NFC South: NFC Championship Game

On the road

January, 21, 2013
ATLANTA -- I’m about to fly home to NFC South Blog headquarters.

Keep an eye on the headlines section of our main NFL page for any break news.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith is scheduled to meet with the media in just about an hour and I’m sure he’ll be asked plenty more about what went wrong in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game.

Once I get back to headquarters, I’ll weigh in on whatever Smith has to say.

How the 49ers beat the Falcons

January, 21, 2013
ATLANTA – With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look back at how the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 28-24, in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game:
  • Although the big fear coming into the game was that San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick would destroy the Falcons with his running off the read option, that didn’t happen. The 49ers used the option on 13 rushes, but Kaepernick did not keep the ball on any of those plays. However, the damage was done by the running backs. On those plays, San Francisco’s running backs averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns.
  • The Falcons also did a good job of keeping Kaepernick in the pocket. He stayed there on 21 of 23 of his dropbacks. However, Kaepernick did plenty of damage from inside the pocket, averaging 11.5 yards per pass attempt. The only time he averaged more yards from inside the pocket was in his first start, in Week 11, when he averaged 13.5 yards per attempt.
  • Atlanta’s blitz didn’t do much good. Kaepernick was 9-of-11 for 129 yards and a touchdown when the Falcons sent five or more pass rushers. Kaepernick’s main target in those situations was tight end Vernon Davis, who caught four passes for 75 yards and a touchdown when the Falcons blitzed. Kaepernick also scrambled once for 23 yards on a blitz.
  • Speaking of Davis, he hadn’t been much of a factor since Kaepernick took over as the starter. Prior to Sunday, Davis had only one touchdown catch while Kaepernick was the starter and had averaged 1.6 catches and 23.5 yards per game. Against the Falcons, Davis had five catches for 106 yards.
  • Atlanta’s offense did a nice job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan early in the game. But that changed dramatically later on. Ryan was under duress on six of his final 12 dropbacks.
  • The 49ers overcame a 17-0 deficit to win. That's the third largest road comeback in playoff history and the largest comeback in the history of the NFC Championship Game.
  • The 49ers were held to -2 yards in the first quarter. They gained 375 yards over the final three quarters.

In the end, the same old Falcons

January, 20, 2013
Matt RyanAP Photo/David GoldmanMatt Ryan and the Falcons squandered an early lead and were held scoreless in the second half.
ATLANTA – There was Arthur Blank hugging Mike Smith and offering condolences. There was Smith hugging Thomas Dimitroff and not saying much of anything. There were grown men, namely Tony Gonzalez and Todd McClure, breaking into tears.

Even Roddy White, usually the most vocal member of the Atlanta Falcons, was on the verge of being speechless.

This is what happens when a team known for its inability to win the big games loses its biggest one yet.

This was the scene after the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24, at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

"We played well," Blank, the owner of the Falcons, said to a group of family members and friends as he waited to hear Smith, the coach, address the media. "Almost …"

Blank’s voice trailed off to silence, and the normally eloquent man became enveloped by a forlorn expression. After Smith talked to the media, he and Blank exchanged a hug, and then Smith did the same with Dimitroff, the general manager.

But the real tears came in the locker room. That’s where Gonzalez and McClure, the two elder statesmen of the team, lost it.

"You play your whole career …" said McClure, the center, who then broke into tears and went silent for about 20 seconds.

"You play your whole career," McClure eventually continued. "To get in this situation, and to come up short is tough."

On the other side of the locker room, Gonzalez, the veteran tight end, was saying basically the same thing and also shedding tears. Some of Gonzalez’s tears might have been because he said he is pretty sure he’s going to retire after a 16-year career. But there also is little doubt he was crying due to the way the Falcons lost the game.

As Gonzalez said he would probably retire, McClure said he wants to play another season. But, after what happened Sunday, I’m getting the feeling Gonzalez and McClure could play another 10 or 20 years and the Falcons still wouldn’t be capable of getting to the Super Bowl -- unless there are some dramatic changes.

The three previous playoff losses during the era of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan were bad, but this one was horrible.

This one showed, just when it looked like the Falcons were going to turn the corner and show the world they really aren’t postseason chokers, that's precisely who they are.

I didn’t hear a single coach or player try to sugarcoat this one, and that’s fitting because there truly was no excuse for this.

The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and employees at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport were probably already stocking up on eggs to greet the team upon its arrival for Super Bowl XLVII.

Instead, the Falcons promptly laid a huge egg. They let the 49ers creep back into the game before halftime. Then, they completely folded in the second half. There were two turnovers, two costly personal fouls and even Ryan, the supposed master of the comeback, couldn’t pull off a late miracle and put the Falcons in the end zone, even though they were just 10 yards away with a little more than a minute left.

"It’s tough when you are [10] yards away from the Super Bowl," White said in perhaps his only useable quote of the day.

There were plenty of unusable quotes in a locker room in which profanities, spawned by frustration, were abundant.

The Falcons should be furious about this one. It was their best chance yet to get to the franchise's first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.

Instead, they squandered a 13-3 season and the benefit of a No. 1 seed for the second time in three seasons.

For all the good the Falcons did this season (and they did at least get a playoff win against Seattle last week), they’re right back where they were at the start of the season. And the start of the season before that.

Go ahead and fire away with the same old questions and criticisms.

Smith is too nice to win the big ones. Ryan can win in the regular season, but not when it matters most.

It’s all valid. In fact, now the Falcons have firmly earned the right to be questioned and criticized from now until the day they win a Super Bowl -- if they ever do.

Put the blame on the coaches, and put the blame on Ryan. The Falcons scored 24 points in the first half and precisely zero in the second half. Ryan fumbled away a snap out of the shotgun formation and threw an interception. A team that prides itself on not making mistakes made plenty of them. There were the two personal fouls and repeated breakdowns on defense.

Let’s not forget what might have been the biggest issue of all.

"Covering the tight end," Smith said. "The tight end was an issue."

The tight end (Vernon Davis, who finished with five catches for 106 yards) was a huge issue, mainly because the Falcons inexplicably didn’t bother to cover him.

But let's forget the individual breakdowns for now. It’s time to start wondering if there’s a more systemic issue with the Falcons. Is there some inherent flaw with this personnel, with this coaching staff and with the way the Falcons do things?

They had everything: a ton of talent, an incredibly loud home crowd and a big early lead.

Yet the Falcons have squandered yet another postseason opportunity. After all the talk about how -- this time -- this team was really, truly different, it turns out the Falcons are nothing but the same old Falcons.


Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 28-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: For the second time in three seasons, the Falcons went 13-3 and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC but couldn’t parlay home-field advantage into a trip to the Super Bowl. At least the Falcons won a playoff game (they defeated Seattle in the divisional round) for the first time in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era. But this team had visions of much more than one playoff win, so the ending is disappointing. Smith is not on any hot seat because of his huge regular-season success, but he and the Falcons will enter the 2013 season under enormous pressure to win it all. This team is loaded with talent, and fans and owner Arthur Blank are running out of patience.

Opportunity lost: This one is going to be particularly painful for the Falcons. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead and looked like they were going to blow the 49ers out of the Georgia Dome. But just like last week against Seattle, the Falcons let the 49ers get back in the game. The Falcons had a chance to win it in the end. But there were no miracles from Ryan this time, as he had a fourth-down pass batted down deep in San Francisco territory with less than two minutes remaining.

Opportunity lost II: Atlanta receiver Julio Jones played the game of his life. He caught eight passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. But the loss put a big damper on all that.

What’s next: The Falcons will head into an offseason that will involve some key personnel decisions. Cornerback Brent Grimes, left tackle Sam Baker and William Moore highlight the class of potential free agents. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has hinted strongly at retirement, and aging running back Michael Turner could become a salary-cap casualty. This team still has a good nucleus in place, but the loss showed that flaws remain. Smith and Thomas Dimitroff will have to spend the offseason tweaking the roster to try to get the Falcons ready to take the next step.

Halftime: Falcons 24, 49ers 14

January, 20, 2013
ATLANTA -- Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is shaping up a lot like last week’s divisional round game between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

At halftime, the Falcons hold a 24-14 lead.

That may seem like good news for Atlanta fans. But here’s the catch -- the Falcons were leading this game 17-0 and looked like they were ready to blow the 49ers right out of the Georgia Dome.

But it’s become eerily reminiscent of last week when the Falcons led 20-0, squandered it and had to kick a last-second field goal to get past Seattle. But the good news for the Falcons is that they took the momentum back with a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez near the end of the first half.

We’ll see what the second half brings. I’ll be back with a Rapid Reaction as soon as the game ends. Also, if you’re not already with us, please join us in the Countdown Live chat in the second half.

Live from the Georgia Dome

January, 20, 2013
ATLANTA -- I’m in the Georgia Dome, where things are quiet for the moment.

The gates aren’t open to fans yet and the only players I see on the field loosening up are Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher.

But the atmosphere is going to change soon enough because the parking lots already were jammed with tailgate parties and I did notice a few fans wearing San Francisco jerseys.

I’ll be back with inactives about 90 minutes before kickoff. Colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando are here with me and Ashley Fox also should be arriving soon. Also, I'm scheduled to chat about the matchup between the Falcons and 49ers on ESPN Radio at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET.

Be sure to join us in the Countdown Live chat throughout the game.

Championship Sunday is upon us

January, 20, 2013
ATLANTA -- At long last, the day of the NFC Championship Game is finally here.

It’s a gorgeous day in Atlanta with the sun shining, not a cloud in the sky and afternoon temperatures expected to be in the upper 50s. That might seem insignificant because the game between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers will be played indoors in the Georgia Dome. But it could be a factor because it means the tailgating conditions are perfect and that could only make the crowd noise in the dome louder.

I’m passing the next few hours at my hotel, but colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando will be heading over to the Georgia Dome in a few hours. We should be in there about noon and we’ll bring you all the pregame news and notes.

We’ll also be chatting live throughout the game on Countdown Live, so join us if you can.

Buckle up because it should be a fun day.

On the road to Atlanta

January, 19, 2013
TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT -- I’m about to fly to Atlanta to get in position to cover Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons.

I’ll be joined by colleagues Ashley Fox, John Clayton and Mike Sando. We’ll bring you news, notes and analysis before, during and after the game.

You can also join us for the Countdown Live chat that will go on throughout the game.

Film of the NFC South chat

January, 19, 2013
Let’s take a look at the team-by-team highlights from Friday’s NFC South chat:


Eric (Atlanta): Can Sidbury help if Abe is unable to play effectively. He sure seems to have gotten on the coaches' bad side in the last year or two. If not, why do they even keep him around?

Pat Yasinskas: First, it sounds as if Abe will play. Second, Matthews and Massaquoi got the snaps when Abe was out Sunday. They're clearly ahead of Sidbury in the eyes of the coaches. Think Sidbury's days in ATL are numbered.

Marc C (Virginia Beach): Who do you have winning this weekend, Falcons or 49ers?

PY: I took the Falcons. Think I had it at 31-27.

Eliot (Roswell, GA): Do you think the impact of Atlanta having home-field advantage this weekend is being underplayed, grossly underplayed, or both? I've heard it thrown to the wayside several times, and if it was factored in to someone's analysis, all I heard is that it will make Colin Kaepernick more effective because of the turf. Thoughts?

PY: Underplayed. Falcons have been very good in GA Dome since Smitty arrived. And I'd expect the crowd will be louder than ever on Sunday.


Ray (Orlando): Hey Pat, did you find it odd Carolina interviewed Shurmur for the OC job?

PY: A little bit. He's a West Coast offense guy, which doesn't fit with Cam Newton. As I've said before, I'd just promote Shula. Think that makes the most sense.

Ceaser Loco (winston-salem, nc): if khalil, charles johnson, beason, and gross restructure is it possible to sign greg hardy AND look good to make a free agent move?

Pat Yasinskas: Can probably take care of Hardy, but they're not going to have room to get any big free agents.

Mike (greensboro): Pat, but when Deangleo started after JS got hurt, we started winning. i say get rid of JS. Just my opinion.

PY: I would agree with you if money wasn't a factor. But it's a huge factor there. Williams is counting more than $8 million against cap. Stewart's counting $2.8. Plus, they'd lose cap money if the cut Stewart.


Not a Falcons question (Atlanta): I am a Falcons fan, but was wondering just how close Sean Payton came to being the Cowboys coach.For me, I did not see it. Benson would not let him get away so easy and I don't see Payton wanting to work for Jerry Jones....Just how close was he to leaving?

PY: I don't think it ever got real close. Benson wasn't going to let him get away. And I think Payton wanted to come back and right the ship.

Jeff (Charlotte): Pat, will Vilma finally drop the Bountygate thing and move on?

PY: I think it's over now. There's really nothing left he can do.

Tommy (New york ): Saints fan here. Is a certainty that will Smith will be cut?

PY: I'd say it's likely. Cap figure is over $14 mil and he's getting up there in age.


Sam R (Boston, MA): Hey Pat. What do you think the Bucs will/should do with Eric Wright? Many are speculating that he's not gonna be with them for much longer. Also, any news on Quincy Black?

PY: Think it's pretty obvious Wright will be gone. We're talking $7.75 million. Last I heard on Black was he was still seeing specialists to figure out exactly what's going on.

Michael (London): Hi Pat, What cornerbacks do you reckon the bucs could realistically go after in free agency and also if we go cornerback in the 1st round of the draft, is the drop-off from Milliner quite high or do you think there are some other top corners to be taken at 13?

PY: Most people have Rhodes in the late 20s. But the demand could push him up. So could good workouts.

Darin (Louisville Ky): Hey Pat i have heard how Martellus Bennett wants to play with his brother. Any chance he goes to the bucs? They kinda need a TE. Also with Nicks n Joseph returning does Doug Martins numbers get even better?

PY: I think Bennett makes sense on many levels. And, yeah, could only help Martin if he's running behind two Pro Bowl guards.

Here’s the complete transcript of Friday’s NFC South chat.

Atlanta Falcons injury report

January, 18, 2013
The Atlanta Falcons are listing defensive end John Abraham (ankle) and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) as questionable for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against San Francisco.

But both took part in Friday’s practice on a limited basis, so I think it’s safe to assume Babineaux and Abraham will be playing Sunday.

The Falcons also are listing safety William Moore (hand), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (foot) and cornerback Christopher Owens (hamstring) as probable. All three participated fully in Friday’s practice.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons:

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
AP Photo/Perry KnottsWill the 49ers see Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez line up in the slot or as a tight end in the NFC title game?
Staying grounded: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is not a good matchup for the Atlanta defense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against the Packers in the divisional round. The Falcons had problems with mobile quarterbacks in the regular season and against Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the divisional round. Quarterbacks have averaged a league-high 8.9 yards per carry against the Falcons. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have faced 42 read-option plays (second-most in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information. On those plays, the Falcons have done a good job when the quarterback hands off. Running backs averaged 3.9 yards against Atlanta on the read option. But quarterbacks have averaged more than 20 yards per carry.

Been a long time: The Falcons and 49ers have met just once before in the postseason. That was in the 1998 season in a divisional playoff game, which was the first game back for Atlanta coach Dan Reeves after quadruple-bypass surgery. The Falcons won that game 20-18 and went on to make the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The Falcons and 49ers were NFC West rivals until the NFC South was founded in 2002. Since then, the teams have had four regular-season meetings, and the Falcons have won all four.

Comeback kids: The Falcons got the ball with 31 seconds remaining and rallied for a win against Seattle. That marked the third time this season the Falcons started a game-winning drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter. The rest of the league combined for eight such drives. In the past 10 years, the only other teams with multiple game-winning drives that started in the last minute of regulation were the 2010 Jets and 2010 Jaguars, each with two.

Tight end or receiver? Technically, Tony Gonzalez is Atlanta’s tight end and Harry Douglas is the slot receiver. But that’s not always how they line up. Gonzalez has had 55 receptions when lined up in the slot, including three in the divisional playoff.

Red-hot Crabtree: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has become much more of a factor since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. When Smith was starting, Crabtree averaged 4.9 receptions and 56.7 receiving yards per game, and had four touchdowns. With Kaepernick, Crabtree has averaged 6.3 receptions and 89.3 yards per game, and has caught seven touchdown passes.

Quick hits on the Atlanta Falcons

January, 18, 2013
The Atlanta Falcons, whose fans spent the season saying they don’t get enough media attention, are getting a ton of attention with the NFC Championship Game approaching. It’s coming out fast and furious, so let’s run through some of the highlights:
  • We usually stick with the nuts and bolts of football here. But, sometimes, there’s something outside the box that’s worth a look. That’s true in this video salute to the Falcons by The Georgia Aquarium.
  • The sports merchandise retail website reports that sales of Falcons’ merchandise are up 120 percent this week. The website also says that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones jerseys have been among the week’s top-five sellers.
  • Jay Adams writes that kicker Matt Bryant’s success is a product of his pregame preparation. He’s always the first member of the Falcons out on the field before the game. I even once saw Bryant walking through a parking garage near the Georgia Dome about three hours before kickoff, wearing headphones. I thought about saying hello, but Bryant already looked as intense as he does before attempting a game-winning field goal.
  • Warrick Dunn, Tommy Nobis, Steve Bartkowski, Jeff Van Note and Jessie Tuggle will serve as honorary captains for the Falcons on Sunday.
  • Daniel Cox writes that Harry Douglas is a critical piece of the Atlanta receiving corps. That’s a good point. Roddy White and Jones get a lot of attention because they’re spectacular. But Douglas has some talent, too. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up playing a big role Sunday. San Francisco has to be concerned about White and Jones and that might leave Douglas with some favorable matchups.
  • Jen Floyd Engel writes that tight end Tony Gonzalez already has secured his legacy, even though he doesn’t have a Super Bowl championship. Gonzalez is the best tight end in history. But it sure would be a nice topper to his resume to get a Super Bowl ring.
  • Although a lot of people are saying the running ability of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick creates a mismatch, Pete Prisco writes that the Falcons have the tools to slow him down. They may have those tools, but they’re going to have to use them perfectly all game long. Kaepernick is so explosive that one mistake could prove very costly.
  • You might not have caught it, so here’s the link to our special page on the NFC Championship Game.

Double Coverage with Trent Dilfer

January, 18, 2013
On Tuesday, NFC West colleague Mike Sando and I did this Double Coverage segment in which we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons.

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer pretty much did his own Double Coverage on Thursday in a conference call with the national media when asked if he’s surprised that so many people doubt the Falcons.

"I kind of see both sides of it,’’ Dilfer said. “We're so -- as analysts, as writers, as a football-consuming audience -- we love the quantifiable. We love being able to say, 'Hey, they're this because here's a number to support it.' And we don't dive into the psychology of it and the intangible qualities teams have. So from the quantifiable, it's very understandable why people don't believe in the Falcons. They don't do anything outside their passing game that just jumps out at you and says 'Wow they're really good at A, they're really good at B.' They also play a lot of tight games against opponents that are, quote/unquote, not top-tier teams. For all those reasons, I understand it. And at times I find myself getting caught up in that, too.’’

But Atlanta fans shouldn’t go tossing Dilfer’s name into the lengthy list of media members they think have slighted the Falcons. The former NFL quarterback said that there was more than luck involved in the Falcons going 13-3 in the regular season and he pointed out some of their positive qualities.

“I just know that sometimes the most powerful thing in football is confidence, which you can't quantify,’’ Dilfer said. “It's momentum that you can't quantify. It's will, competitive will, to make big plays in big moments. There's no number to support that. When I look at the Falcons in that light, I see a lot of that stuff. I see a lot of the unquantifiable stuff that I go, 'Wow, this team's really good.' Seven fourth-quarter comebacks? Some of their comebacks are 30 seconds on the clock and getting the ball where they get it. Stops in games where they've been gashed on defense. But a big third-and-3, they come up with a big stop. They force a turnover. They don't flinch. So for all those reasons I really like the Falcons.’’

Falcons can't afford to be 'lazy'

January, 18, 2013
The Atlanta Falcons’ locker room is filled with guys that constantly spew whatever happens to be the company line at the moment.

But the notable exception is wide receiver Roddy White. He never has been afraid to say what really is on his mind. Sometimes it gets him in trouble. But, sometimes, it’s a very good thing.

White’s comments about what happened in the 30-28 playoff victory over Seattle fall into the latter category.

“I felt like in the first half we did a heck of a job, just coming out with attitude and executing at a high level," White said. "We got a little lazy in the second half. We kind of got too complacent, too relaxed. You can't do that in the playoffs. Every series matters. You can't have lulls, man."

White probably is the only member of the Falcons that will say publicly that the team got complacent and lazy after jumping out to a 20-0 lead against the Seahawks. You have to give Seattle some credit for not giving up and playing a great second half, and I’m not sure the Falcons got lazy. But they did come very close to what would have been a disastrous loss.

But the bottom line is that White is exactly right. The San Francisco 49ers are an even better team than Seattle. In the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons have to keep their foot on the accelerator for the entire 60 minutes.

NFC South chat Friday at 1 p.m.

January, 18, 2013
A quick reminder that our weekly NFC South chat will be held Friday at 1 p.m. ET.

I’m sure the Atlanta Falcons will dominate this chat because they are playing the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

But I’m not going to exclude talk about the division's other three teams. If you have questions about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, bring them.

Here’s your free ticket into the chat.