By all indications, both teams in Sunday's NFC Championship Game enter the matchup on an equal playing field.
The Atlanta Falcons may have a quarterback with five years of NFL experience under his belt, but he's only won a single postseason game—and the San Francisco 49ers have a guy who has done the same, though he has only a half a season of starting experience under his belt. The Falcons may be the top seed in the conference, but they came a lot closer to losing in the divisional round than the 49ers.
Sunday's game could go either way. Here are some of the players who need to be near perfect to make it go their way.
Last week, the Green Bay Packers couldn't get much of a running game going against the 49ers. In total, San Francisco allowed 104 yards on the ground, and no Packers running back gained more than 53 yards.
The Packers didn't have the personnel to keep up with the 49ers offense last week—or to pressure their second-ranked defense. The Falcons, however, have Michael Turner, and he could be their X-factor this week.
The veteran running back experienced a bit of a drop-off in production in 2012, failing to register 1,000-plus yards for the first time since 2009. But last week against the Seahawks and their top-ranked defense, he managed to get 98 yards, his highest output since facing the Cowboys at the beginning of November and this third-highest output of the season.
The 49ers are equally ferocious against the run and the pass. The Falcons need to throw everything they can at that defense, and success will come with versatility—so Turner's work is cut out for him.
Any lingering questions about Colin Kaepernick's effectiveness disappeared after the beating he laid on the Packers last weekend. The second-year quarterback—who replaced Alex Smith midway through the season—torched Green Bay for 263 yards in air, another 181 on the ground and four total touchdowns, setting the postseason record for the most rushing yards gained by a quarterback.
But this weekend's game could be tricky. He just had his best performance on the season in one of the most important games of the season, and somehow, he has to be better than that against the Falcons.
There's always the possibility that a young player with very little playoff experience is going to have an adverse reaction to the pressure and the expectations, especially on the road against a team that plays far better in its own dome than it does anywhere else. But as we saw against the Packers, Kaepernick holds the keys to this team's success. If he comes out blazing, the 49ers will be in excellent shape; if he doesn't, he better hope his defense does the work for him.
No team can ever underestimate the power of a pressure-immune kicker, especially in the playoffs.
Last week, in the waning seconds of the divisional round against the Seahawks, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant represented the difference between a berth in the conference championship and yet another postseason one-and-done for Atlanta. If he could convert a 49-yard field goal with mere seconds remaining in the game, he could seal up the victory. Even after he missed an attempt that didn't count because it came after the Seahawks called a timeout, he didn't get rattled, and he won the game for his team.
In 2012, Bryant has an 86.8 percent conversion rate on all field goals, he's made four of four from 50-plus yards and he's made 10 of 13 from 40-49 yards.
With those numbers—and last week's kick—comes a tremendous amount of confidence for the Falcons because they know they can trust Bryant with the game on the line. Plenty of playoff games come down to a last-second kick, and Atlanta has a weapon that works. Bryant could be what prevents the Falcons from becoming this year's Baltimore Ravens.