NFC Championship Game 2013: 5 Crucial Matchups to Watch in 49ers vs Falcons

Michael DulkaContributor IJanuary 14, 2013

NFC Championship Game 2013: 5 Crucial Matchups to Watch in 49ers vs Falcons

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    The NFC Championship Game between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers will be decided based on which team is able to implement their style of play. Based on contrasting styles, certain matchups will decide the outcome of the game.

    The Falcons will be looking to get their passing attack going to out-score their opponent, while the 49ers defense will look to use their physical play to shut them down.

    On the other side of the play, the 49ers are going to try to use their ground game and dual-threat quarterback while Atlanta tries to shut down the zone read. 

Justin Smith vs. Falcons Offensive Line

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    Justin Smith's value to the 49ers defense has been fully exposed over the last month. When he missed time against the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers defense allowed over 60 points in six quarters.

    His return, which came against the Packers, helped, but his limitations played a key role. He was unable to get as much pressure on the quarterback as usual, and the Packers ran the ball surprisingly well before having to go pass-heavy in the second half.

    With another week of practicing with the bulky brace, Smith should be even more comfortable against the Falcons.

    If he can get more of a push, it will help free up Aldon Smith to get into Matt Ryan's face. If not, Ryan will have time to find receivers down the field. 

Mike Nolan vs. 49ers Play-Callers

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    Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has his hands full after the offensive showing the 49ers put together against the Green Bay Packers. The 49ers, who split play-calling duties among their top offensive coaches, drew up a beautiful game plan for second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick to run. 

    The 49ers' offensive brain trust did a fabulous job attacking the Packers' specific weaknesses and surrounding their game plan around them. The Packers hadn't seen much zone-read stuff during the regular season, so the 49ers used it heavily to their advantage.

    The Falcons have seen more of it than Green Bay as they've played the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers and the Robert Griffin III-led Washington Redskins.

    If the Falcons are able to force the 49ers to sit back and throw more traditionally, Kaepernick is capable of making mistakes.  

Frank Gore vs. Falcons Front Seven

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    The Atlanta Falcons struggled to stop the run for much of the year as they finished with the 21st ranked run defense in the league. Even worse than that, they finished 29th in yards allowed per carry with just 4.8.

    Despite their poor performance in the regular season, they did a great job against Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks' rushing game. 

    As a team, the Falcons gave up 123 yards on the ground, but 60 of those yards came on seven rushes by Russell Wilson. They did a fabulous job against the Seahawks running backs, limiting them to 63 yards on 21 carries for an average of three yards per carry. 

    They need to do a similar job against Frank Gore and LaMichael James. If they can shut down the 49ers' rushing attack, that will put pressure on Colin Kaepernick to throw the ball on third-and-long (assuming they have a working quarterback spy). 

Colin Kaepernick vs. Falcons Linebackers

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    Colin Kaepernick shredded the Green Bay Packers with the best rushing performance from a quarterback with 181 yards on 16 carries.

    Part of the reason for his success was the Packers' inability to properly implement a quarterback spy in passing situations. He also abused them using zone-read plays. 

    The Falcons linebackers have to at least contain Kaepernick in order to give their team a chance to win. They will need to execute their assignments and use a quarterback spy to limit the rushing lines for the 49ers quarterback. 

    If they are able to slow him down rushing the ball, the Falcons will have chances for turnovers, as Kaepernick has shown he's capable of making mistakes when hurried.

    If the linebackers play disciplined, they should be able to get off the field more frequently than the Packers did. 

Falcons Wide Receivers vs. 49ers Cornerbacks

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    In a matchup of strength vs. strength, the Falcons will need Julio Jones and Roddy White to win their individual battles against any combination of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown or Chris Culliver.

    Against the Seattle Seahawks, Jones and White had their way against the physically imposing cornerbacks from Seattle with a combined 11 catches for 135 yards a touchdown. 

    The 49ers' trio of cornerbacks also had a good game against a formidable opponent in the Packers' receiving group. Culliver and Brown did a great job on the outside and Rogers eliminated the Packers from getting anything going from the slot position. 

    This matchup is impacted by the previously discussed matchup of Justin Smith and the Falcons' offensive line.

    If the 49ers can get constant pressure, their cornerbacks will have a shorter window of having to cover the Falcons' top-duo. If Matt Ryan gets time in the pocket, Jones and White could be in for another big day.