The San Francisco 49ers' postseason got off to a rough start, but they responded with a brilliant offensive performance that has afforded them their second consecutive NFC Championship Game appearance—this time on the road, against the Atlanta Falcons.
Although they finished the regular season atop the conference standings, many detractors have dismissed the Falcons and doubted they could get it done in the postseason.
That pattern of thought certainly changed at least somewhat during the divisional round. After Atlanta completely blew a 20-point lead to the Seattle Seahawks with 31 seconds remaining, QB Matt Ryan drove the Falcons down the field with two impressive throws, setting up Matt Bryant's game-winning field goal in a 30-28 victory.
As mentioned, the Niners—typically known for their defense—were in a hotly contested shootout against the Green Bay Packers.
Fortunately, dynamic quarterback Colin Kaepernick shook off a pick-six on the opening drive to throw for 263 yards and two touchdowns and run for a QB-record 181 yards and another two scores.
The Falcons' collapse down the stretch of last weekend's game won't do much to silence the doubters, and the Niner defense struggled for the third consecutive contest facing a high-powered offense. That makes Sunday's showdown in the Georgia Dome all the more difficult to prognosticate.
Here is a breakdown of the latest spread and betting lines, as well as a breakdown of critical matchups, storylines and predictions for these two Super Bowl hopefuls.
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. ET
Listen: Sirus XM Radio 86 or at NFL.com's Audio Pass
Current Betting Line (courtesy of Bovada)
Spread: San Francisco (-5)
Moneyline: San Francisco (-220), Atlanta (+180)
Despite the team's impressive home record in recent years and status as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Falcons are five-point underdogs in this one—as if they needed any more motivation to get a second consecutive big win.
The over/under seems a little low, considering how explosive these offenses can be and the more recent form of San Francisco's defense with Justin Smith hurting.
What's at Stake
The Niners have a chance to build a dynasty around such a strong defense and a quarterback who is part of the revolution at the position that is favoring more athletic players. First, they must get over the hump, although there isn't quite as much pressure on them as there is on the host.
After three one-and-done appearances in previous years, head coach Mike Smith finally got it done with a playoff victory. Suddenly, the apparently overrated Falcons are just one win away from New Orleans.
There has been relentless scrutiny of Atlanta, though, and the Falcons will have to justify their status as a legitimate championship-caliber team by getting over the hump against the Niners after nearly having another early exit.
Injury Report (h/t ESPN)
San Francisco 49ers
Aldon Smith, LB (shoulder): QUESTIONABLE
The unrelated Smiths have combined to wreak havoc throughout the season. But ever since Justin's partially torn triceps, and with Aldon dealing with an ailing shoulder over the past few weeks, the Niner defense hasn't quite been the same.
After notching 19.5 sacks in the first 13 games, Aldon Smith has failed to register one in the past four. He was limited in practice on Thursday, and his status for Sunday remains up in the air.
John Abraham, DE (ankle): QUESTIONABLE
It was a scary scene when Abraham was carted off during the regular-season finale. Thankfully, the ankle injury the veteran pass-rushing specialist sustained wasn't as severe as initially feared.
However, he did have to leave in the second quarter of the Seattle game without registering a tackle and has been limited in practice this week. It remains to be seen just how effective he will be if he can take the field.
Players to Watch
San Francisco 49ers: WR Michael Crabtree
In his fourth year as a pro, Crabtree has really come into his own. He became the first 49ers receiver to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau in nine seasons (h/t The Examiner).
That strong form continued in last week's triumph over the Packers, when Crabtree hauled in a game-high nine receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns. His physical style and ability to manufacture yards after the catch make him extremely dangerous.
In last year's NFC Championship Game, however, Crabtree disappeared. He caught just one pass for three yards on five targets in the overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Expect a much bigger game from Crabtree this time around, as he has been more heavily utilized since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith under center.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Jacquizz Rodgers
Ryan was able to remedy an ill-advised fourth-quarter interception that gave the Seahawks new life with the decisive scoring drive that kept Atlanta's season alive. That said, the offense was stuck in neutral once Seattle stopped the run.
One way that the Falcons can avoid having that happen again is by hitting Rodgers out of the backfield with short passes. That serves as a de facto running game and gives the explosive running back the opportunity to get the ball in space.
Rodgers caught just two passes for eight yards against Seattle. Part of that was due to the flow of the game and Michael Turner's production, which hasn't been present throughout 2012.
If Turner can't be the punishing runner he was early in last week's game, look for Rodgers to produce.
Keys to Victory
Limiting turnovers and getting off to a similarly fast start as last week will be critical. Taking away Kaepernick on the zone-read option play will be huge as well, as the Falcons can't afford to let both he and bruising Niners RB Frank Gore get going. Just ask the Packers.
San Francisco standout free safety Dashon Goldson had to have seen Seattle's Earl Thomas snag that fateful Ryan pass last weekend. The Falcons QB can't get too greedy, even if the running game isn't supporting him as well as it did in the playoff opener.
Having production from the backfield certainly wouldn't hurt, but the Falcons have found ways to get it done all year with the 29th-ranked rushing attack.
Another huge factor will be red-zone defense. Coordinator Mike Nolan has relied on his unit to tighten up in the scoring zone all year. Seattle was able to punch it in for a TD three times in the fourth quarter, and that can't happen again.
San Francisco 49ers
Pressuring the quarterback will be paramount. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers took a league-high 51 sacks in 2012, yet the Niners only got three hits on him all game and one sack in their most recent outing.
By shutting down Turner and Rodgers and making the Atlanta offense one-dimensional, the chances of getting to Ryan and making him press increase substantially.
As far as offense is concerned, the Niners simply have to keep pounding the rock and controlling time of possession. The Falcons have given up a ton of yards all year long, and it will be about converting touchdowns rather than field goals inside the 20.
Vernon Davis should be more involved in the passing game. He creates matchup nightmares, and the Falcons could not guard Seahawks TE Zach Miller in their last outing. If Davis can finally find his groove again with Kaepernick, it's hard to imagine the Niners being stopped.
49ers 38, Falcons 27
This game should continue the trend of high-scoring affairs that marked the divisional round.
The Falcons struggled mightily to shut down Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, and Kaepernick presents even more problems with his abilities.
Injuries to the Smiths should allow Ryan to have time to operate in the pocket, but there is too much firepower on San Francisco's offense to not take advantage of such a leaky Atlanta unit.
Jim Harbaugh's bunch will go into the Georgia Dome and avenge their loss in this game from a season ago, clinching a spot in Super Bowl XLVII with a decisive victory.