Well 49ers fans, here we are. Back to the NFC Championship.
After coming agonizingly close to reaching the Super Bowl last year against the New York Giants, the 2012-13 49ers never lost sight of what they set out to do when Jim Harbaugh drove up from Palo Alto and took on the challenge of turning this team into a group that could contend for the sixth Lombardi Trophy that the franchise wants so badly.
In a season that saw a little bit of everything — some ups, some downs, and a self-inflicted quarterback controversy to name a few — the Niners finds themselves exactly where they want to be (except for the fact that they’re playing on the road, but they’re still favored to win, so all is well, right?).
So without further ado, let’s break down the matchup and see how the chips stack up for the NFC Championship in Atlanta, coming to a TV set near you this Sunday at noon PST.
First, let’s take a look at what to expect from San Francisco’s offense against Atlanta’s defense.
Colin Kaepernick is the player that shined the brightest in any game last weekend, and this week has been a general lovefest for the newly-anointed franchise superstar to the point that you’d think it could be a distraction for him if you hadn’t heard from everybody about how even-keeled the guy is. His attitude is reflective of the fantastic job the 49er coaching staff does preparing the offense in regards to the game plan and letting them know what’s expected of them, but when it comes to executing on the field, Kaepernick has shown he has what it takes and then some.
So what is going to prevent Kaepernick from running wild on the Falcons like he did against Green Bay last weekend? For one, he’s going to be seeing a lot more zone coverage as opposed to the man coverage Dom Capers threw at him last week, as Andy Benoit points out in yesterday’s piece from Football Outsiders. So expect more to be asked of Kaepernick from a passing standpoint.
Many people believe this means getting Vernon Davis involved early and often, and although there hasn’t been a whole lot of that going on as of late, Davis has been ready when his number is called and remains confident despite a scaled-down role with Kaepernick under center. The Falcons should provide plenty of opportunities for him to make plays, and it will be up to CK to get him the ball when those opportunities present themselves. That being said, the 49ers are still going to rely on Michael Crabtree for the high-level of production he’s been contributing lately, and it never hurts to get Randy Moss the ball, either.
Not to say that Kaepernick’s mobility won’t be a factor. While defenses would love to get pressure on the young QB à la the St. Louis Rams in Week 13, it does not seem to be something that Atlanta has the personnel to accomplish, especially considering that their best pass rusher and sack leader John Abraham is nursing an ankle injury that should keep him playing limited snaps this weekend.
Additionally, Atlanta is well aware of how good San Francisco’s offensive line is. This is a group that flat-out manhandled — in the truest sense of the word — the Packers’ defensive front last week. You can expect Mike Nolan and the rest of the Falcons’ coaching staff to account for that in the form of zone blitzes (see the graphs in Benoit’s article of Atlanta against the Saints in Week 13), as well as studying their loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 14.
Carolina will provide the template for Nolan in terms of preparing for Kaepernick and the read-option, and Cam Newton gave him plenty to go off of as he broke free for a 72-yard touchdown and passed for 287 yards and 2 more scores, a performance that looks very similar to Kaepernick’s against Green Bay last week when one simply compares the box scores.
What is really going to define this game for San Francisco from an offensive standpoint is how well they execute in the running game. I know I said earlier that more will be asked of Kaepernick as a passer, but it would be surprising if Greg Roman did this at the expense of Frank Gore, who has continued to produce at an elite level while adjusting to the new scheme that is tailored around Kaepernick’s strengths.
The Niners could really be creating a three-headed monster in the backfield with Kaepernick, Gore and LaMichael James, who all bring different qualities as runners to the table. If they set the tone early, expect the offense to get into a rhythm and put up points, which bodes well for a 49er victory.
That is, if the defense holds up their end of the bargain.
While it is generally just assumed that the Niner defense will show up every week and play at the high level that they have for the last two years, they do have a formidable challenge in Atlanta. Matt Ryan will be comfortable in his home stadium throwing to a trio of receivers that includes one future Hall of Fame member and handing off to two complementary backs that played well last week against Seattle.
Most people look at Roddy White and Julio Jones and say that San Francisco will have to stay on guard against the deep ball, and while that’s certainly true, I’d be more wary of letting those two catch short-to-medium passes that they then turn in to big gains. As Bucky Brooks points out at NFL.com, Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter likes to use Jones especially to run wide receiver screens, and while this slant route was a 20-yard completion, you could envision the same result if they ran it 10 yards shorter in an appropriate scenario.
I’d expect the 49er defensive line to affect that, especially if Justin Smith feels more comfortable than he did last week, as he expressed to the media a couple days ago. Same goes for the run game, which San Francisco has proved adept at stopping no matter who they match up against.
What will be key for Vic Fangio’s defense is how the secondary holds up. Big gains into San Francisco’s half of the field will most likely end up in points, and as Bill Barnwell pointed out today on Grantland, the 49ers are a great defense because they don’t allow teams to get to the red zone, but when they do, they usually give up points. One player to watch will be Patrick Willis. He’s always a great player to watch, but this weekend he’ll be in the spotlight as he will be trying to contain tight end Tony Gonzalez in the passing game, something that NFL defenses have been trying to do since 1997.
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that third downs will be a deciding factor in who wins this game. Per Barnwell’s preview, the Falcons are seventh-best in the NFL at converting on third down, whereas San Francisco’s defense is tops in the league at preventing teams from converting on third down. Simply put, something has to give.
Now we could talk special teams, but let’s save everyone some time. I don’t think this game comes down to special teams. Even if it somehow comes down to Akers kicking in a close game situation, they’re indoors, and Akers seems to be putting the pieces back together one week at a time.
I see this game being close, with the focus being on offense — I see a point total of somewhere between 28-35 being scored in the first half alone. However, eventually the 49ers will make plays on defense, whether it’s a turnover or a few timely sacks. You can be sure that San Francisco’s huge advantage in physicality will be a contributing factor to that end, and seeing as the Falcons have been touted as the antithesis of toughness even while they were undefeated, I’d say the Niners have a decided edge mentally as well.
More importantly, with Kaepernick making plays like he did last week, the Niners will find themselves in New Orleans come February going for a sixth Super Bowl to bring back to they Bay.
Prediction: San Francisco, 35 Atlanta, 31