Coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons finally have that elusive playoff victory. One more home victory stands between them and the Super Bowl after Atlanta outlasted Seattle in the divisional round.
The San Francisco 49ers, overtime losers in the NFC Championship Game last year, are back on the verge of their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. That 49ers team won it all with one of the all-time great ex-Falcons, Deion Sanders, playing cornerback for them.
Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talked through the possibilities.
Sando: Pat, you just finished watching QBs Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan put on a show in the divisional round. If anyone upstaged them in these playoffs, it was 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay. Kaepernick had 263 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Kaepernick now owns victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in his first eight starts. It's looking like he's going to be the key variable in this game against the Falcons.
Yasinskas: No doubt, Mike. I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay, and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Seattle QB Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. The Falcons struggled with QB Cam Newton and the read-option offense in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneel-downs) this season. Kaepernick can do the read-option, but the 49ers also can turn to RB Frank Gore in the traditional running game, and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.
Sando: Some NFL coaching people I've spoken with thought the Packers had a horrible plan. Of course, that's easy to say after a team gives up 181 yards rushing to a quarterback. But from this view, it appeared as though the Packers played too much man coverage, turning their backs to Kaepernick and giving him too many free running lanes. Even before Kaepernick became the starter, San Francisco was known around the league for having a higher volume of running plays in its arsenal than other teams do. Kaepernick opens up another dimension. What was the key to Cam Newton's running success against Atlanta this season?
Yasinskas: Newton and the Panthers used the read-option pretty much to perfection against Atlanta. Carolina got the defensive ends and linebackers to commit and Newton made the right calls. He's a unique talent, and so is Kaepernick. But I think San Francisco could present even more of a challenge due to Gore. Atlanta's defense had issues with the read-option. But the Falcons weren't all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons use a lot of nickel packages, and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run. They might have to use a little more of their 4-3 base defense and keep middle linebacker Akeem Dent on the field more.
Sando: The 49ers' offensive personnel are heavier than just about any other team. That will force the Falcons to play their base defense on early downs. I dug up a couple of numbers from ESPN game charts to illustrate the point. The 49ers' opponents played nickel or dime defense on only 128 first- or second-down plays this season; for the Falcons' opponents, that number was 396. Against the Packers' nickel/dime defenses, Kaepernick carried 11 times for 107 yards, including his 20-yard touchdown run. He carried three times for 76 yards against the Packers' base 3-4 personnel. That included his 56-yard run. The 49ers can present matchup problems from their two-tight end offense because Vernon Davis (4.38 40-yard dash) and Delanie Walker (4.49) run well. Davis' 44-yard reception against the Packers was a great sign for San Francisco.
Yasinskas: Yes, I think San Francisco's offense is going to present all sorts of problems for Atlanta's defense. But I think the flip side is that Atlanta's offense is going to present matchup problems, even for a very good 49ers defense. Roddy White and Julio Jones command a lot of attention. But no defense can overlook tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas. Both are dependable and dangerous, as shown on Atlanta's game-winning drive against Seattle. Those are four very solid weapons. And let's not forget the fact that Atlanta's run game came to life against the Seahawks. If Michael Turner can show up again, San Francisco's defense is going to have its hands full.
Sando: The 49ers have sometimes let Patrick Willis match up with opposing tight ends. Willis has covered pretty well much of the time, in my view. The 49ers gave up a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, but they ranked only 21st in passer rating allowed (98.5) when opponents targeted the position. San Francisco allowed eight touchdown passes to tight ends. Only five teams allowed more. Kyle Rudolph had two scoring catches against San Francisco. Jermichael Finley, David Thomas, Brandon Pettigrew, Anthony McCoy, Anthony Fasano and Aaron Hernandez also caught touchdowns against the 49ers this season. The key for San Francisco will be pressuring Ryan without blitzing. That appears possible now that defensive end Justin Smith is back and playing pretty well.
Yasinskas: Yes, San Francisco's pass rush will be a key to this game. Atlanta's offensive line, which was a problem spot last season, has enjoyed a resurgence this season with the arrival of offensive line coach Pat Hill. He's had the line playing well most of the season, and the unit was particularly good against Seattle. Ryan wasn't sacked and was barely pressured. Hill's biggest accomplishment has been getting a solid season out of left tackle Sam Baker. Baker was a first-round draft pick in 2008. His first four seasons were filled with inconsistency and injuries, but he has stayed healthy this season and has played at a high level. The rest of Atlanta's offensive line doesn't have great individual talent. But Hill has this line blocking well for the passing game. The running game has been a different story. Turner had a big game against Seattle. But during the regular season, he wasn't the same back he was in past years. I think part of it is because age is catching up to him, but part of it is because the run blocking wasn't great. Atlanta has made the transition toward being a pass-first team, and the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. Still, coach Mike Smith believes it's important to have a running game, and he's going to try to establish one with Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers against San Francisco.
Sando: Seattle, despite leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, ranked 30th in yards per rush allowed since Week 7. The Seahawks resorted to risky tactics after losing their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons, to injury in the wild-card round. Seattle simply couldn't get to Ryan without compromising its coverage. Ryan threw an early pick against DB pressure, but after that, he completed 7 of 8 passes for 111 yards and a score when the Seahawks rushed a member of their secondary, according to ESPN Stats & Information. San Francisco rushed a DB just twice against the Packers on Saturday night. Justin Smith's ability to play 91 percent of the snaps for the 49ers following a triceps injury was huge for San Francisco. The 49ers need him. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks this season, but none since he had two against Miami in Week 14. The 49ers need the Smiths to pick up where they left off before Justin's injury. That is a key to this game.
Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta's offensive line has to give Ryan time to throw the ball. A lot of Ryan's critics say he doesn't have a strong arm. But I think he has plenty of arm strength and he showed that with his long touchdown pass to White against Seattle. The key for Ryan in the deep game is for his offensive line to give him time. The Falcons like to use play-action, and that will help. But I think it also helps the offensive line that this game is in the Georgia Dome, so false starts won't be a problem. You brought up a good point last week in showing that Ryan's statistics haven't been as good at home as on the road. That's true. But the Falcons need to capitalize Sunday on the home-field advantage. This franchise has been around since 1966, but it's the first time a championship game will be played in Atlanta. After years of playing second fiddle to the Braves and college football, the Falcons have become the biggest thing in town. Fans finally are embracing this team, and the noise in the Georgia Dome could be a big help for the Falcons.
Sando: The 49ers allowed 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season. That was tied for third-fewest (Seattle allowed 40, sixth-fewest). I kept waiting for Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to deliver a game-changing hit. It never happened. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the big hitters for the 49ers. They need to be tone-setters down the field. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the physical aspect of this game plays out. That's an area where the 49ers need to win. I tend to think they will, as long as Justin Smith can give them 90 percent playing time once again. How do you see this one going?
Yasinskas: The 49ers probably are the more physical team, and I was very impressed with how they played overall against Green Bay. But following a hunch, I'm taking the Falcons 31-27. I think putting an end to the playoff-win drought will allow Atlanta to be loose and relaxed, especially in the case of Ryan. Playing at home also helps. Atlanta's defense needs to show up for 60 minutes this time. If it does, I think Atlanta has enough offensive firepower to score points even against a good defense and win this game. I see the Falcons going to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.
Sando: I'm not sure if I feel better or worse about the Falcons after watching that game against Seattle. The Seahawks had zero pass rush and I think that was the difference in the game, particularly at the very end. Looking ahead to Sunday, the Falcons have the more accomplished quarterback, but so did the Packers and Patriots and Saints. Kaepernick beat them all. I would give the Falcons the edge at receiver despite Michael Crabtree's development. Atlanta has the better kicker. I'd give the 49ers an edge on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. We were talking about Tony Gonzalez earlier. Great player, but would he even start for the 49ers? Not over Vernon Davis, crazy as that sounds. San Francisco is better at running back, too. Maybe the Falcons will pull out another wild one at home, but I just think the 49ers are better. I'll take them to win it 30-17. If the Falcons win, they were better than I thought at every step this season.