NFL Nation: 2013 Quick Takes NFC

Quick Take: 49ers at Falcons

January, 13, 2013
1/13/13
7:10
PM ET
Five things to know about the San Francisco 49ers' matchup against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in the Georgia Dome:

1. Same thing all over again? At least on paper, this matchup looks awfully similar to the one Atlanta won against Seattle on Sunday. Like the Seahawks, the 49ers have a young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who can run out of the read option and a strong defense. The last time the Falcons and 49ers played, the game ended in a very similar way to the victory against the Seahawks -- with a decisive last minute field goal. In Week 4 of the 2010 season, San Francisco defensive back Nate Clements had a late interception of Matt Ryan. If Clements simply went down, the 49ers would have been able to run out the clock. But Clements attempted to return the interception and Atlanta receiver Roddy White made a great hustle play. White chased down Clements and stripped the ball. Guard Harvey Dahl recovered and Ryan led a quick drive that ended with Matt Bryant kicking a 43-yard field goal for the win.

2. New territory: The Falcons, who came into the league in 1966, are going to the NFC Championship Game for only the third time in franchise history. They won it in the 1998 season and lost it in the 2004 season. This will be the first time the Falcons have hosted an NFC Championship Game. That could weigh heavily in Atlanta’s favor. Since the arrival of coach Mike Smith in 2008, the Falcons are 34-8 in the Georgia Dome (regular season and postseason).

3. It's up to the O-line: One of the biggest keys to the game will be Atlanta’s offensive line. The Falcons did a great job protecting Ryan against the Seahawks. He wasn’t sacked while attempting 35 passes. But the 49ers thrive on their pass rush and it’s a big part of the reason why they’re in the NFC Championship Game. In their divisional round victory against Green Bay, the 49ers put Aaron Rodgers under duress or sacked him on 11 of his 43 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In those situations, Rodgers completed just two of nine passes for 13 yards.

4. Pounding on the ground: Atlanta’s running game, which struggled through most of the regular season, might be coming together at the right time. The Falcons rushed for 167 yards against the Seahawks, with Michael Turner leading the way with 98 yards on 14 carries. The Falcons had 88 rush yards after contact. The Falcons had 76 rush yards after contact in the first half, which is the most Atlanta has had in an opening half in the last four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

5. Opening the airways: The improved play from the running game might mean more play-action passing against San Francisco. Against Seattle, play action worked very well. Ryan was eight of 12 for 87 yards and three touchdowns when using play action.

Quick Take: 49ers at Falcons

January, 13, 2013
1/13/13
6:01
PM ET
Five things to know about the San Francisco 49ers' matchup against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in the Georgia Dome:

1. QB matchup. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick ranked third and the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan ranked fourth in Total QBR during the regular season. Ryan was sixth and Kaepernick eighth in NFL passer rating. Kaepernick's rushing ability makes him the more dangerous quarterback in this matchup. He doesn't scramble the way Russell Wilson did against the Falcons, but he is a scoring threat every time he finds a running lane. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had 202 yards rushing against the Falcons in two games during the regular season. Kaepernick had 181 yards rushing against Green Bay in the divisional round.

2. Traveling well. The 49ers own road victories against Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, Seattle, Green Bay, St. Louis, Arizona, the New York Jets, New Orleans and New England since Jim Harbaugh became head coach. Kaepernick had four touchdown passes and was the NFC's offensive player of the week after leading the 49ers to a 41-34 victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in December. Good teams can win anywhere. The 49ers have proven they can win regardless of venue.

3. Unfamiliar opponent. San Francisco came close to playing this game against division-rival Seattle at Candlestick Park. Playing at home would have been great, but facing an opponent less familiar with the 49ers could have advantages, too. The Falcons' run defense was susceptible during the regular season. The 49ers' playbook features a higher volume of running plays than usual. That will put pressure on a Falcons team that hasn't faced the 49ers during the Harbaugh era. The Packers appeared unprepared.

4. Nolan revisited. Former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan is the Falcons' defensive coordinator. He was last with the 49ers in 2008. Much has changed since then. Nolan's history with the 49ers isn't likely to affect the matchup. It's an aspect of interest to 49ers fans, however. Nolan posted an 18-37 record as coach for the team beginning in 2005. The Falcons' defense finished the regular season ranked fifth in points, 10th in Total QBR, 24th in yards, 21st in rushing yards, 29th in yards per rush, 23rd in passing yards, 21st in net pass yards per attempt, fourth in interceptions per attempt and fifth in the red zone.

5. Standard pressure key. Ryan made plays against the Seattle blitz once the Seahawks determined their standard pressure wouldn't suffice without injured defensive end Chris Clemons. Ryan threw a pick the first time Seattle rushed a defensive back, but he then completed 7-of-8 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown when the Seahawks used that tactic subsequently. The 49ers rarely blitz. They probably will not have to take chances if defensive end Justin Smith remains effective after returning from a triceps injury. That could be a key difference for the 49ers.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 6, 2013
1/06/13
11:42
PM ET
Five things to know about the Seattle Seahawks' divisional-round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome next week:

1. Beast Mode. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch has reached 100 yards rushing in 11 games this season, counting playoffs. He faces a Falcons defense that allowed 100-plus yards to Tampa Bay's Doug Martin (142), Arizona’s LaRod Stephens-Howling (127), Carolina's Cam Newton (116), Washington’s Alfred Morris (115) and Denver’s Willis McGahee (113). The Falcons never had a running back with more than 103 yards in a game. Michael Turner had 103 against Carolina in Week 4 and 102 against Dallas in Week 9.

2. QB options. The Seahawks have enjoyed great success with option runs featuring Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson. They had 110 yards on 11 such carries during their wild-card victory over Washington. The Panthers' Newton had a 72-yard touchdown run during a 30-20 victory over the Falcons this season. He had 202 yards rushing against Atlanta this season, more than any other player gained against the Falcons.

3. Opposites. These teams from the Southeast and Northwest have more than geography to differentiate them. The Seahawks have the second-youngest roster in the NFL, counting players on various reserve lists. The Falcons have the fifth-oldest roster. The Seahawks have the NFL’s best strength of victory percentage (.534), meaning the teams they defeated had a higher winning percentage than the teams anyone else defeated. The Falcons played the NFL’s easiest schedule. The Seahawks had the NFL's highest percentage of called running plays (49.8) this seeason. The Falcons had the seventh-lowest percentage of called runs (35.1).

4. Wilson cools off. Seattle's rookie quarterback led the NFL in Total QBR (84.1) from Week 10 through the conclusion of the regular season. The 36.7 QBR score he posted against Washington in the wild-card round was his lowest in a game since a Week 7 defeat at San Francisco. That included a 9.7 QBR number on 17 dropbacks when the Redskins pressured with five or more pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Falcons ranked fifth in QBR allowed (29.4) when rushing five or more defenders. They pressured on 29.3 percent of dropbacks, right near the league average.

5. Injury impact. The Seahawks lost starting defensive end and leading pass-rusher Chris Clemons to a potentially serious knee injury Sunday. Clemons played 86.4 percent of the Seahawks' defensive snaps on his way to 11.5 sacks during the regular season. No defensive lineman or linebacker played a higher percentage for the Seahawks this season. Losing Clemons would likely force rookie Bruce Irvin into an every-down role, a big adjustment with consequences against the run. No other defensive lineman on the team has played more than 62 percent of the snaps.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 6, 2013
1/06/13
9:44
PM ET
Five things to know about next Sunday’s Seattle Seahawks-Atlanta Falcons game at the Georgia Dome:

1. Red-hot Seahawks. For the third straight year, the Falcons could be facing an opponent that’s peaking at the right time. Last year, Atlanta lost to the New York Giants in the wild-card round. The year before that, the Falcons lost to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round. Both the Giants and the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl. Even before Sunday’s 24-14 victory against the Washington Redskins in the wild-card round, the Seahawks had won their last five regular-season games and seven of their last eight.

2. Strength on strength. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez, an offense that ranked in the top 10 all season is Atlanta’s biggest strength. But the Falcons are going to be facing a defense that allowed a league-low 245 points (15.3) points a game. The Seahawks haven’t given up more than 17 points in a game since Week 12 and only allowed more than 20 points once in the second half of the regular season.

3. Triple trouble. Atlanta’s defense could have its hands full with this matchup. We’ve heard a lot about the brilliant rookie season by Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. He can pass, although he doesn’t have big-time playmakers at wide receiver. Wilson also can run out of the read option and the Falcons have some experience with that after facing Carolina’s Cam Newton (twice) and Washington’s Robert Griffin III during the regular season. But Seattle also often uses a traditional running game with Marshawn Lynch and that could be the biggest concern of all. The Falcons had trouble with power running games much of the season and ranked No. 21 against the run. The Falcons used their nickel package a lot in the regular season, but I think you might see them switch to a heavy dose of their 4-3 base defense with middle linebacker Akeem Dent getting a lot of playing time to try to counter Lynch.

4. Home in the dome. The whole world knows the Falcons are 0-3 in the postseason in the Ryan-Mike Smith era. But two of those losses came on the road. Since Ryan arrived in 2008, he’s 33-5 at home in the regular season. Prior to a meaningless loss to Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale, the Falcons had won 11 straight home games. Despite their impressive win at Washington on Sunday, the Seahawks weren’t a great road team this season. They were 3-5 on the road during the regular season.

5. Getting healthy. While the Seahawks will come out of the wild-card round with some bumps and bruises, the Falcons look to be about as healthy as possible. The bye week gave defensive end John Abraham time to rest an ankle injury and cornerback Dunta Robinson time to get over a concussion. Strong safety William Moore, who missed the final four games of the regular season with a hamstring injury, returned to practice Saturday and should be at full strength for Sunday.

Quick Take: Packers at 49ers

January, 6, 2013
1/06/13
11:00
AM ET
Five things to know about Saturday's Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park:

1. Eventful history: San Francisco was the site of some epic Packers-49ers playoff games in recent history. The Packers won a 1995 divisional matchup 27-17, becoming the only road victory by an NFC team in the divisional playoffs during the 1990s. In 1997, the Packers defeated the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game 23-10 to advance to the Super Bowl. And you'll probably see the end of the 1998 wild-card game about 467 times this week: highlighted by Terrell Owens' 25-yard touchdown reception with three seconds remaining that gave the 49ers a 30-27 victory. (Yes, I know Jerry Rice fumbled earlier in the drive.)

2. The rematch: Here's an excerpt from my column after the 49ers' thorough 30-22 defeat of the Packers in Week 1 this season: "There was little question Sunday that the 49ers were the sharper, smarter and more physical team." Among other developments, tailback Frank Gore rushed for 112 yards on 16 carries. Here's what Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said Saturday night: "They're physical, but I think that plays to our advantage up front." Indeed, among the transformations this Packers team has made is improving its run defense and overall aggressiveness. (At least when they're not playing Adrian Peterson in the regular season.)

3. Rebalanced offense: The Packers' biggest change since Week 1 is the fact that their offense is much more balanced. In the first game, they abandoned the run almost entirely. Coach Mike McCarthy called more than half of his plays (31 of 61) without a running back even on the field. Contrast that to Saturday night's victory over the Minnesota Vikings, when running backs DuJuan Harris, Ryan Grant and John Kuhn combined for 27 carries. That puts the Packers in better position to compensate if the 49ers' zone coverage limits their passing game. Remember, Harris and Grant weren't even on the Packers' roster at the time.

4. Read-option factor: The 49ers are a different team as well, especially at quarterback with Colin Kaepernick. The Packers looked vulnerable Saturday night to the kind of read-option plays Kaepernick excels at. Behind quarterback Joe Webb, the Vikings gained 65 yards on six read-option plays, and they were fortunate the Vikings didn't use the approach more often. There is plenty of film now on Kaepernick -- he has started seven games -- and the Packers will have a full week to prepare.

5. Ready to rumble: The Packers are eager for this rematch. Saturday night, defensive back Charles Woodson flatly said, "we're a better team now" than in Week 1. Defensive lineman B.J. Raji added: "We didn't really have the identity of our team set at that point. Most coaches say it takes four weeks to find the identity of a team. It was a good game and they beat us, but we're different now."

Quick Take: Packers at 49ers

January, 5, 2013
1/05/13
11:25
PM ET
Five things to know about next the San Francisco 49ers' divisional-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park next week:

1. Full circle. The 49ers opened their regular season with a 30-22 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field. They jumped to leads of 10-0 and 23-7 before the Packers made the game close with Randall Cobb's disputed 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. Alex Smith completed 20-of-26 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns, no turnovers, a 125.6 NFL passer rating and 85.5 Total QBR score. Smith completed 15-of-16 passes when targeting wide receivers. That's a high bar to clear for Smith's replacement, Colin Kaepernick.

2. The Kaepernick dynamic. The Packers faced option plays and zone-read plays only twice during the regular season, the lowest figure in the NFL. They allowed minus-1 yard on these two plays. The 31 other teams faced an average of 14 such plays for 87.5 yards during the regular season. Green Bay's inexperience defending these plays could work to the 49ers' advantage if they unleash an option or zone-read package. Kaepernick had a 50-yard gain in the fourth quarter on a designed run against Miami. He had a 50-yard scramble against St. Louis, also in the fourth quarter. The Packers allowed 187 yards on 24 scrambles this season.

3. Don't forget Gore. Frank Gore carried 16 times for 112 yards against the Packers in Week 1. Gore and Adrian Peterson were the only running backs to top 100 yards rushing against the Packers in a game this season. Marshawn Lynch had 98 yards on 25 carries for Seattle against the Packers in Week 3. No one else had more than 84 yards against Green Bay. Gore had six rushes for 72 yards and a touchdown running outside the tackles.

4. Fatigue factor. The 49ers needed the bye week to rest. They rely upon a smaller number of defensive players to log a higher percentage of the snaps, putting them at risk for fatigue. That was a problem for the 49ers when New England had 90-plus offensive plays against San Francisco in Week 15. Green Bay had 61 plays against San Francisco in Week 1, a typical number. The Packers possessed the ball for 70-plus plays in games against Tennessee (76), Minnesota (73), Chicago (71), Arizona (70) and Houston (70). For the 49ers, nine players participated in at least 90 percent of the defensive snaps this season. The figure would have been 10 if Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith hadn't missed the final two-plus games.

5. Kicking games in focus. The 49ers and Packers have the three kickers with the lowest field-goal percentages for the 2012 regular season. Billy Cundiff, signed by the 49ers as insurance amid David Akers' struggles from 40-plus yards, made a league-low 58.3 percent of his field-goal tries this season (7-of-12). Green Bay's Mason Crosby was at 63.6 percent, the second-worst rate. Akers made 69 percent. Those three were the only qualifying kickers below 70 percent for the 2012 season. Akers' 63-yard field goal at Lambeau in the opener was a highlight for the 49ers that day. Seems like five years ago.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Redskins

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
12:42
AM ET
Five things to know about next Sunday's Seattle Seahawks-Washington Redskins wild-card playoff game at FedEx Field:

1. Rookie QB battle. Seattle's Russell Wilson and Washington's Robert Griffin III are leading candidates for offensive rookie of the year. Wilson is healthier than Griffin. He has been hotter late in the season. Both start fresh in the playoffs. Both benefit from running backs with more than 1,500 yards for the regular season. The big question is to what degree Griffin can challenge the Seahawks' defense after suffering a knee injury late in the season and taking hits from Dallas in Week 17.

2. On the road again. Seattle finished its regular season with an 8-0 record at home. The team was 3-5 on the road. Three of those defeats came against NFC West opponents in the first seven weeks of the season. The Seahawks have won their last two road games largely because zone-read plays have pushed their offense into another gear. Wilson leads the NFL in Total QBR on the road since Week 8. His 107.2 NFL passer rating on the road over that span ranks third behind Matt Ryan (113.9) and Aaron Rodgers (112.5).

3. Restored secondary. Seattle welcomes back starting cornerback Brandon Browner from a four-game suspension this week. No one knows how well Browner will acclimate. He's eligible to rejoin the team Monday. Browner had three interceptions and three forced fumbles before serving his suspension. He was a Pro Bowl choice last season. At the very least, Browner restores welcome depth to the secondary. He and cornerback Richard Sherman (eight picks) form a formidable tandem at their best.

4. What a rush. The Seahawks and Redskins both ranked among the NFL's top five in rushing yards this season. Redskins rookie Alfred Morris broke Clinton Portis' franchise single-season rushing record with 1,613 yards. He overtook Seattle's Marshawn Lynch (1,590) for second in rushing yards this season behind Adrian Peterson.

5. Big-play threats. Golden Tate and Sidney Rice have not been prolific wide receivers, but they have been big-play threats in critical situations. Rice caught the 46-yard game-winner against New England. Tate's disputed game-winner against Green Bay covered 24 yards. Tate set up the winning touchdown Sunday with a 44-yard reception in the final four minutes. The Seahawks finished the regular season with 11 receptions of at least 40 yards, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. That includes seven since Week 11, tied with Indianapolis for most in the NFL. The Redskins are close behind with five over that span.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Redskins

December, 30, 2012
12/30/12
11:40
PM ET
Five things to know about next Sunday’s Seattle Seahawks-Washington Redskins playoff game at FedEx Field:

1. Tough to contain. This playoff game features two of the NFL's three sensational rookie quarterbacks in Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Redskins fans who haven't seen Wilson should know that he is just getting started when he is flushed out of the pocket. Wilson was 8-for-9 for 173 yards on throws outside the pocket in Sunday’s victory over the St. Louis Rams, according to ESPN Stats & information. For the season, Wilson led the NFL with 57 completions when throwing from outside the pocket, and his five touchdown passes from outside the pocket ranked second in the league.

2. Good memory. The Redskins did not play the Seahawks this season, but they beat them 23-17 in Seattle in Week 12 of 2011. That was a somewhat shocking game in which the Redskins trailed 17-7 with 10 minutes to go but managed to score 16 unanswered points with Rex Grossman at quarterback and Roy Helu rushing for 108 yards on 23 carries in the game against what was then one of the toughest run defenses in the league. Different personnel, to be sure, in key spots, but the Redskins who played in that game might be able to draw some confidence from the memory of beating the Seahawks in Seattle not that long ago.

3. Stingy Seahawks. Seattle allowed just 245 points this season, an average of 15.3 points per game and the lowest total in the NFL. They have not allowed more than 17 points in a game since Week 12, and they only allowed more than 20 once in the second half of the regular season.

4. Home cooking. One of the perks of being a division champion is getting a first-round home game, and that’s especially helpful when the opponent is the Seahawks. Seattle is 8-0 at home this year and wins by an average score of 30-12 in home games. The Seahawks are just 3-5 on the road. They did win their last two road games -- 23-17 in overtime at Chicago in Week 13 and 50-17 at Buffalo in Week 15. But road losses in places like Arizona, Miami, St. Louis and Detroit bolster the case that it’s much better to get the Seahawks in your own place than it is to try and beat them in their rowdy, raucous home stadium.

5. Win downfield. One area in which the Seahawks are not strong is at wide receiver, where they don’t have the kinds of playmakers who dominate matchups even against suspect secondaries such as Washington’s. If the Redskins were able to handle Dez Bryant on Sunday night, they should be okay against Sidney Rice and Golden Tate. Seattle’s best big-play threat is running back Marshawn Lynch, but the Redskins have looked good in recent weeks against power run games.

Quick Take: Vikings at Packers

December, 30, 2012
12/30/12
9:35
PM ET
Five things to know about next Saturday's Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field:

1. History: The Vikings and Packers have been twice-yearly opponents since 1961, but this will be just their second-ever meeting in the playoffs. The Vikings won the first, a 31-17 victory in the 2004 wild-card round at Lambeau Field. For cultural context, you might recall it was the infamous "Moon over Lambeau" game in which then-Vikings receiver Randy Moss pretended to moon the crowd after scoring a touchdown.

2. Peterson Factor: It's safe to say the Packers will spend this week working on a better gameplan for stopping Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson. In two regular-season games this season, Peterson rushed for 409 yards and accounted for three touchdowns against them. Including receptions, Peterson averaged 7.4 yards every time he touched the ball against the Packers' defense.

3. Packers RB? Peterson will get most of the attention this week, but you wonder if the Packers will stick with the hot hand and start DuJuan Harris in a playoff game. Harris had a strong effort Sunday, totaling 70 yards on 14 carries after Ryan Grant managed two yards on his two carries. Former starter Alex Green did not play a snap.

4. Winfield's status: One of the biggest question marks this week will be the condition of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose departure from the game at halftime Sunday coincided with the Packers' offensive surge. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns after halftime, completing passes of 73, 45 and 30 yards along the way. Winfield is trying to play with a broken right hand that was noticeably swollen after the game. He pledged to play Saturday for as long as he can tolerate the pain. Sunday, he did so for half of the game. The Packers torched his replacements.

5. Just in time: The Packers finished Sunday with a number of questions at receiver. Randall Cobb did not play because of a sprained ankle and Jordy Nelson was limited by a hamstring injury. But Greg Jennings' best game of the season gives the Packers hope that their top receiver has finally rounded into form after a season's worth of injury problems. Jennings caught eight passes for 120 yards and doubled his season's total of touchdowns from two to four.

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