For a second straight week, the Atlanta Falcons—playing at home as the top seed in the NFC playoffs—will be the underdog, this time against the San Francisco 49ers and red-hot quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the NFC Championship game.
Can the Falcons prove they've been disrespected during these playoffs and advance to the Super Bowl? Or will the balanced 49ers, capable of beating teams with a stingy defense or efficient offense, justify their status as favorites heading into this game?
This contest has a little bit of everything: star power, young quarterbacks trying to prove they can lead their teams to the Super Bowl, one of the league's best defenses against one of the best offenses. Let's take a closer look at this compelling matchup.
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia
When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. ET
Listen: Sirius XM 86 and 92; Dial Global
Stream: NFL Audio Pass
Betting Line: 49ers (-5), according to Bovada
49ers Injuries (via ESPN)
None to Report
Falcons Injuries (via ESPN)
DE John Abraham, Ankle, Questionable
What They're Saying
Pat Yasinskas of ESPN breaks down the difficulties Atlanta's defense will have trying to stop the Niners offense:
I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. They struggled with Cam Newton and the read option in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneeldowns) this season. Kaepernick can do the read option, but the 49ers also can turn to Frank Gore in the traditional running game and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.
49ers Player to Watch: Colin Kaepernick, QB
I'm sorry, Alex Smith who?
If you didn't think the the decision to switch to Kaepernick was the correct one, perhaps his 263 passing yards, 181 rushing yards and four total touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers changed your mind.
When Kaepernick plays like he did last week, the 49ers are nearly unbeatable. His ability to run the ball has opened up a slew of new options for the running game, but he's still an accurate thrower with a big arm, so the passing game hasn't suffered, either.
The biggest concern with Kaepernick is turnovers. He's thrown an interception in three of the Niners' last four games and has lost two fumbles on the season. It's not a major concern, but if there is one way to slow down the 49ers offense, it is forcing the young quarterback to give the ball back.
Falcons Player to Watch: Julio Jones, WR
Julio Jones hasn't reached 75 yards in six straight games. Now, that stat might be a little bit misleading—he has four touchdowns in that span—but it's still a little worrisome that the Falcons' most dangerous deep threat isn't beating teams over the top all that often.
But against the 49ers, I expect the Falcons to take shots downfield with Jones. The Packers were able to have success down the field against San Francisco, and given the fact Atlanta will struggle to run the ball and maintain balance against the 49ers defense, I expect the team to eventually start bombing away.
If they do, Jones must have a monster game. Roddy White might be the team's most consistent receiver, and Tony Gonazalez its biggest weapon in the red zone, but Jones has matchup-defying talent capable of shining against any opponent or scheme.
If Jones goes off in this game, the Falcons should post big offensive numbers. Oh, and be a lot of fun to watch, for that matter.
Key Matchup: Matt Ryan vs. 49ers Secondary
Last week, the 49ers gave up 257 passing yards and two touchdowns against Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers scored 31 points in the game.
In Week 16, the Niners gave up four passing touchdowns to Russell Wilson and lost to the Seattle Seahawks, 42-13.
In Week 15, the 49ers gave up 443 passing yards and a touchdown to Tom Brady and nearly blew a 31-3 lead in the second half.
The moral of the story is this: In the past four games, the 49ers secondary has been vulnerable, especially against talented quarterbacks. Matt Ryan has played very well this season and has dangerous weapons in Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
We all know Atlanta is unlikely to win this game by running the ball against the 49ers. But Ryan and his cast of talented receivers can throw the ball on them, and if they do so consistently, the Falcons could surprise some people in this game.
Which team wins?
The 49ers are the most balanced team left in the playoffs, and if Kaepernick plays like he did against the Packers the 49ers will be nearly impossible to beat. The Falcons will put up a fight, but the 49ers will take this one, 27-21.