NFC Championship Game 2013: Key Players, Injuries and Team vs. Team Analysis
The Atlanta Falcons (14-3) and San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1)—each representing a top seed in the conference in 2012-13—have earned the right to face off in Sunday's NFC Championship Game in Atlanta.
The winner receives a trip to Super Bowl XLVII, where the winner of the New England Patriots-Baltimore Ravens will be waiting as the AFC representative.
In the following slides, we'll break down the title game matchup, using key players, injury reports and a look at offenses vs. defenses to preview the contest.
Key Player: QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
A quarterback as the key player in a big game? You don't say.
While an easy selection here, Kaepernick is different kind of quarterback—a dual-threat option who accounted for over 400 yards of total offense in San Francisco's 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round. He set a quarterback rushing record with 181 yards and, save for a first-series pick-six, was nearly flawless in the passing game.
The 49ers aren't likely to get another historically dominant performance from Kaepernick, but it's clear that how he plays will dictate what kind of contest the conference title game is.
San Francisco's defense is good enough to keep the 49ers in a pitcher's duel, but Kaepernick is also capable of winning a shootout on the fast track in Atlanta. The Falcons defense will have a nervous week attempting to get ready for both the read-option and downfield passing game Kaepernick brings to the table.
Key Player: RBs Michael Turner/Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons
The blueprint for hanging around with the physical 49ers hasn't been to avoid the running game and chuck the football 50 times in the passing game.
In fact, teams that have beaten the 49ers in 2012 have run it right at San Francisco's vaunted run defense.
In the five games that the 49ers either lost or tied this season, opposing offenses have averaged 143 yards rushing and an average per carry nearing 5.0. The Falcons can approach the NFC Championship Game with those clear goals in mind on offense.
Leading the Falcons running game will be both the plodding Michael Turner (800 yards, 10 touchdowns) and the small but powerful Jacquizz Rodgers (362, one). Against the Seattle Seahawks and their No. 10 ranked run defense, Turner and Rodgers combined to rush for 162 yards on just 24 carries.
Even if Matt Ryan and the passing offense in Atlanta play well Sunday, the 49ers can still earn a trip to the Super Bowl by controlling the run game. But getting trucked by Turner and Rodgers will likely pave the way for the Falcons to get to their first Super Bowl since 1998.
Both teams have injury concerns to deal with this week.
In Atlanta, defensive end John Abraham continues to deal with an ankle injury. After being carted off in Week 17, Abraham returned Sunday and started the Falcons' divisional-round win. However, he was unable to finish the contest and is likely to be listed as questionable—at best—for Sunday.
Cornerback Chris Owens (hamstring) might also be unavailable for Atlanta.
For the 49ers, defensive end Justin Smith battled through a partially torn triceps to play the majority of snaps against the Packers. He should be good to go in Atlanta. Left tackle Joe Staley also fought through an arm injury while holding his own against Packers top pass-rusher Clay Matthews. He should be expected to start on Kaepernick's blind side.
49ers Offense vs. Falcons Defense
Any vindication needed for Jim Harbaugh's decision to start Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith at quarterback was delivered in droves Saturday night.
While Kaepernick is still young and mostly inexperienced (eight career starts), he also opens up the 49ers' playbook in ways Smith couldn't dream of. His ability to run the read-option and deliver the football accurately downfield should give Falcons defensive coordinator (and former 49ers head coach) Mike Nolan nightmares this week.
Keep in mind, the Falcons were just gashed by a similar player.
The running-and-gunning Russell Wilson accounted for 445 total yards and three touchdowns against Nolan's defense Sunday. Kaepernick put up 446 and four against the Packers a night earlier. How that matchup shifts will likely decide if Nolan's defense can keep up with Kaepernick and the 49ers in the conference title game.
Falcons Offense vs. 49ers Defense
We've already discussed the importance of Atlanta running the football, so let's shift to what the Falcons can hope to accomplish through the air against the 49ers pass defense.
San Francisco finished 2012 ranked a very respectable fourth in passing yards allowed and seventh in passing touchdowns allowed. Altogether, cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown gave up just four touchdowns on the season.
The Falcons can potentially beat Vic Fangio's defense by getting favorable matchups against third cornerback Chris Culliver. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Culliver allowed almost 600 yards and four touchdowns while mostly manning the slot in 2012. In each of the last four games, he has surrendered a passing rating against of over 100.0.
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will have to get creative in finding ways to match up Julio Jones and Roddy White inside against Culliver. Beating Rogers and Brown for big chunks and touchdowns has been a difficult task in 2012.