NFC Championship Preview and Prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons

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49ers looking for different results in their return to NFC title game; Falcons aiming to finish the job at home

<p> NFC Championship Preview and Prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons</p>

The top two teams in the NFC meet on Sunday to determine who will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLVII, as the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons face off in the NFC Championship game at 3 p.m. ET on FOX. The 49ers find themselves in the conference title game for the second year in a row, but this time must get the job done on the road against the Falcons, who have lost just one game in the Georgia Dome this season.

When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
San Francisco’s offense was clicking on all cylinders in last week’s 45-31 win over Green Bay in the NFC Divisional round, thanks to a record-setting effort from quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The second-year pro out of Nevada, who ascended to the starting job in Week 11 because Alex Smith suffered a concussion, put together one of the best postseason performances in NFL history in his first-ever playoff game. Kaepernick tormented the Packers with both his arm and his legs, as he rushed for 181 yards, the most ever by a quarterback in an NFL game, and threw for another 263, while accounting for four total touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) and just one turnover (INT). Kaepernick averaged more than 11 yards per carry, but he wasn’t alone in chewing up yards on the ground against the Packers. Running back Frank Gore added 119 rushing yards and a touchdown of his own on 23 carries (5.2 ypc), as he and Kaepernick combined for 300 of the team’s 323 yards rushing, the most ever by the 49ers in a playoff game. The team’s 579 total yards of offense also set a new franchise postseason standard and were second only to the 621 yards the 49ers had in their 45-3 win over Buffalo back in Week 5. With Kaepernick and Gore getting it done on the ground, wide receiver Michael Crabtree continued his stretch of productive games, as he led the way with nine receptions for 119 yards and caught both of Kaerpernick’s touchdown passes. Crabtree has clearly established himself as the quarterback’s favorite target, as he has caught 50 passes for 714 yards and seven touchdowns in the eight games Kaepernick has started. Although he hasn’t been near as productive as Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis can’t be overlooked, especially considering Atlanta gave up eight receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown to Seattle’s Zach Miller last week. Davis’ lone catch against Green Bay went for 44 yards, and the Falcons will have to do their best to limit big plays by the 49ers, which have been more commonplace since Kaepernick took over. Besides the long pass to Davis, Kaepernick also had a 45-yard hook up with Gore and both of his touchdown runs were on plays of 20 or more yards, highlighted by his 56-yard gallop in the third quarter to put the 49ers ahead for good. The 49ers have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, so as long as Kaepernick can take care of the ball when he’s in the pocket and make the right decisions when he gets out of it, this offense should produce. Kaepernick also showed his mental toughness and resolve against Green Bay when he bounced right back after throwing an interception on the 49ers’ first offensive series that the Packers returned for a touchdown and early 7-0 lead. That proved to be Kaepernick’s lone mistake that night, as he marched his team right back down the field on the next possession, capping it off with a 20-yard touchdown run.

Even though Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson torched Atlanta’s defense for 385 yards passing, the Falcons rose to the occasion when they needed to and did a solid job stopping the run last week. Atlanta held Seattle scoreless for an entire half and limited running back Marshawn Lynch to just 46 yards on 16 carries (2.9 ypc) for the game. Wilson led the Seahawks with 60 yards rushing on just seven carries (8.6 ypc), and the Falcons’ run defense will need a similar, if not better, effort against the 49ers’ two-headed rushing attack of running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Limiting Kaepernick’s impact on the ground will be especially key as the Falcons’ defense has struggled with quarterbacks who can run. In addition to Wilson’s production last week, Atlanta gave up a total of 202 yards rushing and two touchdowns on just 18 carries (11.2 ypc) in two games against Carolina’s Cam Newton during the regular season. Keeping Kaepernick contained in the pocket will be key, something that was a bit of an issue against Wilson, especially in the fourth quarter. As a collective unit, the Falcons’ defense played very well through the first three quarters, but experienced a number of breakdowns in the final period. The Seahawks scored three straight touchdowns in the fourth to take a one-point lead, as Wilson had little trouble finding tight end Zach Miller (8 rec., 142 yds., TD) in the middle of the field or was able to hook up with one of his wide receivers down the field. The 49ers don’t turn the ball over that often, so a more disciplined effort from the Falcons, one that goes a full four quarters, will be needed to try and slow down Kaepernick and company.

When the Atlanta Falcons have the ball:
Similar to its defense in stopping the run, Atlanta’s rushing offense also stepped up when it was needed most in the 30-28 win over Seattle. Led by running back Michael Turner’s 98 yards, the Falcons rushed for a season-high 167 yards on 26 carries (6.4 ypc) against the Seahawks. Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers (10 att., 64 yds.) provided a nice one-two punch in the backfield, making things easier on quarterback Matt Ryan and the passing game. The Falcons will need similar production from their two backs against a 49ers defense that gave up 104 yards rushing on just 16 carries (6.5 ypc) to the Packers. With the support of the ground game, Ryan did the rest, as the fifth-year starter put together his best playoff performance yet – 24-of-35 for 250 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions — against the Seahawks. The interceptions are still a concern and probably something that he can’t afford to repeat against the 49ers, but he made the throws when he needed to, especially the two completions with less than 31 seconds left that set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal. Just like they did against the Seahawks’ secondary, the Falcons’ wide receivers should be able to make some plays against the 49ers’ defense, provided the offensive line gives Ryan enough time to throw. Tight end Tony Gonzalez made several key catches against the Seahawks, but the 49ers’ linebackers are more experienced, athletic, talented and productive than the Seahawks’ corps. Wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, and probably even Harry Douglas and Rodgers, will need to make the most of the opportunities thrown their way because one has to figure the 49ers are going to key in on Gonzalez. It also will be up to Ryan to make wise decisions when he does throw, and try and not force the ball down field, a situation that produced one of his interceptions last week. Besides run blocking, the offensive line didn’t allow a sack against Seattle, which is another key in attacking San Francisco’s defense. The 49ers present some different challenges when it comes to their pass rush, so the Falcons’ line will need to put together one of its strongest all-around efforts to make an impact in both the running and passing games. The Falcons did a good job on converting third downs (6-of-11) against the Seahawks and will need similar success to keep drives alive and limit the number of possessions the 49ers’ offense gets. Even if they are unable to punch it into the end zone, the Falcons should be able to score points once they get past the 49ers’ 40-yard-line because of kicker Matt Bryant, especially if it’s a late-game situation. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant has connected on 17 of his 18 go-ahead or game-tying field goal attempts in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of regular-season games in his career. His 94 percent success rate in these situations is the best of anyone with at least 15 such attempts in the NFL since 1970. Add to that the 49-yard game winner Bryant knocked through with just eight seconds remaining against the Seahawks last week, and it appears that the Falcons have not one, but two “Matty Ices” who can get the job done when the game is on the line.

San Francisco’s defense finished the regular season as one of the NFL’s best, but this unit has taken some lumps recently. The 49ers were third overall in total defense (294.4 ypg) and second in scoring defense (17.1 ppg), but have allowed considerably more yards and points in three of its last four games. Besides surrendering 352 yards and 31 points (one touchdown came via INT return) in the win over Green Bay, both New England (520, 34 in Week 15) and Seattle (346, 42 in Week 16) enjoyed a fair amount of success against the 49ers’ defense. Atlanta with quarterback Matt Ryan and his receiving weapons figure to present another stiff test for this defense, especially if the Falcons have the same success running the ball as they did against the Seahawks. That’s not to say this is not a defense capable of shutting the Falcons down either, as the 49ers placed six — free safety Dashon Goldson, linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive lineman Justin Smith, strong safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Patrick Willis (starters) and linebacker NaVorro Bowman (reserve) — on the NFC’s Pro Bowl team. In fact, the 49ers’ defensive struggles can be traced back to the Patriots’ game in Week 15, when Justin Smith tore the tendon in his left triceps. Smith missed the final two regular-season games, against the Seahawks and Cardinals, but was able to return against the Packers. He contributed five tackles in the win while wearing a brace on his left arm. The key for Smith and 49ers’ defense will be to stop the Falcons’ running game to try and make their offense one-dimensional. Then it will be up to the pass rush, led by Aldon Smith, to try and at least disrupt Ryan, as the Falcons haven’t given up a lot of sacks. The 49ers did a good job of limiting big plays by the Packers and will need to do the same against the Falcons, especially through the air.

Key Factor:
Quarterback play will probably go a long way in determining the outcome of this one. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick may not have as much experience as Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, but he has the same number of playoff victories (one) and is coming off of a remarkable performance against Green Bay. If Kaepernick is able to duplicate what he did against the Packers, the Falcons will be hard-pressed to keep up.

However, this will be Kaepernick’s first playoff road game and you know the Georgia Dome will be rocking with the Falcons one win away from their second Super Bowl appearance. And it certainly is “Dome Sweet Dome” for Ryan, as he is 34-6 in his career, including last week’s Wild Card win, at home. Only Tom Brady has a better winning percentage at home among quarterbacks whose careers began in the Super Bowl era.

Besides playing at home, Ryan and the Falcons are still riding the wave of emotion (not too mention relief) from last week’s playoff win, and this momentum, coupled with an energetic home crowd, will allow them to stay with the 49ers for most of the game. In the end, however, San Francisco’s defense makes a few more stops and the running game wears down the Atlanta defense just enough to secure the 49ers’ sixth NFC title and a chance to claim a sixth Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans on Feb. 3.

Prediction: 49ers 31, Falcons 27

Related:

AFC Championship Preview and Prediction: Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots

NFL Conferences: 

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