Michael Crabtree runs with the ball in the last 49ers-Falcons game.
San Francisco will be traveling to Atlanta to face the top-seeded Falcons on Sunday for the NFC Championship. The 49ers demolished the Packers 45-31 (the Packers scored in garbage time), and the Falcons built a 20-point lead and held on to beat Seattle 30-28.
The Falcons went 13-3, and the 49ers were 11-4-1. However, lots of people expect the 49ers to win, because they have a great defense and Colin Kaepernick has the hot hand. Kaepernick has thrown 12 touchdowns and four interceptions (including the playoffs), and Matt Ryan has 35 touchdowns and 16 picks (including the playoffs).
So, we know it will be a good game, and a winnable one for the 49ers. But what do they need to do to win? Well, here are four keys for the 49ers.
Kaepernick went wild against the Packers, but he only completed two passes to Randy Moss and one pass to Vernon Davis.
Michael Crabtree, Kaepernick's favorite target, caught nine passes for 119 yards, and Davis and Moss did combine for 69 yards. But it's worth noting that the Packers weren't really prepared for the 49ers, and that the Falcons will keep more than one guy on Crabtree.
Frank Gore is only a running back, and Delanie Walker drops a lot of passes, so the 49ers need to get their other receivers and tight ends involved. Davis has been missing in action since Kaepernick took over, but he can make catches, and he has four career playoff touchdowns, in just three playoff games.
Randy Moss is experienced and a legitimate deep threat, and he is 6'4". The Falcons will key in on Crabtree and force Kaepernick to throw to someone else, and Moss has caught 17 of his 30 passes with Kaepernick at quarterback. He will be key in the NFC Championship, and if Kaepernick can hit Moss and Davis, it will throw off the Falcons.
Maybe Davis hasn't been great with Kaepernick, but he will be open. Zach Miller caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, and the Falcons had Sidney Rice and Golden Tate to worry about, but both were relatively quiet. Expect the same thing to happen, and expect Davis and Moss to break out.
Because those two guys might push San Francisco over the top.
Colin Kaepernick did this a lot against Seattle on the road.
The last time the 49ers went on the road, Kaepernick struggled with the crowd and the 49ers got demolished. That can't happen again.
Seattle forced an abundance of delay-of-game penalties and timeouts due to the play clock, and it was not fun for Kaepernick. While Atlanta isn't going to be as loud as Seattle, the game is in a dome, and Kaepernick and company will have to deal with the crowd.
I think that the 49ers will handle it fine, and that the Seattle game was a learning experience that they needed to play to get used to the crowd. But another way to get the crowd out of the game is by starting fast.
San Francisco didn't do that against Green Bay, but they rebounded to conquer the Pack 45-31. They scored on their second drive, but it will be harder for Kaepernick to battle back from behind on the road. If the 49ers can keep a bad run defense off-balance by establishing the run and having Kaepernick scramble as well, it will be hard for Atlanta and their 24th-ranked defense to stop.
Will the crowd be crazy? Yes. Can the 49ers let it affect them? No.
The 49ers offensive line was spectacular, as Clay Matthews was contained by Joe Staley and Kaepernick had tons of time to throw.
Seattle and New York (the Giants) have great pass rushes, and against those teams, the 49ers combined for less than 9.7 PPG. Alex Smith played in two of those games, but the offensive line has trouble with elite pass rushes at times.
Atlanta doesn't have an elite pass rush, and Green Bay could not get to Kaepernick. Kaepernick was able to run and throw because of the blocking, and it will have to be the same. Atlanta struggled to contain Russell Wilson, who is similar to Kaepernick, and with Kaepernick posing as a running threat, he will be deadly for them.
Green Bay wasn't prepared for Kaepernick to run, but Atlanta could be preparing too much for it. Kaepernick can definitely throw, as he has thrown 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in about 36 quarters.
Kaepernick presents a tough challenge for any team, and when given time, he will find Crabtree, Moss, Davis, Walker or someone to throw the ball to, and if he doesn't, he will run. But he can't do that without time, so the offensive line is a key.
Do I trust them? Yes. But it will take a consistent effort for the 49ers to win.
I don't think we'll see this much against San Francisco.
Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns and got a monkey off his back against Seattle, but it's hard to completely trust him.
In 17 games this year, he has thrown 16 interceptions, while making a lot of poor throws and making some bad decisions. He was intercepted twice against Seattle, and on the first one, he failed to pick up a blitz and rushed a throw instead of taking a sack.
Ryan had a lot of high throws as well, and his throws weren't great. In my eyes, he isn't elite, and against a tough pass rush, he will struggle. Ryan has thrown 13 interceptions in nine games against top-18 defenses, and he has been picked off 10 times in seven games against top-12 defenses.
The 49ers have the third-best defense in the league, and their pass defense is fourth in the league. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are great pass rushers, and they'll give Ryan a hard time. If they can get in his head early and make him force some throws, he'll struggle, especially with Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and others roaming the secondary and Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman covering the underneath routes.
If Ryan is harassed early and forced to come back, he will have trouble, and will probably have to do it without much help from the run game (the 49ers have the fourth-best run defense in the league). Ryan will probably be overwhelmed, and chances are that he will make a mistake.
And if he does, San Francisco will be in Super Bowl XLVII.