By: Rich Bergeron
The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons square off this Sunday at 3:00 PM EST on Fox for the NFL's NFC Championship and a ticket to the Super Bowl. Both teams are led by phenomenal young quarterbacks, and both of those young men have just one playoff win in their careers thus far. Atlanta's Matt Ryan has more overall experience, but San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick is clearly the more gifted runner of the two.
These teams never faced each other in the regular season, so there is no benchmark to look back on to help analyze how this game might go. With everything on the line in this win-or-go-home match-up, previous game scores might not matter much anyway. A better indicator could be how both teams did last week against different opponents.
The Falcons let an early 20-point lead crumble late in their slim victory over the Seattle Seahawks last week, but the 49ers went up by a field goal before halftime in their tilt with the Green Bay Packers last week and never lost the lead after that. The Seahawks are not nearly as stacked on offense as the 49ers are, and their defense doesn't really compare to San Francisco's. San Francisco dominated the Packers despite that team being back at full strength on offense. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had all his targets healthy and ready for a real slugfest that never quite materialized. Instead, Colin Kapernick proved that raw talent is key in the NFL while San Francisco's defense shut down the Packers running game and kept Aaron Rodgers in check. Rodgers only managed one late touchdown pass completion in the second half, which was all but meaningless by the time the San Francisco defense allowed it.
The Falcons showed last week that they are susceptible to a late surge against a rookie quarterback who often takes off running, but Russell Wilson is no Colin Kapernick. The 49ers QB is taller, faster, and supported by a much better offensive line. To win this game the Falcons defense will have to step up in a big way, stuffing Kaepernick's strategy of sprinting for a first down when he doesn't see an open throwing target. If Kaepernick doesn't pose a problem for Atlanta, Frank Gore surely will. Once the focus was on Kaepernick's scrambling last week, the 49ers began handing it off to Gore religiously. Those tactics paid off, eating up the clock and allowing San Francisco to cruise to an easy win. This week the team might employ Gore earlier to shake things up a bit, making Kaepernick even more dangerous.
Prediction: Matt Ryan will have to have the best day of his career to outshine Colin Kapernick. Atlanta's defense will have to perform above and beyond the call of duty to handle all the offensive threats the 49ers will pose in this game. Barring a near perfect performance on both sides of the ball for Atlanta at home, the Falcons will have a tough time getting to the Super Bowl without a major catastrophe like a Kaepernick injury that sidelines the young star for most of the game. The 49ers are more suited to win this game and have the momentum from last week carry over into this game. They showed few weaknesses outside of Kaepernick's ealy pick 6 that he quickly put behind him last week. Kaepernick will run wild again, though not for as many yards as he racked up in his first playoff game. This time around he'll be all warmed up and primed for action. He'll use Frank Gore earlier in the game to throw of Atlanta's defense and open up running lanes for himself. He'll also use more than one primary receiver and rely less on Michael Crabtree this week. This week it will be Atlanta trying to mount a late comeback, but their home crowd won't be able to will this team to a win. Final Score: 49ers: 44 to Falcons: 27