This game features plenty of storylines and matchups that will help decide the outcome. However, none may be more critical than how the 49ers defense approaches the tough task of containing future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Atlanta’s thrilling 30-28 victory last week over the Seattle Seahawks marked the first playoff win of Gonzalez’s career—a career that has put him among the best pass-catchers (not just tight ends) in the history of the NFL.
At the age of 36, Gonzalez had one his best years in 2012, tallying 93 receptions, for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. While he hasn’t seen a drop-off in production, he still plans to retire (via NFL.com) after this year—though who knows how Atlanta’s current playoff run will affect his decision.
The Falcons offense will need to dictate the action on Sunday if Atlanta has any shot of advancing.
Matt Ryan and Co. will face a similar defense to what they saw last week against Seattle, but this 49ers group is a bit more experienced and wants to build upon last season’s NFC Championship appearance—one that saw San Francisco lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Atlanta’s offense was aided last week by a surprising performance out of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, who combined for 24 carries and 162 yards. Don’t expect anywhere close to those numbers on Sunday, as the 49ers allowed just 94.2 yards on 3.7 yards per carry and just seven touchdowns on the ground this season.
While San Francisco’s primary focus will be on slowing down Atlanta’s passing attack, its defense is versatile enough to prevent the Falcons from controlling the game on the ground—especially with Atlanta not being all that committed to the run game anyway.
Who will win this game?
What the Falcons will need to do, instead, is use Tony Gonzalez in the passing game to keep the chains and, more importantly, the clock moving. Keeping 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick off the field is crucial to the outcome of the game.
The issue with relying so heavily on Gonzalez is that the 49ers did a fantastic job of keeping opposing tight ends at bay this season.
Including last week’s game against the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco allowed just 74 receptions, for 648 yards and eight touchdowns to tight ends this season. However, the propensity to yield big performances was present.
In the Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the 49ers gave up five catches, for 36 yards and two touchdowns to Kyle Rudolph. And in the Week 15 victory over the New England Patriots, Aaron Hernandez notched 10 catches, for 92 yards and a score.
However, the 49ers held New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham to just four catches and 33 yards back in Week 12.
The nominal success of opposing tight ends against the San Francisco defense has been more sporadic than consistent.
Atlanta can combat that by keeping Gonzalez involved all throughout the game, however.
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