San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
3 p.m. ET, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Aside from Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan serving as the 49ers head coach from 2005-08, there are not many story lines or much of a recent history between the two combatants for the NFC Championship Game. The last time the two teams met was in the 2010 regular season, with the 49ers jumping out to a 14-0 lead before the Falcons stormed back to win 16-14 on a last minute field goal by Matt Bryant. The Falcons and 49ers are former NFC West rivals, however, with San Francisco holding a 44-29-1 advantage in the regular season, while the Falcons defeated the 49ers 20-18 in the 1998 divisional playoffs.
When the 49ers have the ball: As the Green Bay Packers learned last Saturday night, the 49ers offense flows through Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers ran 75 offensive plays and the 2011 second-round pick out of Nevada had his hand on the ball 48 times, or 64 percent of the plays. Kaepernick completed 17-of-31 pass attempts for 263 yards with two touchdowns, an interception and was sacked once. Kaepernick added 16 rushing attempts for 181 yards - an NFL single-game record for a quarterback - and two more touchdowns. That should frighten the Falcons, who last week were granted a read-option reprieve from Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who elected to not employ that strategy with Russell Wilson, a smaller, less dynamic athlete and runner than Kaepernick.
The 49ers can be expected to try and run on the Falcons, who ranked 21st in rushing allowed per game and were 29th in rushing yards allowed per play. With John Abraham missing most of the divisional playoffs win over the Seahawks after aggravating a left ankle he originally injured late in the meaningless regular season finale loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers will find where the 34-year-old Abraham is on each play and run in his direction with Kaepernick or Frank Gore, who quietly ran for 119 yards and a touchdown in last week's win over the Packers.
When Kaepernick puts the ball in the air, it is most likely going to either Michael Crabtree, who caught nine passes (on 11 targets) for 119 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week and has (finally) emerged as the No. 1 receiver many thought he'd be when the 49ers selected him with the tenth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. With Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson in the secondary, Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics had the Falcons ranked in the Top 10 against their opponents' top two receivers in the regular season, but were weakest (21st) against their opponents' tight ends. That could result in the 49ers involving Vernon Davis more in the passing game. Ever since catching six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in Kaepernick's first NFL start on Nov. 19, Davis has just seven receptions (on 17 targets) for 105 yards in seven regular and postseason games.
When the Falcons have the ball: With Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, Pro Bowl (or Pro Bowl-caliber) wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons' strength on offense is the passing game. Ryan completed 24-of-35 attempts for 250 yards and three touchdowns last week, with Jones, White and Gonzalez combining for 17 receptions, 186 yards and two touchdowns. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, the 49ers defense ranked in the Top 10 when defending opponents' No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers and their opponents' tight ends. Where the 49ers' pass defense struggled was against "other wide receivers", ranking 21st. That could lead to a larger-than-expected role for Falcons slot receiver Harry Douglas, who caught two passes for 29 yards in last Sunday's win over the Seahawks, including a critical 22-yard pass in the final 30 seconds that helped set-up the game-winning field goal.
One issue the Falcons may have if they attempt to attack through the air is the 49ers' pass rush, which cooled considerably at the end of the season - 10 sacks in last five regular season games, one sack last week - but has the potential to be disruptive with Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (6.5) coming off the edge. Atlanta dodged a bullet last week as the Seahawks lost defensive end Chris Clemons, their top pass rusher, to a torn ACL the previous week and had Patrick Chukwurah, who hadn't played in the NFL since 2007, going after Ryan on the Falcons' final drive.
The 49ers defense will also have a "still less than 100 percent, but more comfortable" version of Justin Smith, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle who is playing through a torn triceps tendon and could give Falcons left tackle Sam Baker and left guard Justin Blalock a difficult time, particularly against the run. Atlanta was able to gash the Seahawks for 167 yards on the ground, thanks largely to big gains from Jacquizz Rodgers (45 yards on one run) and Michael Turner (33 yards on one run). The 49ers finished the regular season ranked fourth against the run and were second in Football Outsiders run defense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric, so the yards might be more difficult to come by this week.
How it could go: Falcons head coach Mike Smith, along with Ryan and Gonzalez, got the playoff gorilla off their backs with last week's win. There is also little doubt that the Georgia Dome will be a very loud and unfriendly place for Kaepernick and the 49ers. However, the 49ers are bringing a dominant defense capable of shutting down the Falcons offense and the 6-foot-5, 233-pound Kaepernick is capable of making the sort of jaw-dropping plays that can suck the air out of opposing stadiums and break the will of opposing defenses. In what should be a close, physical game, we expect to see the 49ers and a lot of "Kaepernicking" in New Orleans.
Prediction: 49ers 20, Falcons 16