49ers vs. Falcons: Complete Preview for 2013 NFC Conference Championship

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49ers vs. Falcons: Complete Preview for 2013 NFC Conference Championship
Harry How/Getty Images

When Matt Ryan finally won his first playoff game, he set up an epic clash between the NFL's eighth-ranked Atlanta offense and the NFL's third-ranked San Francisco defense. This will be a classic strength versus strength battle, with the only sure winner being you, the fans.

The San Francisco 49ers will have the pleasure of traveling to Atlanta to take on a Falcons club that was 7-1 at home, with their only loss being a Week 17 snoozer that meant nothing for the the Falcons. These Falcons are nearly unbeatable at home, but if any team can do it, it would be the 49ers.

The 49ers sport the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack in addition to their brilliant defense. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick can run all over or around a defense, as the dynamic duo proved in their divisional matchup against Green Bay. Against a reasonably tough Packer defense, the 49ers racked up a ridiculous 323 yards on the ground.

The Falcons will have their hands full trying to stop that duo, but don't sleep on Kaepernick's passing ability. The dual-threat quarterback accumulated 1,814 yards with an impressive 98.3 rating in just seven starts. He can impact a game just as easily with his arm as with his legs, and the Falcons will need to be ready for that.

On the other hand, the 49ers will have their hands full with the NFL's best receiving duo. Roddy White and Julio Jones combined for 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, constantly ripping off big gains. Don't sleep on Tony Gonzalez either: The NFL's greatest tight end ever had another fantastic year this season with 930 yards and eight touchdowns.

The conflict of styles in this game promises a unique and exciting showdown. The Falcons want this game to be a shootout, and they'll try to make big plays through the air to make that happen. The 49ers will be more comfortable if this game is a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair. Something will have to give.

Here is a full preview of the NFC's biggest matchup, along with a look at the game's prime-time performers and a full prediction.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

 

When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. ET

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.

Watch: Fox

Listen: Atlanta Falcons Radio Affiliates; San Francisco 49ers Radio Affiliates

 

Key Storylines

Can these quarterbacks step up on the biggest stage?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Neither Colin Kaepernick nor Matt Ryan have ever played a game with higher stakes than this. While both played well in the divisional round, this game will feature a whole new level of stress.

Also, the pass-rushers in this game will be sure to make life difficult. Both teams feature at least one double-digit sacker, with the 49ers' Aldon Smith leading the charge with 19.5 sacks. Needless to say, both Kaepernick and Ryan will be under pressure in this game, in more ways than one.

With the 49ers looking to run the ball and the Falcons looking to win through the air, a big play from either quarterback could be the difference in this game. Keep an eye on how they handle the pressure.

 

How will injuries to Justin Smith and Aldon Smith affect the 49ers defense?

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Justin Smith was known to have a serious torn triceps injury heading into the 49ers' win over Green Bay, with a visual clue in his massive arm brace. According to Kevin Lynch of The San Francisco Chronicle, Aldon Smith may be just as injured.

Both Smiths played well against the Packers, combining for six pressures. Another week to heal will help these two immensely, but their statuses are still worth examining. If either is significantly hobbled in the game, the Falcons will benefit greatly.

 

X-Factors

Colin Kaepernick, QB San Francisco 49ers

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The 49ers will want to run the ball on offense. Everyone who follows the team knows that. To advance to the Super Bowl, though, the 49ers will need big plays from Kaepernick through the air. The Falcons defense is too good to feature a one-dimensional game plan.

Kaepernick proved in the win over Green Bay that he can excel both on the ground and through the air, with a combined 444 yards of total offense. If he can generate anywhere close to that number while avoiding turnovers, the 49ers will be sure to move the ball effectively.

 

Jacquizz Rodgers, RB Atlanta Falcons

The 49ers defense is just too good for the Falcons to pass the ball on every play. The Falcons will need to run the ball and run it well. Jacquizz Rodgers is their best chance to do that.

Rodgers ran wild against the Seahawks, with a 45-yard run to rival Marshawn Lynch's famed beast-mode run of 2011. He ran straight over a Seahawks defender, then bounced off a few more tacklers to rip off a 45-yard gain.

The 49ers defense will be too fast and too physical for Michael Turner to excel, but Rodgers' quickness could produce balance for the Falcons offense. They need to get him the ball in a variety of ways to have a chance against this defense.

 

Key Matchup

49ers Pass Rush vs Falcons Offensive Line

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The 49ers can win this game handily by pressuring Matt Ryan on a regular basis. Aldon Smith, in particular, is poised for a great game against Falcons left tackle Sam Baker, who has allowed 45 pressures this season.

The Smith-Baker matchup will be the one to watch, but if the 49ers can find pressure from other sources, look out. This could get ugly.

The Falcons do match up favorably in this regard, though. The offensive line has given up just 28 sacks this season, with Baker having given up six of those. Ahmad Brooks, the 49ers' second-leading pass-rusher with 6.5 sacks, will need to find success against the Falcons' talented big men to keep double-teams off of Smith.

Matt Ryan is deadly most of the time, but he can be rattled. The 49ers can dominate this game if they rattle Ryan.

 

Prediction: 49ers 26, Falcons 17

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In the battle of a dominant defense versus an explosive offense, I'll go with the defense. The 49ers defense is well-suited to stop the Falcons' one-dimensional attack, and they should move the ball effectively as well.

Colin Kaepernick has already found success against top teams, including the New England Patriots and the Packers. He is no stranger to tough games. 

As great as Matt Ryan and the Falcons were against Seattle, I don't think lightning will strike twice. Ryan still struggles on the biggest stages, and with the stakes so high, I expect him to falter against this dominant defense.

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