The stage is set. Somewhere in Atlanta in this place they call the Georgia Dome. The two best teams in the NFC will clash for the right to play on sport's biggest stage. Two former divisional rivals. A deposed coach. One of football’s most prolific dynasties against a band of rejects still looking for its first championship.
How many story lines can we drum up to get people to watch this afternoon’s matinee?
Just one actually. The one that the media has been playing up ever since Colin Kaepernick sliced apart the Packers’ Swiss Cheese defense last week in San Francisco.
All you see on ESPN and sports talk radio these days are the usual clowns spending two hours talking about the cultural significance of Kaepernick’s tattoos and extolling themselves for being the “first one” to suggest that Colin should be the starter over Alex Smith.
That credit belongs to Jim Harbaugh alone, and if Kaepernick does what we expect him to do today, then we can expect a lot more “I told you so’s” and “you heard it here first” on Monday morning. For someone who said that the 49ers should continue starting Smith, I'm more interested in the game than bragging rights.
The last time these two teams faced off in the playoffs was in 1999, when some guy named Steve Young threw two critical interceptions to give the Dirty Birds a narrow 20-18 victory. That marked the end of the original 49ers dynasty, and the last time the Falcons had any real measure of postseason success.
Fourteen years, six quarterbacks and seven offensive coordinators later, and the 49ers finally have their franchise QB, a lanky, fleet-footed missile thrower out of Turlock, CA. One whose tattoo covered arms, edgy style of play and love of Five Guys fast food is a pretty stark contrast to wholesome Hall of Fame legends like Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Kaepernick is everything fans were hoping for out of athletes like Michael Vick, Vince Young and JaMarcus Russell. And while all those jokers fetched were unemployment benefits, FBI raids and a request for a 30-day return policy in the NFL Draft, the second-round pick out of Nevada has been nothing short of awesome, picking apart defenses both through the air and on the ground and bringing his team to within one win of the Super Bowl.
The true definition of a “hybrid quarterback,” Kaepernick is almost impossible to defend. The football was his favorite toy to play with growing up, and when placed in his hands he can sling it, float it, even carry it 70 yards down the field without getting touched. The Red and Gold blur streaking up and down Candlestick Park last Saturday was only outstripped by the spinning pigskin often flying into Michael Crabtree's hands at 94 MPH.
It was a pretty cool thing to witness, and I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of it a few hours from now.
Atlanta finished the season ranked 21st against the rush, 28th in total sacks and have been completely helpless in defending mobile quarterbacks this year. The one exception was against RGIII, who was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with a concussion.
Add in the fact that Atlanta’s defensive line looks like it was patched up with lacquer and duct tape, and Kaepernick may be in line for another career day.
But the biggest advantage of all could be the Falcons’ home turf… literally.
History has shown that fast-moving, explosive offensive units operate far more effectively indoors than in the muck. Case in point: the Superdome in New Orleans is to Drew Brees as Coors Field is to Todd Helton. Other venues like The RCA Dome, The Metrodome and the Edward Jones Dome have also housed some of the NFL’s most prolific offenses.
This could easily be viewed at as an advantage for Atlanta and their Ryan Reynolds lookalike under center, but the Falcons barely averaged over a point more per game then the 49ers, who didn’t make their big transition at quarterback until Week 13 of the NFL season.
While the disruptive noise level of the Georgia Dome can definitely be a problem for an inexperienced second-year quarterback, you just get the feeling that the option-led assault of Kaepernick-Gore-James will have a sobering effect on the crowd by the second quarter.
Alas, a few days ago I expected Harbaugh’s crew to keep their foot on the gas pedal and run right over the flightless birds. But this whole situation with Michael Crabtree is embarrassing for any franchise, and as we’ve seen over the years, legal troubles can certainly have an effect on a team as a whole, especially when it comes just 48 hours before a deciding playoff game.
Crabtree is the second most important offensive player on the field, and if he or his teammates don’t have their heads in this game it can get interesting very quickly for the 49ers. On Thursday I had Colin Kaepernick pillaging through Atlanta like General Sherman and leaving the smoldering ruins of the Georgia Dome in a 52-21 bloodbath. Even though most of the media predicts a win for San Francisco, they have the margin of victory well within the four-point spread.
But these were the same hacks that had Green Bay pulling off an upset in San Francisco, so what do they know?
I know I’m not changing my prediction of a 49ers and Patriots Super Bowl, but it’s going to take a little extra work and a brown paper bag besides the couch to get there. Think back to the 1999 NFC Championship Game, when all the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings needed from Gary Anderson (who had been perfect throughout the season) was to kick a 39-yard field goal to put the game out of reach.
Anderson booted it, and the rest is history.
Tomorrow it’ll be David Akers who’ll have a chance to win the game, and despite a couple of misses early on, he'll make the most of his mulligan in the closing seconds.
Yes, I just typed that.
49ers 23, Falcons 20
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