The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons are one win away from reaching the Super Bowl. The top two seeds in the NFC took care of business in their first playoff games and will now battle for a chance to face the AFC champion in two weeks.
San Francisco reached this game because head coach Jim Harbaugh wasn't afraid of the potential backlash following his decision to stick with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. The second-year rising star brought another dimension to the team's offense.
On the flip side, the Falcons were 19 seconds from another postseason failure. But Matt Ryan, who was 0-3 in the playoffs entering last week's victory over the Seattle Seahawks, stepped up in a major way to lead the winning drive. It's a huge monkey off his back.
It should be a tremendous game inside the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon. Here's a glance at all the key information for the NFC title game followed by a preview of what to watch and a prediction for which team will advance to the Super Bowl.
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. ET
Listen: KNBR 680 AM (San Francisco) or WQXI 790 AM (Atlanta)
Live Stream: NFL Audio Pass
Spread: 49ers -4 (via Vegas Insider)
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
49ers: S Trenton Robinson (questionable, finger) and OT Joe Staley (probable, arm)
Falcons: CB Christopher Owens (questionable, hamstring) and DE John Abraham (probable, ankle)
What's At Stake
It's clear what the main storyline is going to be any time a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. Superstars are made during the regular season, but legends are made by playing for and winning championships on the sport's biggest stage.
Atlanta's quarterback has come to understand that during his career. While Ryan's had plenty of success during the first 16 games, things haven't gone nearly as well in the playoffs. That's what has stopped him from reaching the upper echelon of QBs.
The 49ers stood in the same position last season and fell short against the eventual champion New York Giants. There's no greater motivator than failure, and that loss added more fuel to their fire, which helped them earn another chance to win the NFL title.
49ers Players to Watch: Patrick Willis
All the talk about San Francisco's suddenly explosive offense is warranted, but it's important to remember the 49ers are still built on their defense. The unit, which ranked third in yards allowed during the regular season, continues to be led by Willis.
The do-it-all linebacker racked up a team-leading seven tackles and the 49ers' only sack in last week's win over the high-flying Green Bay Packers. Even though they gave up 31 points, when you consider the pace of the game and all of Green Bay's weapons, it wasn't a poor performance.
Atlanta's offense features plenty of star power as well, which means the 49ers defense must elevate its game. Willis and Co. don't have to completely shut down the Ryan-led attack, but they are going to need a couple key stops in the second half to advance.
Falcons Player to Watch: Tony Gonzalez
Gonzalez said there's still a 95 percent chance he calls it quits after the season. Based on production, including six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown last week, it seems like he could play for several more years. But his plan certainly adds urgency to Atlanta's playoff run.
The veteran remains one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL and a critical red-zone weapon for Ryan. He also takes a lot of pressure off Roddy White and Julio Jones by forcing defenses to respect the middle passing game.
If Gonzalez does decide to walk away after the season, he will go down as one of the best tight ends to ever step on a football field. But, unless the Falcons are able to win the championship, there would always be a hole in his résumé.
What They're Saying
Dylan Kruse of the San Francisco Examiner must own a crystal ball because he already knows which team is going to win Sunday's game.
"If we learned anything after 16 regular-season games and last week’s divisional playoff round, the 49ers will be making travel arrangements for New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII about 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
"While San Francisco still has to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, it’s a mere formality at this point."
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he's preparing a couple different strategies to attack the vaunted 49ers defense, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"We always have a no-huddle plan," Koetter said. "We always have a rotation plan, but when we get into the game and sometimes it just doesn’t go that way. Sometimes your huddle stuff is going well, so you don’t want to get into the no-huddle."
Key Matchup: Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore vs. Falcons run defense
The Falcons ranked 21st against the run during the regular season. They gave up 123 yards–identical to their regular season average–and two rushing touchdowns to the Seahawks last week. It's a major concern as they get prepared to face Kaepernick and Gore.
San Francisco's rushing duo totaled 300 yards and three touchdowns on the ground en route to a 14-point victory over the Packers. The game plan isn't going to change, so it's up to Atlanta to adapt and figure out a way to slow them down.
Having just faced Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch should help the Falcons' cause. The Seahawks used a similar approach. Given the recent efficiency of the 49ers offense, however, they should be able to do just enough to earn a trip to New Orleans.
49ers 24, Falcons 23