure was lifted. Now Ryan must show he can excel against the 49ers’ 4th-ranked pass defense.
- OffenseThe 49ers are not going to come out throwing and try to bomb the Falcons out of their own home stadium. Instead, they will attack with running back Frank Gore and set up the passing game. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree seems to be improving every week while catching 85 passes for 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are also solid targets for Kaepernick.The Falcons have not been a strong running team this year, but they got a lift from Michael Turner, who ran for 98 yards against the Seahawks. Still, the key to Atlanta’s offense is the big-play ability of Julio Jones and the dependability of Roddy White. Jones caught 79-1,198-10 while White brought in 92-1,351-7. Tight end Tony Gonzalez still has the ability to find the seam and make the big catch.
- DefenseThe 49ers were one of the hardest hitting defenses in the league. They will attempt to take the Falcons out of their game with punishing hard hits. Look for linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to set the tone early. Pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith has the speed to keep Ryan from feeling comfortable in the pocket. FS Dashon Goldson had 69 tackles and 14 passes defensed this season.The Falcons’ defensive scheme is based on speed and anticipation. However, they are not the most physical unit and it will be quite challenging to hold down Gore’s running. Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas has explosive speed and can go sideline-to-sideline to make plays. He had a team-high 97 tackles. Asante Samuel is a stellar cover corner who had 24 passes defensed.
- Special TeamsThe 49ers were quite ordinary in their special teams coverage units and a mistake in that area against the Falcons could be critical. The kicking game was disastrous as strong-legged PK David Akers made just 29-of-42 FG attempts and barely held on to his job. Andy Lee has a strong leg and averaged 48.1 yards per punt this season.The Falcons would have had their hearts broken once again if Matt Bryant had not been successful on his 49-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds. Bryant was 33-of-38 during the regular season and 4-of-4 on attempts of 50 yards or longer. The Falcons do a solid job covering kickoffs and punts. They did not allow a punt return of longer than 37 yards during the season.
The Falcons are not getting much respect, as they are 3.5-point underdogs even though the game is in Atlanta. Expect Ryan and head coach Mike Smith to use this to rally the team. If the Falcons can keep Gore and Kaepernick from running wild, the special-teams advantage may result in a trip to the Super Bowl.