For San Francisco 49er and Atlanta Falcon fans, last weekend’s NFC Division Round playoff games were thrilling and remarkable with both teams coming away with wins, but in very different ways. The 49ers won on the arm and legs of Colin Kaepernick and steamrolled the Green Bay Packers. The Falcons won a game that was full of twists and turns. After losing a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead, they ended up with a victory after Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left in the game put them up 30-28. Now the former NFC West division foes renew their rivalry in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, with the winner punching their ticket to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers will be in the NFC Championship game for the second year in a row, however, unlike last year they will not have home field advantage with the Falcons being the No. 1 seed in the NFC. San Francisco has lost the past five postseason games on the road, with their last win coming in Chicago on January 8, 1989. The win featured Jim Harbaugh as a backup quarterback for the Chicago Bears and advanced the Niners to Super Bowl XXIII.
Despite playing on the road and not winning away from home in the playoffs in over two decades, the 49ers are favored to beat the Falcons by three points. Being the favorite to win on the road has a lot to do with the play of Kaepernick who became one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to have two rushing and two passing touchdowns in a playoff game.
An advantage for the Falcons was playing against Russell Wilson last week. He runs a similar read-option offense like the 49ers and has fast legs to go along with his strong arm, like Kaepernick. However, Wilson managed to gain a total of 445 yards, three touchdowns and averaged 8.6 yards on seven carries against the Falcons, which is a good sign for the Niners. You might think this helps prepare Atlanta’s defense to stop Kaepernick, but they have not been successful against running QB’s all season. In two games against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers this season, Atlanta’s defense allowed Newton to score six touchdowns, have a 113.8 rating and 202 rushing yards.
One Falcons player to follow this week is defensive end John Abraham who left in the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks with an ankle injury. He originally suffered the injury in Week 17. How important is the 34-year old veteran to the Falcons? He had 10 sacks and six forced fumbles this season. But more importantly after he left last Sunday’s game the Falcons gave up 298 yards and four touchdowns, which led to them losing their 20-point lead. Life will be much easier for Kaepernick and the Niners offense without Abraham on the field.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is no slouch himself after he finished fifth in the NFL with a 99.1 rating and threw for 32 touchdowns this season. Ryan is considered one of the top-five QB’s in the NFL, but the Niners defense has faced the best quarterbacks the league has to offer this season and won. The 49ers went 5-1 this season against Aaron Rodgers (beat twice), Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. Four of the six games against those quarterback were on the road, so heading into the Georgia Dome to face Ryan and the Falcons offense will not be as tough because the defense is road tested.
Even though the Falcons had a test run for Kaepernick last week, knowing what worked and what didn’t against Wilson, it does not mean they will be able to stop Kaepernick. Like the Packers defense last week, Atlanta’s defense will need to choose what aspect of the 49ers offense to focus on. The Packers decided to blanket Vernon Davis, while having an eye towards stopping Frank Gore and the running game. But what they did not prepare for, or just didn’t think was important, was keeping Kaepernick’s running in check by having a defensive player spy the quarterback. It was almost as if the Packers were daring the 49ers offense to have Kaepernick run. The question for the Falcons is the same the Packers faced last week. What do we focus on trying to stop the 49ers offense? Kaepernick can go through the air, run with his feet or just hand it off to Gore. You can stop one aspect, but not all three. Good luck to the Falcons defense.