49ers vs. Falcons: Defense Will Decide NFC Championship Game
When you have an NFC Championship game that features Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White, it is easy to get lost in the offensive potential for both teams.
But make no mistake about it: The team that goes to the Super Bowl will be the one that steps up and makes the most plays on the defensive side of the ball.
For the San Francisco 49ers, this is not a huge revelation. As great as Kaepernick and the offense was last week against the Green Bay Packers, putting up 579 yards, this team is built around an incredible defense that helps put the offense in good position to make plays.
Statistically, the 49ers are superior in every category on defense. They were fourth in the league in passing yards and rushing yards allowed and third in total yards per game. They also had the third best third-down defense in the NFL, only allowing opponents to convert 33 percent of the time.
On the other side of the field, the Atlanta Falcons don't have a great defense. They play more of a bend-but-don't-break style that has worked well this season. They finished 21st in rushing yards allowed, 23rd in passing yards and 24th in total yards allowed.
There are certain areas where they do match up well. The 49ers finished second in the league in points allowed; the Falcons finished fifth. The Falcons did have six more takeaways (31 to 25) on defense than the 49ers in the regular season.
In the postseason, you need to make stops on defense in order to win games. If that sounds like an oversimplification of the game, perhaps it is.
But that doesn't make it any less true.
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With the 49ers, we saw a lot of good things against the Packers to help them in this game. Controlling the ball for 38 minutes and keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field was a big plus, but the defense kept him off balance and on the ground a lot in that game.
Kaepernick has shown that he can create big plays with his arm and legs in the brief time he has been leading this offense. But is he going to be able to handle the hostile environment, especially if the team goes down early?
He handled himself better than anyone could have expected after throwing the interception on his second pass of the game against Green Bay. But just three weeks ago in Seattle, when the Seahawks ran all over the 49ers, Kaepernick looked uncomfortable in that environment.
The Falcons played well in the first half against Seattle, pitching a shutout and taking a 20-0 lead. In the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, everything fell apart for them on both sides of the ball.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson faced no pressure late in that game, which allowed him to throw for 385 yards and give the team a lead with 31 seconds to play.
If the Falcons can't get any pressure on Kaepernick, or if they fail to bring him down when they make first contact, this game is going to get out of hand in a hurry.
As great as Matt Ryan can be, he doesn't need to be put in a spot where he is down.
We all love the offense and quick scoring that defined the Divisional Round, but the NFC Championship will be all about which team makes more plays on defense.
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