We'll certainly be covering all aspects of the conference championship matchups through the week at Shutdown Corner, but here are a few general observations about the upcoming NFC Championship game.
NFC Conference Championship
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, January 20, 3:00 p.m. ET
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
The more I watch what Colin Kaepernick did to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, the more I'm convinced of two things: First, the Falcons are very lucky that Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell apparently left the read-option part of his playbook back at his Atlanta hotel. Second, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will not make that same mistake, and the Falcons will be in a lot of trouble as a result.
Kaepernick, of course, set an NFL single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards in San Francisco's 45-31 beatdown of the Pack, and the Falcons are similarly lost as to how to stop quarterbacks who can get things going on the ground. In two games against the Carolina Panthers this season, Atlanta's defense game up over 200 rushing yards on 28 read-option plays from Cam Newton. Kaepernick is Newton's equal as a runner ... and right now, he's Newton's better as a pure passer.
[Divisional playoff LVPs: Broncos secondary finished last]
That's problem one for the Falcons to solve if they want to advance to the Super Bowl. Problem two is how the Falcons' 20th-ranked run defense, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, will deal with a San Francisco rushing attack that is the most effective, powerful, and versatile remaining among all playoff contenders. The 49ers have the league's best run-blocking line, at least from this pair of eyes, and they confound opposing front sevens with a Valu-Pak of rushing and blocking schemes. Whams, traps, counters ... whatever you can't defend, they'll figure it out.
So, that's the bad news for the Falcons. The good news is that if Atlanta's offense plays as it did against the Seahawks, San Francisco's pass defense could be in a lot of trouble. Against Seattle's stalwart cornerbacks, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter called a brilliant set of route combinations that kept receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones away from one-on-one matchups. Instead, White and Jones moved around the formation, and through the intermediate level of the defense, in ways that Seattle couldn't stop.
[Divisional playoff MVPs: Quarterbacks come through with big performances]
Tight end Tony Gonzalez was just as much of a nightmare for Seattle's linebackers and safeties as Pete Carroll thought he would be, and it was Gonzales who burned the Seahawks when they blitzed their defensive backs. You get too creative against this passing offense, they will kill you. In addition, the running back combination of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rogers beat Seattle to the punch all day long. San Francisco's run defense is much better than Seattle's, but this could be a factor.
The difference in this game, should the divergent approaches of the two offenses cancel each other out, could very well be San Francisco's ability to get its hands on Matt Ryan. Blitzing Kaepernick is an invitation to disaster, and the Falcons don't blitz that much anyway. But if you give Justin smith another week to get healthier, and Aldon Smith can start stunting around the 49ers' nonpareil defensive tackle as he has so well before, Matt Ryan and the Falcons could be in for a very long day -- and a very short postseason afterglow.
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