NFC West: Julio Jones

Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan USA TODAY SportsSeattle's Russell Wilson, left, and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have their teams on different paths.
The last meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks was memorable.

In last season's divisional playoff matchup, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-point lead only to see rookie quarterback Russell Wilson rally the Seahawks to a 28-27 edge late in the game. Atlanta's Matt Ryan engineered a last-minute drive that ended with Matt Bryant's game-winning, 49-yard field goal and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.

The teams are headed in opposite directions now, as the 8-1 Seahawks keep soaring and the 2-6 Falcons continue to descend.

How will things unfold Sunday in Atlanta? It's not looking good for the home team. The Seahawks nearly lost to the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, so they are sure to come to the Georgia Dome refocused.

ESPN.com's Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down the matchup between Atlanta and Seattle:

McClure: I talked to ex-Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher before the season, and he said the Seahawks were, by far, the best team in the league based on having faced them last year. He also picked them to win the Super Bowl. Do you think the Seahawks are the favorites, or did the game against Tampa Bay show they are vulnerable?

Blount: Vaughn, they've shown a lot of vulnerability this season, long before the game last week. They won several times when, statistically speaking, they should have lost. But the bottom line is they find a way to win. They are an incredibly confident bunch that believes in each other. And the Seahawks should get better down the stretch when both starting offensive tackles return and receiver Percy Harvin finally gets on the field. Seattle still is capable of reaching the Super Bowl, but a couple of things must improve -- pass protection and run defense -- down the stretch if the Seahawks are going to live up to expectations. They are living on the edge right now, maybe too much so.

The mood around the Falcons must be pretty depressing these days. I've always found the hardest teams to cover were the ones that everyone expected to be good and entered a season with high expectations but ended up having a horrible year. So what's it like around there, inside the team headquarters and around the city?

McClure: The fans, of course, are irate about the direction of the team and are calling for coach Mike Smith to be fired. More surprising to me, this being my first season around the team, is how much criticism has been directed toward Matt Ryan. Both Smith and Ryan have handled the negativity well. The closest I've seen Smith come to showing his frustration with the season was after last Sunday's loss to Carolina, when his face was bright red and he had a distraught look on his face. But team owner Arthur Blank came over and gave Smith a reassuring embrace.

Ryan has kept a positive outlook throughout, although his performance has been far below expectations. The vibe Ryan gives off -- remaining upbeat -- rubs off on the players around him. I'll be curious to see how some of the veteran players handle the second half of the season, particularly if the losses keep piling up. Speaking of Ryan, he has thrown seven interceptions over the past two games -- and he hasn't faced a secondary as strong as Seattle's. How well are both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas playing?

Blount: Until the Tampa Bay game, I felt Thomas was the best defensive player in the league. He missed a few tackles against the Bucs, but he also had a controversial interference call go against him. Tampa didn't throw much at Sherman, a wise decision. I think Ryan is a bit of a victim of not having his starting receivers out there, but if he or anyone he throws to makes a mistake, this secondary will make them pay.

Vaughn, it looks like Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time great tight ends, is going to end his career on a losing team. It's a bit of a surprise the Falcons didn't move him before the deadline. I know he is an extremely popular player with the Atlanta fans. Was that a factor in the decision? What happened there?

McClure: The Falcons were adamant about having no intention of moving Gonzalez. Once that was made clear around the league, no teams even bothered to inquire before the deadline. That being said, even Gonzalez understood the reason behind the media- and fan-driven speculation. He knew returning to Kansas City sounded like an enticing option, considering the Chiefs are undefeated, and it would have allowed Gonzalez probably his best chance to win a Super Bowl ring before he retires at season's end. But Gonzalez told me he only would have been open to listening to a trade if the Falcons felt it would be best for them. Obviously, they didn't.

I expect Gonzalez to go out a champion no matter how the team finishes, just because he represents everything that's right about the NFL. More players should strive to be like him. It looks like the Seahawks have a model citizen themselves in Russell Wilson. How is his development going in his second season?

Blount: It's hard to judge just how good Wilson could be, because he has been under siege most of the time with poor pass protection from the patchwork offensive line. Wilson has been under duress on 40 percent of his passes, the most in the league. But he has this innate ability to perform at his best when things seem to be at their worst. He has led the Seahawks to victories in three games they trailed in the fourth quarter. Two of those games were won in overtime. He actually seems to thrive on pressure circumstances. I've covered many great athletes, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone better than Wilson at making the big play in the most difficult moments.

The last time these teams faced each other was an exciting playoff game. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but can the Falcons surprise the Seahawks on Sunday?

McClure: I just don't see it happening. The loss of top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery instantly made the Falcons' offense far less potent. The offensive line isn't as strong as it was last season. Although the Falcons believed they upgraded with Steven Jackson over Michael Turner at running back, an early-season hamstring injury has kept Jackson from hitting stride. And the defense hasn't gotten much better than the one that surrendered 491 yards to the Seahawks in last season's playoffs. To win Sunday, Ryan has to be flawless and Jackson needs to rush for 100-plus yards.

 

Rams-Falcons: Matchups breakdown

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
12:00
PM ET
ATLANTA – Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons contains plenty of intriguing matchups, making it difficult to boil it down to just a few. Here are three to keep an eye on when the teams kick it off at 1 p.m. ET at the Georgia Dome.

Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins vs. Atlanta receiver Julio Jones

Jones
Jenkins
It’s a matchup that fans of the Southeastern Conference have seen before and one that Jenkins undoubtedly is anticipating.

Jenkins was at Florida at the same time Jones was at Alabama. The final two times their teams met, in 2009 and 2010, Jenkins won their battles by unanimous decision -- helping to limit Jones to a combined six catches for 47 yards.

Although the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones has a clear size advantage against the 5-10, 198-pounder, Jenkins found ways to slow Jones in their college meetings by forcing him to work other routes than the basic deep ones that are Jones’ calling card.

“He’s a vertical threat, the deep guy, the home run guy,” Jenkins said. “He basically bangs 8s [routes] and digs. I have just got to play cornerback on him. I know he can’t get out of his breaks as fast as I can, but they love going deep so I have got to be prepared to go deep and just study his film.”

The Rams generally prefer not to shadow any one receiver, and they didn’t do so last week against Larry Fitzgerald. Still, should Jones play through a knee injury (he's listed as questionable), he and Jenkins should see plenty of each other Sunday afternoon.

Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis vs. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

Jackson
Laurinaitis
Earlier this week, Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan joked that Jackson’s top target when he gets the ball will be Laurinaitis. Really, matching up with Jackson figures to be a total team effort, but Jackson has always enjoyed measuring himself against opposing middle linebackers.

Laurinaitis and the Rams never had to tackle Jackson in live game action during his nine years with the team, and they've all made it clear they are expecting Jackson to bring a little something extra Sunday.

“Jack is going to be trying to truck-stick whoever he can on this defense,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s the nature of playing him. He’s a competitor anyway, but players seem to play their hardest against teams they were just on. Steven is a competitor in his very nature anyway. That’s the way he is. He’s playing against the team that he used to play for; he’s going to play extremely hard. It’s a huge challenge.”

Jackson had just 11 carries last week against New Orleans, but the Falcons will probably look to get him more involved this week.

The Rams' offensive line vs. Atlanta DL Kroy Biermann

Biermann
In watching the Falcons' defense, it’s hard not to notice the constant movement and various places Biermann lines up. The veteran lineman makes appearances as an edge rusher, a linebacker, inside, outside, just about anywhere one could imagine.

Last week against the Saints, Biermann was all over the place in posting five tackles, including one for loss, and a pair of quarterback hits.

The Rams' offensive line did not allow a sack last week against the Cardinals, the third game in a row they've accomplished that feat dating to last season. Arizona threw a variety of stunts and blitzes, but the Rams picked them up well as the Cardinals hit quarterback Sam Bradford just six times.

“Kroy, for most of his career, was an edge rusher and a very good one,” Fisher said. “He’s a high-motor guy. He’s lining up all over the place. He’ll match up outside on a back and end up playing the corner spot in their zone concept. So he’s obviously very intelligent and a high-motor guy. He’s a big-play guy.”
Nik Bonaddio of numberFire expects relatively big things from St. Louis Rams rookie Tavon Austin based on similarities with other receivers.

Bonaddio explains why here. His expectations for Austin in 2013: somewhere around 59 receptions for 961 yards with eight touchdowns.

The Rams would presumably be OK with those types of numbers. However, I think Austin has a chance to exceed that total for receptions while heading to a team with relatively unestablished players at wide receiver.

The chart below ranks rookies since 2002 by most receiving yards while including their stats for receptions and receiving touchdowns. The projections for Austin would put him in the top 10 by that standard.

The Rams haven't had a receiver with 961-plus yards since Torry Holt had 1,189 yards in 2007.

The Seattle Seahawks say they weren't taking a win-now approach at the expense of their future when they acquired Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings at great cost.

Harvin
Their coach and general manager described the move as a rare opportunity to add one of the very best players in the NFL. They said the move fit well within their long-range planning, contrary to perceptions.

The risk-reward aspect of the Harvin move came to mind Thursday upon reading Chuck Klosterman's report from inside (and ultimately outside) the Cleveland Browns' draft room. According to Klosterman, who was writing for Grantland, first-year Browns president Alec Scheiner was speaking about NFL teams in general when he delivered this comment:
"We have a long-term vision. And I realize that sounds simplistic, but a lot of teams don't have that. They take shortcuts. Our long-term vision is sustained success over a long period of time. When you look at organizations like San Francisco and Philadelphia and New England and Baltimore and Pittsburgh, what you see are organizations that stayed consistent with their ideals. If you look at other teams, you can see where they took shortcuts. You can see where they gave up three assets for one guy, because they thought they were one player away. But you're never just one player away."

Seattle sent three draft choices to the Minnesota Vikings for Harvin in the biggest trade of the 2013 offseason.

There have been other blockbuster trades on occasion.

The Atlanta Falcons traded five picks to the Browns in 2011 for a chance to draft Julio Jones sixth overall. That was before Scheiner was with Cleveland, and the deal seems to have benefited the Falcons, who had a quarterback capable of maximizing Jones' addition.

In 2009, the New York Jets sent three players and two high draft choices to the Browns for a chance to draft Mark Sanchez fifth overall. Last year, the Washington Redskins traded the sixth and 39th picks with two future first-rounders to the St. Louis Rams for a chance to draft Robert Griffin III second overall.

Did the Harvin trade represent a shortcut move with longer-term negative consequences?

We've gone over this ground previously. The Seahawks have the quarterback in place to maximize their investment in Harvin. The move would not make as much sense otherwise. The team was subsequently able to extend Kam Chancellor's contract, alleviating fears that Harvin's payday would complicate negotiations with other core players.

There is still risk, of course.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what’s the most pressing issue on each NFC West team's agenda?

Arizona Cardinals: Figuring out what's up with Daryl Washington should rank high on the Cardinals' list. Washington can be one of the most dynamic linebackers in the league. He had nine sacks last season and should be a player for the Cardinals to build around. Recent events have called into question his longer-term standing with the team. First came news that to open the season, Washington would serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Now, one month later, authorities are investigating a domestic abuse allegation levied against him. There has been no arrest. The Cardinals already have blown up quite a bit of their roster while making the transition to a new coaching staff. They'll have to decide after the 2013 season whether to exercise a $10 million option bonus for Washington.

St. Louis Rams: Tweaking the offensive scheme to fit the Rams' new personnel came to mind as one potential priority for the Rams, but the most pressing one? Developing the young unproven talent on the roster has to head the list. The Rams had the youngest roster in the NFL last season. It could be even younger this season. That's invigorating to a certain extent, but also a bit concerning. The situations at running back, receiver and safety come to mind. Top running backs Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Terrance Ganaway and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy have a combined 108 NFL carries. The wide receivers on the roster own a combined 15 starts, 12 of them by Chris Givens. At safety, rookie third-round choice T.J. McDonald and 2012 backup Darian Stewart are the leading candidates to start after the Rams released Quintin Mikell and let Craig Dahl leave in free agency. McDonald did not enjoy a stellar final season at USC. Is he ready for a Rams schedule featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Justin Blackmon, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Percy Harvin, Vincent Jackson and other players capable of putting pressure on even veteran safeties?

San Francisco 49ers: Developing 2012 first-round draft choice A.J. Jenkins has to rank high on the list of remaining priorities for the two-time defending NFC West champions. Jenkins made zero receptions during his rookie season. He wasn't a factor, and the 49ers didn't really need him. They ran their passing game through Michael Crabtree and still had other weapons such as Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Randy Moss and, when healthy, Mario Manningham. Crabtree and newcomer Anquan Boldin will join Davis in giving the 49ers three legitimate weapons for 2013. While the 49ers' passing game is not hinging on Jenkins' immediate development, the team needs to find out whether Jenkins will factor for the longer term. Crabtree's contract runs through the 2014 season. Re-signing him to a long-term deal is no given for the 49ers, particularly with quarterback Colin Kaepernick also in line for a new deal at roughly the same time. Boldin is signed through the upcoming season only. Developing Jenkins would expand the 49ers' options.

Seattle Seahawks: Getting another starter signed to a contract extension before the 2013 season could make sense. They recently struck a long-term deal with strong safety Kam Chancellor. Potential monster deals for Earl Thomas and/or Richard Sherman await in the not-too-distant future, as both are signed through 2014. In the meantime, Seattle might be wise to work out a more modest extension for cornerback Brandon Browner, a player ideally suited for their defensive scheme. Browner is signed through the 2013 season. While this will be only his third season with the Seahawks since leaving the CFL, Browner did get credit for an accrued season when he spent 2005 on injured reserve with the Denver Broncos. That makes 2013 Browner's fourth NFL season, enough to qualify as an unrestricted free agent under the collective bargaining agreement.

Final Word: Super Bowl XLVII

February, 2, 2013
2/02/13
1:00
PM ET
» Super Bowl XLVII Final Word: Ravens | 49ers

Five nuggets of knowledge about the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII:

Vernon Davis can be an unstoppable postseason force: The seventh-year tight end has averaged 27.6 yards per reception in four playoff games over the past two seasons. He has 16 catches for 442 yards and five touchdowns in those games. That includes a five-catch, 106-yard performance against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

Since Davis entered the NFL in 2006, no other tight end with even half as many postseason receptions has averaged better than 17.8 yards per catch on them. Davis' five postseason scoring catches are two more than any other tight end since 2006. He faces a Ravens defense that allowed two touchdowns, picked off five passes and ranked second in Total QBR allowed (39.9) when opposing quarterbacks targeted tight ends.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Dave Martin49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has a passer rating of 101.2 over his first nine NFL starts.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick: Through nine career starts, his production has put him in elite company. No quarterback making his first nine starts over the past five seasons ranks higher than Kaepernick in winning percentage (77.8), yards per pass attempt (8.6), passer rating (101.2), or Total QBR (84.0).

Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco are among the quarterbacks ranking lower than Kaepernick in those categories through nine career starts since 2008. Although Flacco has come on strong in the playoffs this season, he trails Kaepernick in those key statistical categories even over his nine most recent starts (55.6 win percentage, 7.7 YPA, 97.4 passer rating and 47.0 QBR).

Turnovers: Teams winning the turnover battle have a 7-1 record in the past 10 Super Bowls. The 2005 Seattle Seahawks were the only team in that span to lose a Super Bowl with a positive turnover margin in the game. Baltimore is plus-5 in turnover differential in the playoffs, best in the NFL. The 49ers are tied for second at plus-2. The Ravens are averaging eight points off turnovers per playoff game, best in this postseason. The 49ers are tied for second at seven points per game off turnovers.

The 49ers' pass defense could be vulnerable: Counting regular season and playoffs, Baltimore has completed 40 passes on throws traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. That is nine more than any other team has completed. The Ravens are averaging an NFL-best 2.1 such completions per game, a figure that has risen to 3.3 per game in the playoffs. The 49ers have allowed two in each of their two playoff games, giving them up to Julio Jones (twice), Greg Jennings and James Jones. They had allowed two or more in a game just six times in the regular season, never in back-to-back games. Ravens receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin each have four such receptions in the playoffs, most in the NFL. The 49ers' Davis ranks second with three.


The 49ers' option running game is in focus: San Francisco has averaged 8.4 yards per carry with four touchdowns on 29 option rushes in the playoffs. That is up from 5.4 yards per carry with three touchdowns on 26 option rushes in Kaepernick's seven regular-season starts. As the chart shows, Frank Gore already has more yards on option rushes in the playoffs than he had in the full regular season. Kaepernick gained 99 yards on option rushes against Green Bay in the divisional round. The Ravens faced 15 option runs this season, all against Washington in Week 14. The Redskins finished that game with 93 yards and a 6.2-yard average on those plays.

Prediction: 49ers 27-23: The 49ers have the advantage in weaponry without much question. And although Flacco has never been hotter, Kaepernick has been the tougher quarterback to defend. There's a good chance that will be the case again Sunday.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.
Joe Flacco, Aldon SmithGetty ImagesRavens quarterback Joe Flacco will face his toughest challenge in Aldon Smith and the 49ers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is riding one of the greatest postseason runs an NFL quarterback has ever ridden.

Only six quarterbacks have thrown more touchdown passes in a single postseason than Flacco, who has eight in these playoffs.

But the San Francisco 49ers will provide Flacco's toughest test of the postseason. Since Vic Fangio took over as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 2011, San Francisco has allowed the fewest points (15.7) and second-fewest yards (301.3) on a per-game basis.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley break down the matchup between this strong-armed quarterback and stingy defense.

Hensley: Everyone laughed at Joe Flacco when he said he was the best quarterback in the NFL this offseason. Look who's laughing now. I'm not saying Flacco is the best quarterback in the league, but he's playing at a different level right now.

Sando: I know "playing at a different level" sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true. The smart numbers back this up in a big way.

Consider that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers finished first through fifth, respectively, in Total QBR for the regular season. All posted figures in the 70s or higher, well above the 50-point mark reflecting average contributions to winning.

I think we’d all agree that those guys were very good. Flacco finished 25th with a 46.8 mark. So, unless Flacco somehow defied a system that correctly identified the best and worst quarterbacks in the NFL, there was some reason for skepticism entering these playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens have won playoff games in past seasons with Flacco at quarterback, but he has been much, much better during this postseason -- not just relative to the regular season, but relative to past postseasons as well.

Flacco's eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions tell us as much. So do the advanced stats. Flacco’s Total QBR has spiked to 77.5, third-best in the playoffs. It ranged between 17.6 and 41.9 for him in previous postseasons.

Hensley: The difference with Flacco is his ability to get the ball downfield. He's averaging 16.7 yards per completion by going deep to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. I expect a similar game plan from the Ravens, especially after watching how Matt Ryan was able to hit some big plays against the 49ers in the first half of the NFC Championship Game. How does San Francisco go about slowing down Flacco?

Sando: The 49ers gave up a 46-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones on a blown coverage in the NFC Championship Game. These longer passes have been a bit of problem for the 49ers during the playoffs. That is a concern in this game.

During the playoffs, the 49ers have allowed 66.7 percent completions with three touchdowns and one interception on passes traveling more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. The 49ers are allowing 17.6 yards per pass attempt on these throws. The numbers were much more impressive during the regular season (36.3 percent completions, two TD passes, six picks, 10.5 yards per attempt).

The 49ers' pass rush, diminished since Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith suffered a triceps injury in Week 15, finished strong in the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco needs to pick up in the Super Bowl where it left off against the Falcons.

Hensley: What has impressed me just as much as Flacco's downfield passing has been his decision-making. He's not chucking the ball downfield any chance he gets. Flacco is waiting for the one-on-one matchups and exploiting them. That's the main reason why he hasn't thrown any interceptions in the playoffs. In fact, Flacco hasn't been picked off since he had an interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown against Denver on Dec. 16. He has gone 19 quarters of play without throwing one, a span of 162 passes. That's an amazing stretch for Flacco, whose previous best streak was 137 passes. A big reason why Flacco hasn't thrown interceptions is he's getting time to throw. If the 49ers can get pressure on Flacco, especially early, he has to continue to take care of the ball.

Sando: The 49ers do not blitz much. They have sent five or more pass-rushers just 6.9 percent of the time in two playoff games, easily the lowest rate this postseason (32.4 percent for everyone else). They really need Aldon Smith and Justin Smith to play well. Neither has dominated for some time. Aldon Smith did get pressure on Matt Ryan as the NFC Championship Game progressed. That was one reason the 49ers put Ryan under duress on six of his final 12 drop backs.

What kind of pass protection should we expect from the Ravens?

Hensley: Based on the playoffs, I would expect a very safe pocket for Flacco. The Ravens made a change on the offensive line and it has totally changed the passing game. Left guard Jah Reid was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury just before the playoffs began. That meant right tackle Kelechi Osemele moved to left guard, left tackle Michael Oher shifted to right tackle and Bryant McKinnie got out of John Harbaugh's doghouse and into the starting lineup at left tackle.

The result: four sacks allowed in three playoff games. The key matchup is McKinnie versus Aldon Smith. McKinnie has given up just one sack in the playoffs, but he has been inconsistent throughout his career. If the 49ers get too much heat on Flacco, look for the Ravens to get the ball to Ray Rice in space whether it's on swing or screen passes. Rice has been quiet in the playoffs as a receiver (four total catches) but he's dangerous in the passing game. Just look at fourth down-and-29 in San Diego.

Sando: If the 49ers could hand-pick two inside linebackers to chase Rice around the field, they would probably pick the ones they’re taking into this game, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They should be OK in that aspect of the matchup. But there are no guarantees Aldon Smith, playing with a shoulder injury, is going to consistently win those pass rush battles against Bryant McKinnie.

Yes, McKinnie’s career has been disappointing in recent seasons, but he was the seventh pick of the 2002 draft because he has talent.

McKinnie was at left tackle last season when the Ravens limited the 49ers to zero sacks. We should note that Justin Smith gave McKinnie problems in the running game. Still, though, that 16-6 defeat for the 49ers stands as one of three zero-sack games for San Francisco’s defense over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The 49ers’ offense scored only 22 points in those three games, however. It’s not like the Ravens were in any obvious passing situations against San Francisco last season.

Hensley: Some Ravens players have told me that the key to their running game is getting linemen to the second level, especially against Bowman, who is getting a lot of respect here in Baltimore. The Ravens need the running game to work early to avoid those obvious passing situations you pointed out, Mike, and set up the play-action, which Flacco uses quite well.

This game is such a role reversal for Flacco after going through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the AFC gauntlet. He's now the experienced quarterback compared to Colin Kaepernick. After eight playoff games and three trips to the AFC Championship Game, he understands what it takes to win in the national spotlight. He needs to convert third downs, produce touchdowns in the red zone (he already has five touchdowns inside the 20 this postseason) and not make costly turnovers. If the Ravens are going to win, it's going to be because of Flacco.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 28, Falcons 24

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
6:02
PM ET

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The 49ers are heading to a Super Bowl for the sixth time in franchise history. They will seek their sixth Super Bowl title when they face the winner of the Baltimore-New England game in New Orleans on Feb. 3. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will lead them there, further validating coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to make Kaepernick the starter over Alex Smith.

What I liked: The 49ers' defense recovered from a brutal start to make key second-half plays, none bigger than the fourth-down pass breakup NaVorro Bowman made on a pass to Roddy White with 1:09 remaining. That play turned over possession on downs and allowed the 49ers to run out the clock.

Kaepernick and the offense also recovered from a rough start. The offense reduced a 17-0 deficit to 17-14 late in the first half. Vernon Davis had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the 49ers fought back. Rookie running back LaMichael James also looked good on a 15-yard option run. The trend continued in the third quarter as the 49ers moved 82 yards in seven plays to set up Frank Gore's 5-yard touchdown run.

The offense did its part, but the 49ers would not have won this game without the defense finally finding its bearings.

Chris Culliver's interception of Ryan with 7:38 left in the third quarter was exactly what the 49ers needed. Atlanta led 24-21 and the teams were trading touchdowns to that point. The 49ers' defense had not made a big play all game.

The 49ers' Aldon Smith, though ineffective as a pass-rusher for most of the game, pounced on the football when Ryan fumbled a shotgun snap. Ryan took his eyes off the ball as the 49ers appeared to show blitz. The recovery by Smith gave the 49ers' defense turnovers on consecutive third-quarter possessions.

Gore's second touchdown, this one a 9-yarder, gave the 49ers their first lead at 28-24 with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter. Fullback Bruce Miller's block was key on the play. The 49ers won at the line of scrimmage on that drive.

What I didn't like: The 49ers took a penalty for delay of game following a timeout as they were trying to run out the clock. That contributed to San Francisco facing a third-and-15 play and having to punt with 13 seconds left. The Falcons had no timeouts at that point, so a comeback victory for Atlanta was not likely. But the lost field position gave the Falcons a better chance.

The 49ers' defense appeared in over its head for much of the game. An early busted coverage allowed Julio Jones to get deep for a 46-yard touchdown, only the third time all season the 49ers have allowed a catch of 40-plus yards. They gave up another big-gainer when free safety Dashon Goldson went for an interception and couldn't quite make the play. San Francisco could not get pressure with four- or even five-man pressures. That was critical.

And when the defense finally produced turnovers on consecutive Atlanta possessions in the second half, the 49ers got no points either time. David Akers' 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and bounced backward, falling short. That kept the Falcons in the lead 24-21 and returned possession to them. Receiver Michael Crabtree then lost a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line to prevent the 49rs from getting points off the second turnover.

Rookie watch: The 49ers got good contributions from James, their 2012 second-round choice. First-rounder A.J. Jenkins remained in the shadows. The team kept Jenkins on the sideline when it went to its three-receiver offense on a critical third down in the third quarter. Chad Hall, who had not caught a pass in an NFL game since he was with Philadelphia in 2011, was the third receiver on that play.

Crabtree's up-and-down day: Harbaugh made headlines before the season when he said Crabtree had the best hands he'd ever seen. Crabtree lived up to the talk by snatching the ball away from Falcons cornerback Robert McClain, then sprinting away for a 33-yard gain to the Atlanta 10-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter. Crabtree lost a fumble at the 1 on the next play, however, and the Falcons recovered.

Better returns: The 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game one year ago thanks largely to Kyle Williams' muffed punts in the late going. Ted Ginn Jr. had some shaky moments fielding returns this season, but his 20-yarder early in the fourth quarter set up the San Francisco offense at the Atlanta 38.

Failed challenge: The 49ers failed in challenging Harry Douglas' 22-yard reception with 3:53 remaining. The ruling cost the 49ers field position and their first timeout of the second half while San Francisco was protecting a 28-24 lead.

What's next: The 49ers face Baltimore or New England in the Super Bowl.

ATLANTA -- Michael Crabtree's status for the San Francisco 49ers' NFC Championship Game appearance remains unchanged pending his involvement in a sexual-assault investigation.

ESPN's Adam Schefter cited a 49ers source saying the team "highly, highly doubted" Crabtree would face charges in connection with the case. Authorities have said they interviewed Crabtree. Crabtree's attorney said the fourth-year receiver has cooperated with the investigation.

And so the focus will return to the playing field Sunday. I would not expect Crabtree's situation to distract the 49ers in general. I'll be more interested in seeing whether Crabtree himself appears distracted in any way.

Crabtree emerged this season as the 49ers' top receiving target. His production has spiked over the 49ers' last six games, including when Crabtree caught nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay in the divisional round.

Crabtree has been the 49ers' top threat from the slot this season. However, he made all but one of his receptions against the Packers after lining up elsewhere in the formation.

The chart compares Crabtree's numbers to those for Falcons receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, counting playoffs.
ATLANTA -- ESPN recently made available analyst Trent Dilfer for a media session focusing on the AFC and NFC championship games.

I've made available below some of Dilfer's comments relating to the San Francisco 49ers-Atlanta Falcons matchup Sunday.

I was not on the call, which took place Thursday.

Colin Kaepernick's fame has taken off since the Packers game, and I was wondering with the magazine covers and Kaepernick on Twitter, why has he captured football's attention this way, and do you think he's an example of evolution at the quarterback position?

Trent Dilfer: Why do I think he's so popular so early? I think he's everything you kind of want wrapped up in one. He's big. He's good-looking. He's athletic. He can throw. Very articulate. And at the same time he's a little different. He doesn't necessarily look the part. And I think that's kind of cool and cutting-edge. And he's performing. I think at the end of the day you get famous in the NFL when you light it up. And he lit it up on a huge stage. He's had a couple of big stages where he's played excellent football this year. So the math kind of adds up. But between the performance, his persona, his giftedness, and the edge that he carries, too, that makes  I guess there's intrigue about him that people are curious about and excited about.

Is he revolutionizing it? I was thinking about the statements, it's funny in today's football if you try to be wise and discerning and think about things before you say them and not knee-jerk react, you're abnormal  why aren't you reacting that he's the greatest thing ever? I think I'm fortunate that I get to work with these quarterbacks at a very young age. So, for a few years I've been kind of seeing this coming: that the biggest baddest dude is now playing quarterback. And that was not the case for a long time.

Now they take the 6-foot-6, 250-pound great athlete -– the biggest, baddest dude on the block -– and they make him a quarterback and he gets this great training growing up and because of that, they're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger. They still have the passing skills. They're going to be more durable. It's a natural progression that the quarterback run-driven game is going to enter the NFL. And the NFL purists are going to continue to say, 'Well, they'll write a book on it, figure it out," and that's not true. They've never had to deal with the Colin Kaepernick, the RG III, the next generation of quarterback coming up that are pass-first guys but also have this physicality and this expertise in the quarterback run-driven game. They've never had to deal with it before. So Colin is one of many coming up that are the biggest, baddest dude that are pass-first guys that are highly athletic and gifted in the run-driven, quarterback run-driven game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick
Harry How/Getty ImagesBoth Colin Kaepernick, left, and Michael Crabtree can dominate any given game, Trent Dilfer said.
Obviously you think that the quarterback running game is here to stay, but to what extent? You still have to keep the guy healthy. Colin has only played eight games this year. Almost like a convergence of events that he was able to be so healthy as to be able to run like that. If he played 16, maybe not so much. Is there still a concern about keeping the quarterback healthy? Or Chip Kelly is going to be in the NFL now. Do you see a quarterback, you know, 12 to 15 running plays a game or will it be less than that?

TD: No. I think you'll see games where it's that many carries. But, no. Once again, big question -- I'll tell you the simplest -- Steve Young and I just spent 45 minutes talking about the same thing before I got on this call. The answer, believe it or not, for defenses, because there's a numbers advantage -- so the run-driven game, you have to first look at it conceptually. The quarterback run-driven game, you're always going to have a numbers advantage on offense when the quarterback's the runner, if you formation it right. Unless the defense plays what we call Cover 0 where there's no safety.

Nobody does that in the NFL because they're NFL receivers, beat the corner, quick touchdown. Setting that aside, everybody thinks the most dangerous part of the zone read or all the wrinkles off the quarterback running, when in reality what you want to do is the defense gets the quarterback to run. For the same reasons that all the purists are saying because eventually the quarterback running too much, getting hit too often is not going to survive. All that is true.

The issue, though, is it's going to be situational. You may not see him run for three and a half quarters. Still show run, and read and defense is taking it away, yada yada, looks like a normal offensive day and then on the third-and-6, in the fourth quarter, out to the fourth quarter, they're going to get you in a pass-first defense where they're defending the pass and they can run these quarterback runs, zone read or whatever it is, and they have not just a one-man advantage. Many times there's a two-man advantage, depending on formation and how the defense is set up.

I know this is a long-winded answer, but this is what people need to understand. It's not going  it's never going away if the quarterback is athletic enough and skilled enough to read it, because there always will be a situation in the game where it's an advantage for the offense to run it. And it really comes down to discretion of the playcaller not to abuse it. Because what happens in football is when something's working, we live in a snap-by-snap world. There's so much pressure on these coaches. There's so much urgency to -- we're not just winning a game but to win the snap, but now because of fantasy football, it's not just winning the game it's how you win. So, it puts a lot of pressure on the playcaller to not go to the well too many times, so to speak. You have to be very judicious in when you call these runs, because you know you can save them for late in the game and certain packages and they're going to knife the defense.

So, I know it's a long-winded answer, but I wanted everybody to understand. I’ve been talking for three years now to high school coaches, college coaches that have run this and gone to the zone read and studied it ad nauseum and it's not going away; you're just not going to see where the quarterback's running 10 to 12 times a game because he'll never last.

But, if you save it and you're judicious about it, now Colin Kaepernick, [against the] Miami Dolphins didn't have much success running the ball, but 4-minute drill, third-and-8, he goes 50 to seal the game, goes 30 the other night against the Packers. Russell Wilson with Seattle, they would save it for the red zone against Buffalo, long touchdown runs on it. I can go on and on. When the playcaller is judicious about it, there's some huge plays to be made.

I wanted to ask about wide receiver Michael Crabtree. What are your impressions of his development and how important that has been to this San Francisco offense kind of going to the next level?

TD: It's not surprising for those of us that have been around him. It's been, what, four years now in the league? It's surprising that he's starting to emerge [only] now. I have a chance to work out with Crab a lot, just after I retired, I was in town. He needed a guy to throw to him. I threw to him. And I remember saying this is  of all the players I picked, I never played with a stable of great receivers. But in my 14-year career he was the most electric guy I've ever worked out with, outside of the four walls. And I knew it was just a matter of time before he got in the system that kind of enhanced the skill set.

He was also banged up for a while. When you have a foot injury like he had for a couple of years, it's really limiting. There's also rumors about him not being a team guy and all that. I understand why he's just starting to surface. But he's always been this guy. I think the best thing that staff has done, especially the offensive coordinator, they've really  because they're a run-driven offense and they can create so many defined looks, like they know where the ball's going to go in the passing game a lot of times because they kind of dictate the looks, they put him in a position, they moved him around to where he's most of the time the primary read. So he's going to get involved in the game early. And every good player I've ever played with and guys I've talked to, you can talk to Key(shawn Johnson) about this or Cris (Carter) about that. If they get involved early and they know they're a focal point of the offense, they're naturally going to play with greater energy, more momentum. They're going to be more dominant.

And I think the Niners have done an incredible job, every game you study, those first few passes that they're designing for specific purposes, you know, emphasize Crab. And they get him going early. And then as the game wears on, he just naturally becomes the dominating force throughout it. He obviously is a very good run after the catch. He was that way at Texas Tech. I think the best thing he does which doesn't get talked about a lot is his conflict catches, when he's getting hit and catching the ball. That's the hardest thing for receivers, tight ends, when they're in conflict, tight cover -- still catching the ball. He's got some huge conflict catches this year that have moved the chains and led to points for the Niners.

The question I have is with Colin Kaepernick and the Falcons' defense. They struggled with all their running quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson last week. Watching film of how he picked apart Green Bay, what do you see Mike Nolan is doing to kind of improve their chances this week?

Now they take the 6-foot-6, 250-pound great athlete - the biggest, baddest dude on the block - and they make him a quarterback and he gets this great training growing up and because of that, they're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger.

-- Trent Dilfer, on Colin Kaepernick and the new generation of quarterbacks
TD: I think all the defensive coordinators are starting to learn from other coordinators' failures defending the quarterback run-driven game. And I spent all day yesterday trying to put on my defensive-coordinator hat and studying Kaepernick and Russell Wilson and RG III and the similarities of these zone-read games and all the wrinkles off of it. And what all coordinators do is what I did yesterday is they go through hours and hours of film and they kind of see what fronts and coverages and spacing is working most often. You don't want to get knifed as a defense.

You don't mind if you get the little incisions every once in a while. You're not overly concerned if  make them march the ball we don't want to give away the big play. Mike Nolan, he's doing the same thing, trying to develop a plan that increases his odds of not giving up the big play, the big knifing play.

The similarities have been defensive fronts have moved around at the line of scrimmage before the snap, kind of confusing the blocking schemes. Linebackers with their eyes very much on their gap, not necessarily the mesh between the running back and the quarterback. And then in the passing game, you know, really eyeballs on the quarterback. And that's all the big plays that these running quarterbacks are making, whether they're scrambles or quarterback-driven runs, the eyes of the secondary players and the linebackers are getting caught up either focusing on receivers or focusing at the line of scrimmage. The teams that have slowed it down have really good eye discipline.

So, he's going to build a bunch of fronts. So front-seven spacing, easiest way to say it. That's going to confuse the blocking schemes of the 49ers, and where all the eyeballs of those defenders are very keyed in to the quarterback, especially in the pass drops. When that's happening, you're forcing these quarterbacks to be passers like everybody else. They're really getting in trouble when they're diving in the line of scrimmage or chasing receivers around the field, that's when a lot of these big plays are happening.

Do you think that will help them from having the experience from those other guys, just everything they did wrong to help them get it right this week?

TD: I think so. I'm not saying he's going to come up with the genie-in-the-bottle plan, but I think every coordinator learns from other coordinators' mistakes. One of the best ways I've seen coaches coach, they get in the film room with the team and say here's 15 plays, this is where the teams playing this guy have gotten in trouble so let's avoid these situations. So we built a plan to keep you guys away from these situations.

So, I think you're going to see a lot of people on the line of scrimmage and zone-based schemes. That's the easiest way to say it. It's seven, eight guys around the line of scrimmage, kind of moving around, and then as they  if it's a pass, as they pass-drop, really standard zone pass-drops where all their eyeballs are on Colin Kaepernick. And in the run game you try to create as many people around the line of scrimmage as possible. You don't always have the numbers advantage. But if you've confused the blocking schemes you can get off blocks easier and get in the gaps quicker.

Continuing with the Falcons. They got the monkey off their back, so to speak, with the playoff win last week but seems like they're not getting a lot of respect at least for a No. 1 seed. Underdogs at home. Experts are picking the 49ers to win. Does it surprise you? Is it warranted that Atlanta still has some doubters now?

TD: I kind of see both sides of it. 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.

[+] EnlargeJayron Hosley
AP Photo/John AmisJulio Jones "is really the fear-factor guy" for the Atlanta Falcons, Dilfer said.
I just know that sometimes the most powerful thing in football is confidence, which you can't quantify. 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. 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 goes, 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. But from a personnel, quantifiable matchup, they don't match up against the 49ers. So to me the game comes down to kind of the hidden intangible qualities of each team and which one is going to surface the most. I hope I answered your question. Trying to give you both sides of it.

Could you give a quick scouting report of what makes the Falcons wide receivers so tough and how you think the 49ers' secondary matches up against (Julio) Jones and (Roddy) White?

TD: And a great question. I've studied them a lot especially last week, I studied both of them a ton. I'll start with Julio, because I really believe -- I'm not taking anything away from Roddy. But I think Julio is really the fear-factor guy. When you're a dynamic passing game, you have a skill-position guy that creates fear in the defense. Like how they line up changes because that guy's on the field and that's Julio. He creates a lot of attention. And I don't like to just use the word double-covered, because we've ruined that whole term. A lot of eyeballs, a lot of attention on where Julio lines up. They know on the defensive side if they make the slightest mistake with how they line up, what their personnel shift is, what the personnel grouping is, their spacing, that they're one play away from just getting gashed. So why he's very good at the line of scrimmage, for a big man, he has very sudden feet.

It's not just quick. It's quick and explosive. That's why I use the term "sudden." He's very hard to jam. He's very competitive at the moment of truth catching the ball in contested coverage. He runs very good routes. And he's diverse. This year he's very diverse as a route-runner. Last year there were four or five things he did well. Everything else is kind of not quite sure if he would be in the right spot at the right time. Now they move him around. He's very precise in his route-running. He's explosive after the catch. He catches the ball in all three levels of the defense. The first level, second level, third level. Creates a lot of fear for the defense.

Roddy, the best auxiliary receiver in the league because he really could be a 1. But in this offense, he serves as a 2. And he gets the benefit of a lot of that attention that Julio gets from the defense. They run a lot of stuff where Julio will take the top off the coverage, for lack of a better term, or generate a lot of interest by the defense and Roddy's explosive enough and crafty enough to find those spots. And then you add (Tony) Gonzalez on there, obviously there's middle-of-the-field attention. So Roddy is more of a space guy, he works well in the space for the defense. Julio is more of a guy that creates space in the defense.

Most of us have a tendency to lump Kaepernick in the group with RG III and Russell Wilson and some of the quarterbacks of that style. And that's probably true to some extent. I'm wondering is he unique in his own way compared to some of those guys?

TD: It's a great question. I'm a big believer in what separates the better players in the league is a unique trait. You just go any position in the NFL. You say, OK, what separates person A from person B. It's usually one dominant unique trait that he has, another guy doesn't have. You know, Colin, RG3, Russell Wilson, one thing they're all very similar in -- this is what I'm trying to keep hammering home to people -- is between the ears. They're very smart kids. They're very poised individuals. They're highly, highly competitive. Their competitive temperament is built for the position.

And that is more important than the physical skill sets. But I think what maybe makes Colin unique to the other two is he's got the thickness, kind of the strength of Russell Wilson in a 6-foot-6 frame with the foot speed of RG III. You don't see many athletes like that. Like people keep talking about Colin is going to get hurt like RG III got hurt. I've been next to Colin. I'm 6-4, 238, and he makes me look tiny. I mean, he is 6-5. He's huge. I mean, he has big, thick joints in his upper body. Big wrist. Big neck, big shoulders. Wide hips. I know he's got skinny legs, but he's a thick dude. Works very hard in the weight room. He's going to be durable.

That's what makes him unique physically is that he's not only a great foot athlete, but he's got the stature of a tight end that can take, that can absorb some punishment. So I'm blown away -- even when I studied him coming out of the draft, I was like he's different. I didn't want to say better. He was just different than anybody else you studied because of his physical makeup. And he had the mind to fit it as well.
Weatherspoon-KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsAtlanta and San Francisco will square off Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
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?

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Sunday's win over Seattle.
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.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith, DuJuan Smith
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCTJustin Smith turned in a strong performance Sunday in his first game back from a torn triceps.
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.
The Atlanta Falcons' Roddy White is a four-time Pro Bowl choice at wide receiver.

White's teammate, second-year wideout Julio Jones, is headed to the Pro Bowl this season.

Those two give the Falcons arguably the best receiving tandem in the NFL.

The San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree is emerging as one of the most productive receivers in the NFL as well.

Crabtree is one player to watch during the 49ers' matchup with the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. He's never been to a Pro Bowl, but he is playing at that level. Crabtree had nine catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs.

The first chart compares the production for Crabtree, Jones and White since Week 13, when Crabtree's production began to spike.

The second chart compares their production for the full 2012 season, counting playoffs.

Crabtree represents a larger piece of a smaller receiving pie. White and Jones are competing for receptions, but the Falcons also throw the ball more frequently.

The Falcons have 699 drop backs in the regular season and playoffs this season. The 49ers have 552 drop backs. Both have played 17 games this season.

On Matt Ryan's oddly bad 2012 home stats

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
12:45
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons have a 33-6 record at home with Matt Ryan as their starting quarterback.

That counts the team's home playoff defeat to the Green Bay Packers following the 2010 regular season. It counts a 7-1 record at home this season heading into a divisional-round playoff game against Seattle on Sunday.



That's why it is odd to see Ryan's stats so disproportionately better on the road than at home for the 2012 season.

The chart breaks down the numbers: a 21-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the road, compared to 11-9 at home. Arizona picked off Ryan five times in the Georgia Dome. Oakland picked off Ryan three times there.

There is nothing about playing at home that puts Ryan at a disadvantage. But for Seahawks fans fearing their team could be walking into a house of horrors where Ryan plays his best no matter what, these numbers might provide some relief, at least.

Ryan ranked fifth in Total QBR at home from 2008, his rookie season, through 2011. He had 50 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions in those games. But the numbers have skewed the other way this season, for whatever reason.

Ryan posted his best home QBR scores against the New York Giants (96.2), Dallas (82.0) and Denver (77.6). He was closer to the 50-point average against Oakland (53.1) despite those three picks. The figures were below average for home games against Carolina (47.9), New Orleans (35.4), Tampa Bay (34.1) and Arizona (31.2).

If Ryan's diminished home stats run counter to perception, consider this: Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had a higher QBR score on the road (69.9) than he had at home (69.1) during the regular season. That is because some of Wilson's very best games were on the road, particularly late in the season.

I reached out to NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas for thoughts on Ryan and the Falcons at home this season. This was what he wrote in reply:
"This really is one of the great mysteries of the season and I don't have any simple explanation for it. The Arizona and Oakland games and a meaningless regular-season finale against Tampa Bay, in which the Falcons didn't put forth much of an effort, might be skewing the numbers a bit. But the fact is Ryan was much better on the road than at home this season.

"The flip side of that is that he debunked one myth -- that he's not as good and can't win outdoors. But that's not going to matter this postseason because the Falcons won't be playing outdoors.

"One other thing worth looking at in connection with this is Julio Jones' numbers on the road compared to at home. The difference in those numbers might be even more peculiar than the difference in Ryan's numbers. At home, Jones had 31 catches for 447 yards and two touchdowns. On the road, he caught 48 passes for 751 yards and eight touchdowns.

"Whatever was behind all this, Ryan and Jones need to be comfortable, and productive, in the Georgia Dome on Sunday if the Falcons are going to beat Seattle."
Ryan-ShermanUSA TODAY SportsIf Matt Ryan and the Falcons come out throwing, Seattle CB Richard Sherman stands ready.
Northwest meets Southeast when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

Seattle is fresh off its first road playoff victory since 1983, having won 24-14 at Washington in the wild-card round. The Seahawks are now 2-1 in postseason play during Pete Carroll's first three seasons as head coach.

As for the Falcons, well, you know the story. They're the No. 1 seed in the NFC and they'll be playing at home. But as NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas can attest, they haven't accomplished anything yet.

That's where we pick up the conversation.

Yasinskas: The world knows the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. That places enormous pressure on the Falcons, and the Seahawks look a little reminiscent of Atlanta's past two playoff opponents -- the Packers and Giants, who each went on to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks won their last five regular-season games and seven of their past eight. Throw in their playoff victory against Washington on Sunday and you've got a team that's red hot. Atlanta has the better record and home-field advantage, but the playoff drought brings tremendous pressure. If the Falcons don't win this time around, the patience of owner Arthur Blank will become very thin.

Sando: The Falcons' past struggles in playoff games have invited skepticism from a lot of us. I've taken heat from some Falcons fans this season for allegedly underrating Atlanta in the power rankings. How good is this team right now and how much confidence should Falcons fans have in this team against Seattle?

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta fans have shared their opinions with me about where you ranked the Falcons on your ballot. But you might not have been that far off. The Falcons were a bit of an enigma much of the season. They were winning a lot of games, but weren't winning them impressively. They did come on late in the season, aside from a meaningless loss to Tampa Bay in the season finale. This is a team with a tremendous amount of individual talent, and the Falcons are very good at home. But they can't afford to revert back to their early-season ways of playing just well enough to win, because that might get them beat.

Sando: The Seahawks are playing without the burden of expectations. They are very good at quarterback, running back and in the secondary. The read option has added an unconventional element to their offense. Still, winning a 10 a.m. PT game on the road against a very good offensive team will be tough. The Seahawks have started slowly in their past two games. I think they'll have a harder time if that happens again. Along those lines, have the Falcons been able to jump on teams early at home and finish them off? One memory I have is watching Arizona pick off Ryan five times.

Yasinskas: The Arizona game was the only time in Ryan's life (including college, high school and youth league) when he's thrown five interceptions in a game. That was a fluke. Some of those balls were tipped. Ryan generally is very efficient. And starting fast is one of the trademarks of Ryan and the Falcons. Since Ryan entered the league in 2008, the Falcons have scored more points on their first offensive drives than any team in the NFL. They pride themselves on starting fast, and they're particularly good at that in the Georgia Dome.

Sando: The Seahawks fell behind St. Louis and Washington early. They have shown an ability to come back. They were down by 13 to New England and won. They trailed Washington by 14 points and won. They're not slow starters by rule. Seattle was tied with Atlanta for seventh in first-quarter touchdown drives (11) during the regular season. It has been in only the past couple weeks that teams have thrown off the Seahawks early with their blitzes. Seattle came out passing against the Redskins. We'll see heavier early doses of Marshawn Lynch on Sunday.

Yasinskas: I'm certain we will see heavier doses of Lynch. Stopping the run is not Atlanta's strength. The Falcons ranked 21st against the run in the regular season and they've been known to have problems with power runners. That's why it's crucial for the Falcons to get an early lead and force the Seahawks to pass. The other thing I think you'll see is a lot of middle linebacker Akeem Dent. The Falcons used a lot of the nickel package in the regular season, and that kept Dent on the sidelines. But against the Seahawks, I think it's more important for the Falcons to focus on stopping the run, and they'll want Dent on the field for that.

Sando: Interesting. Seattle could counter by shifting into its three-receiver offense and then going with its read-option package. Lynch scored the winning 27-yard touchdown against the Redskins on an option run from three-receiver personnel against Washington's nickel defense. The option has become a reliable tactic for Seattle. Opponents have a tough time determining whether Lynch or Russell Wilson is going to run with the ball. They also must respect the play-action passing game. The Seahawks had 11 rushes for 110 yards on option runs on Sunday. They had 224 yards rushing overall. I noticed Cam Newton had 202 yards rushing in two games against the Falcons this season. What was the nature of those rushes and do you see anything Seattle can cull from that?

Yasinskas: Newton did have success against Atlanta, but the Falcons still were able to split with the Panthers. They also held Robert Griffin III to one carry for 7 yards in an early victory at Washington. They won against another mobile quarterback in Michael Vick. So the Falcons have some experience in facing mobile quarterbacks and the read option. I'm sure they used the bye week to prepare to see it again because they knew they'd be facing Wilson or Griffin. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the key player against the read option. He's the leader of the defense and probably the best player on the unit.

Sando: The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown using the option against Atlanta in Week 4. There will be other keys to this game. Wilson's ability to deal with the Falcons' blitzes could be one of them. Wilson had seven touchdowns, no picks, three sacks and the NFL's third-best Total QBR score (87.2) against five-plus pass-rushers from Week 8 through Week 16. That included going 6-of-6 for 91 yards and a score with a perfect 100.0 QBR against the 49ers' blitzes during a 42-13 victory in Week 16. Wilson wasn't quite as good in this regard against the Rams in Week 17, taking three sacks against their pressure. The Redskins held Wilson to a season-low 9.7 QBR against the blitz. Wilson has taken eight sacks against the blitz over the past two games after taking eight total over the previous 15 games.

Yasinskas: Wilson is incredibly poised. But he still is a rookie coming into a tough venue in a playoff game, so I'm pretty sure defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will try every way possible to pressure him. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford were the only quarterbacks all season to have much success against Atlanta's blitzes. Nolan likes to mix things up. The Atlanta pass rush starts with defensive end John Abraham, but Nolan has found ways to complement him. Nolan's not afraid to drop defensive end Kroy Biermann into pass coverage and let a linebacker or a defensive back blitz. The Falcons often talk about "disguising" their pass rush, and I'm sure they'll try to do lots of that against a rookie quarterback.

Sando: Wilson has generally improved as the season has progressed, but he has been hit-and-miss all season against DB pressure. Wilson has three touchdowns, two picks, four sacks and a 17.9 QBR score when opponents rush a member of the secondary. He did make Minnesota, Miami and San Francisco (twice) pay for the tactic, however.

There's so much to consider in this matchup, Pat, that we haven't even gotten to one of the most crucial ones. Seattle's 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner and 6-3 Richard Sherman can be dominant cornerbacks. They disrupt receivers' timing and generally get under their skin. You might recall Carolina's Steve Smith just about losing it against Sherman earlier this season. Even the Redskins' left tackle went after him Sunday. If the Falcons win this game, Ryan is going to be the reason, I think. Should the Falcons' receivers like their chances? Or could we see Ryan becoming a bit tentative against big, physical, ball-hawking corners?

Yasinskas: I think the Falcons have to come out and be very aggressive with their passing game. It's the strength of their offense. This is a different team from those of the past. Michael Turner is at the end of his career and this is not a running team any longer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are big, physical receivers, so I say let's see strength on strength with Seattle's corners. I think White and Jones can get open against anyone, so the Falcons need to take their chances. Plus, this passing game is about more than just Jones and White. They command so much attention that tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas could be forgotten. I think Douglas and/or Gonzalez could end up being key players in this game.

Sando: Seattle has been very good against tight ends for the most part. I'd be surprised if Gonzalez factored in a big way. Seattle has allowed three touchdown passes to tight ends this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFL. The Seahawks have allowed 10 scoring passes to wide receivers, the fifth-fewest in the league. Sherman had eight picks and three forced fumbles this season, joining Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Walt Harris as the only players to reach those totals in a season over the past decade. The Seahawks are not as strong at nickel corner, however. And with leading sacker Chris Clemons likely out with a knee injury, life could get tougher for Seattle in the secondary.

Yasinskas: Mike, like just about everyone in the media, I'm skeptical of the Falcons because of their recent playoff losses. But I think this is the year they finally get a victory in the postseason. This is a different team from past years. I think the Falcons will put the game in Ryan's hands and I think they'll win 28-20.

Sando: I think the Falcons are finally ready to break through and win in the postseason. I'm just not sure they've drawn the right opponent to make that happen. Seattle is the more physical team. The Seahawks have beaten seven teams that finished the regular season with a winning record (the number is two for Atlanta). While Seattle was posting the NFL's best strength-of-victory percentage, the Falcons were fattening up on the NFL's easiest schedule. Atlanta is at once the No. 1 seed and the team stepping up in class. Ryan's going to need a great game to prove wrong my 27-20 prediction for another Seahawks victory.

2012 Grid Challenge: Time to catch up

November, 18, 2012
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Julio Jones' status for the Atlanta Falcons in Week 11 will affect the NFC West in two realms: fantasy and reality.

Jones, who leads the Falcons in yards per catch (16.0) and ranks second in touchdown receptions (five), missed practice all week. The Arizona Cardinals will be monitoring Jones' status as they prepare to face the Falcons in the Georgia Dome later Sunday. Some of us will be watching for selfish interests relating to fantasy football.

It's been a while since we discussed the 2012 NFC West Gridiron Challenge, but now that my team has climbed into the 92.2 percentile following a 150-point week, the subject carries a little more appeal.

"Niners win all 2013" leads the 1,500-plus current entries by 23 points after collecting 18 points from the Buffalo Bills' defense against Miami on Thursday night. He stands atop all entries despite holding onto Aaron Rodgers through the quarterback's Week 10 bye. I might hold onto the Falcons' Jones even if he's inactive simply because he's locked in at $1.2 million below market value and there aren't appealing replacements.

Best of luck to your team this week.

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