The top-seeded Atlanta Falcons will enter the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon as underdogs against the San Francisco 49ers. If that doesn't serve as the ultimate form of motivation in the NFC Championship Game, nothing will.
Atlanta won 13 games during the regular season—two more than San Francisco—and the Falcons are coming off a thrilling victory over the Seattle Seahawks. They also dropped just one game at home. But that wasn't enough to earn them favorite status.
Instead, the 49ers are favored to reach the Super Bowl. The emergence of Colin Kaepernick, who's made the team's offense far more dangerous than it was under Alex Smith, is the main reason the 49ers bandwagon is starting to overflow.
Let's take a look at the key information for Sunday's title game followed by predictions for what will happen as the 49ers and Falcons battle for a spot in the season's biggest game.
When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
Live Stream: NFL Audio Pass
Spread: 49ers -4 (via Vegas Insider)
It's surprising to see the 49ers favored by more than a field goal on the road. Three of the team's four losses came in hostile territory, including a surprising December loss to the St. Louis Rams. It seems like the game should be closer to an even line.
The motivating factor that comes from being told you're an underdog despite more success in the regular season and home-field advantage can't be understated. Coaches are always looking for ways to fire up their players, and that will help Mike Smith.
Even tough the 49ers were impressive in a two-touchdown victory over the Green Bay Packers last week, this week's game has the feel of one that will come down to the final possession. Taking the points is the way to go.
Over/Under: 49 (via Vegas Insider)
Given the high number of playmakers on both teams, the gut reaction would be to say the game will go over. After all, the 49ers put up 45 points by themselves last week. But the line actually makes taking the under the wise choice.
The 49ers and Falcons possess two of the top five scoring defenses in the league. They gave up a total of 36 points per game during the regular season. So while the spotlight will be on offensive stars like Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Frank Gore and the aforementioned Kaepernick, the defenses can hold their own.
It's not going to be a 6-3 game by any means, but the defenses should be able to do enough to stop it from becoming a shootout. Also, don't be surprised if both teams play it safe, especially early, with hopes of avoiding a key mistake.
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
49ers: LB Aldon Smith (probable, shoulder), OT Joe Staley (probable, arm), CB Tarell Brown (probable, shoulder) and FB Bruce Miller (probable, shoulder)
Falcons: DE John Abraham (probable, ankle), LB Stephen Nicholas (probable, foot), S William Moore (probable, hand) and DT Jonathan Babineaux (probable, shoulder)
49ers Star to Watch: Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick, who entered the season as a backup with very little exposure on the national level, is suddenly one of the NFL's brightest young stars. He's accounted for 19 touchdowns and just six turnovers while leading a recharged 49ers offense.
The most amazing thing about him is the sheer number of ways he can beat a defense. He can deliver a terrific deep ball, but is smart enough to check it down when necessary. He can run to the outside and break a long run or power up the middle if the team needs a couple yards for a first down.
So the Falcons defense must find a way to stop him from taking over the game, like he did against the Packers last week. Having just faced Russell Wilson, who possessed similar dual-threat ability, should help. It's still a massive challenge, though.
Falcons Star to Watch: Roddy White
Matt Ryan has no shortage of reliable targets. Julio Jones is an elite physical threat and Tony Gonzalez excels in the red zone, but White is still the pass-catcher to watch in Atlanta. He finished the regular season with 92 catches for 1,351 yards and seven touchdowns.
He's a versatile threat. He can beat a defense deep, but also isn't afraid to work the middle to help move the chains. The Falcons are going to need receivers to do that without flinching against a hard-hitting 49ers defense led by Patrick Willis.
It's going to be interesting to see how the Falcons decide to attack a defense that ranked fourth against both the run and the pass. San Francisco should expect a heavy dose of the eighth-year receiver, who's still finding ways to get better.
Key to Victory: 49ers rushing attack
The dynamic duo of Kaepernick and Gore torched the Green Bay defense to the tune of 300 yards and three touchdowns. If the Falcons allow them to come anywhere close to those numbers again, they won't have a chance.
Atlanta's run defense, which allowed over 120 yards per game during the regular season, must have its best performance of the season. It needs to set the tone early with a couple stops and avoid the back-breaking big plays.
All told, the San Francisco running game should do enough to wear down the Falcons defense by the fourth quarter. That will allow Kaepernick to lead a late game-winning drive, sending the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
49ers 24, Falcons 23