49ers vs. Falcons: 5 Key Matchups That Will Determine the NFC Championship Game
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The 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers 45-31, as Niner quarterback Colin Kaepernick enjoyed a coming-out party of great magnitude. Kaepernick ran for an NFL postseason record of 181 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns. He also threw for 263 yards and two more touchdowns.
What was most impressive about Kaepernick's game was that he did not get rattled after his second pass of the game was intercepted and returned for a Packer touchdown. He was able to stay calm and focused, leading the 49ers to the win. Kaepernick actually outplayed the much more heralded Aaron Rodgers.
The Falcons looked to breeze to a comfortable victory over the Seattle Seahawks in their game this past Sunday. With a 27-7 lead in the third quarter, suddenly the Seahawks woke up.
Seattle scored three straight touchdowns to take the lead 28-27. After kicking off, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan made two clutch throws to give the Falcons a field-goal try from 49 yards out.
Matt Bryant actually missed the first time he kicked it, but Seattle coach Pete Carroll had called a time out. Carroll was livid that the officials allowed Bryant to go through with the kick. If that's an issue to Carroll, he needs to call the time out before the center gets over the ball.
Bryant was true on the real attempt, giving the Falcons the victory, 30-28. Atlanta, with the best record in the NFC, has the home-field advantage in this game, and the crowd will be loud and raucous.
There are five crucial matchups that will determine the outcome of this game and give the winner a ticket to the Super Bowl. Let's take a closer look.
No. 5: Frank Gore vs. Atlanta's Front Seven
Frank Gore rushed for 119 yards against Green Bay.
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Frank Gore is healthier than he has been at the end of the season in many years. Credit goes to the 49ers' offensive coordinator Greg Roman for utilizing Kendall Hunter earlier in the season and LaMichael James, after Hunter was injured.
Giving Hunter and James some carries eased the burden on Gore and has allowed him to stay fresh. Gore has adapted well to the 49ers' use of the Pistol offense. Now he is a threat in this formation, as well as the standard sets he ran out of earlier in the year.
Running from the Pistol formation allows Colin Kaepernick to make a read on the play and either hand it to Gore, take off himself, or make the fake and pass the ball. The running ability that Kaepernick has will spread out Atlanta's front seven and give Gore some running lanes up the middle.
Expect Gore to have a big game, as the big, strong 49er offensive line should be able to drive the Falcons back.
No. 4: Colin Kaepernick vs. the OLB'S of the Falcons
The Packers were not prepared for the speed of Colin Kaepernick.
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Against the Packers, Colin Kaepernick set an all-time NFL postseason record for rushing by a quarterback, with 181 yards. The read-option component of the Pistol offense enabled Kaepernick to get around the corner of the Green Bay defense and once he got outside, he was off to the races.
Former 49ers' head coach Mike Nolan is now the defensive coordinator for the Falcons. He will have his hands full trying to contain Kaepernick.
The Falcons' outside linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas will be critical in containing Kaepernick. Atlanta typically plays a 4-3 defense, but we will probably see a lot of the 3-4, which will be designed to keep Kaepernick from getting outside.
If the Falcons are unable to contain Kaepernick, it will be a long day for that defense. In addition, if they dedicate an excessive amount of focus on Kaepernick's running ability, it will open up Frank Gore and the 49ers' passing game.
No. 3: Tony Gonzalez vs. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman or Donte Whitner
Tony Gonzalez goes up to snare this touchdown reception.
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Tony Gonzalez is 36 years of age and in his 16th NFL season. Like a fine wine, Gonzalez has aged well and is as dangerous as ever.
Gonzalez, a future Hall of Fame tight end, had six catches against the Seahawks, including the 19-yard reception that set up the game-winning field goal. He is a tremendous receiver, and the 49ers must find a way to contain him.
Gonzalez had an outstanding season with 93 catches, which led the team. He piled up 930 yards and eight touchdowns. Several 49ers will have the job of guarding Gonzalez at one time or another, during the upcoming game.
Expect to see Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Donte Whitner all take their chances with him. The 49ers will mix up their coverages, hoping to keep Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan off balance.
If the 49ers can successfully contain Gonzalez, it will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.
No. 2: Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas vs. the 49ers' Defensive Backs
Roddy White leads a dangerous Atlanta receiving corps.
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The biggest advantage the Falcons have in this game is with their wide receivers against the 49ers' defensive backfield. The Falcons have two of the best receivers in the game and a third who is also very good.
Roddy White had 92 receptions for 1,351 yards and seven touchdowns. Julio Jones added 79 catches for 1,198 yards and ten touchdowns. The third wide receiver, Harry Douglas had another 38 catches.
The job of containing this trio will go to cornerbacks Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver. Against the Seahawks, the Falcons took several deep shots against Richard Sherman until they finally hit one. Sherman is better than Rogers and Culliver, so expect Matt Ryan to try to exploit them early and often.
This is a major concern, because both Rogers and Culliver have been susceptible to giving up a big play periodically. Rogers will likely be in the slot, matched up against White or Jones, while Brown and Culliver will be on the outside.
Rogers had problems defending other quality slot receivers earlier this year, as both Victor Cruz and Danny Amendola had their way with him. Rogers will need to play well this Sunday.
Culliver has not played as well in the latter part of the season, which is also a concern. He has allowed big plays or been called for penalties in several of the 49ers' recent games. Like Rogers, Culliver will need to step up.
Tarell Brown has been the 49ers' most consistent corner all season. However, facing the likes of White and Jones, he will need to be at the top of his game, as well.
Safety Dashon Goldson can only help out on one of the Falcons' four top receivers, which includes Tony Gonzalez. Ryan will look him off and try to find a favorable matchup among the receivers who are not double-teamed.
Against the Seahawks, the trio of White, Jones and Douglas combined for 13 catches for 164 yards and one touchdown. That is a very decent performance by the Seattle secondary.
If the 49ers held these receivers to that output, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would be okay with it.
No. 1: Justin Smith and Aldon Smith vs. the Atlanta Offensive Line
Justin Smith's return against the Packers was a boost to the 49ers' defense.
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The most critical matchup that will determine the outcome of the NFC title game is whether the 49ers can get significant pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. No defensive secondary can cover Gonzalez, White, Jones and Douglas for long.
In addition, the 49ers must also worry about running back Jacquizz Rogers out of the backfield. He is a quick, elusive back, much like LaMichael James. Rogers had 53 receptions on the year for the Falcons.
The 49ers' pass rush is largely dependent upon Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Justin came back from partially torn triceps in his left arm to play against the Packers. He amassed five tackles, but his presence alone provided a big lift for the 49ers' defense.
Justin is clearly not at full strength, but is still able to occupy multiple blockers and hold his own at the point of attack. His presence is also a huge benefit to Aldon Smith, who garnered 19.5 sacks when Justin was in there, but none without him.
Although Aldon did not register a sack against Aaron Rodgers, he was more successful applying pressure than he was in the two games Justin was out. Aldon is also nursing a sore shoulder and although he's not talking about it being a factor, that could also add to his drop in productivity.
If the 49ers hope to advance to the Super Bowl, Justin and Aldon Smith must be able to get to Ryan and hit him, If they can disrupt Ryan's timing and make him throw before he wants to, the 49ers' coverage group has a chance.
Failure to get adequate pressure on Ryan will give Atlanta a huge edge and could spell doom for the 49ers.
Who Will Make It to the Super Bowl?
Tom Brady hopes to guide the Patriots to another Super Bowl.
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The New England Patriots will have their way with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have had a great run following Ray Lewis' retirement announcement. On the road in New England will be too much for the Ravens to overcome.
The more compelling matchup is the 49ers vs. Falcons. These are two teams with different strengths and it should be a battle of wills to see which team breaks first.
The old adage is "defense wins championships," and the 49ers' defense is better than the Falcons'. Barring a key turnover or big special teams play, expect the 49ers' defense to ultimately prevail.
My prediction is San Francisco vs. New England in the Super Bowl.