49ers vs. Falcons: Final Grades, Analysis for San Francisco

Michael ErlerCorrespondent IJanuary 19, 2013

49ers vs. Falcons: Final Grades, Analysis for San Francisco

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    And they've done it! 

    The 49ers came back from an early 17-0 deficit on the road and have prevailed 28-24 at the Georgia Dome, shutting out the Falcons 14-0 in the second half to steal the game. 

    They did it by and large due to two factors: 1) They were the more balanced team on offense, able to effectively mix the run and the pass and their unpredictability in that regard kept the Falcons off balance on defense and Atlanta just couldn't deal with all their weapons. 2) They were able to snuff a couple of promising Falcons drives with lucky takeaways, first by intercepting Matt Ryan on a play where intended receiver Roddy White slipped and the second by pouncing on a loose ball when Ryan took his eye off a shotgun snap. 

    Good teams capitalize on breaks and the 49ers did in both instances. 

    It's a credit to them to not get down on themselves early facing a huge deficit and no doubt they were heartened by the fact that the Seahawks came back from 27-7 down in the fourth quarter against this same Falcons outfit the week before. 

    The 49ers advance to their first Super Bowl since 1995 and their sixth overall as a franchise. They've won the previous five. Coach Jim Harbaugh gets the team to the big game in just his second season and now once and for all his decision to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith as his starting quarterback can't be questioned, as Kaepernick played a smart and composed game and did his part in guiding the offense to four touchdowns. 

    Harbaugh will know in a few short hours whether he and his coaching staff will be game-planning for a rematch with the New England Patriots or whether he'll be coaching against his brother John and the Ravens in the "Har-Bowl." 

    What we do know for sure is that the 49ers were the deserved victors in the game. Their defense was more physical and resilient, their offense was more balanced and varied and their coaches made the better half time adjustments. They were the better team on paper all along and proved to be the better team in the game over the long run after Atlanta got off to a quick start. 

    The Falcons have a great QB in Matt Ryan and three terrific receivers, but they're just not a very complete team and their defense looks rather mediocre in retrospect for a number one seed. Their loss likely prevents the Super Bowl from being a one-sided snoozer. 

    San Francisco 28

    Atlanta 24



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    Colin Kaepernick: A-

    It looked like the Matt Ryan-Colin Kaepernick matchup was going to be rather one-sided indeed in favor of the veteran early on, but by the end Kaepernick proved to be the more versatile, more consistent and more clutch quarterback, as he got better and better as the game wore on and never made the big mistake the way Ryan did. 

    Of course Kaepernick did have the benefit of a running game to take much of the burden off of his shoulders, but credit him fully for not getting a big head and wanting to be the hero a la Kobe Bryant. No, the Falcons defensive ends repeatedly went wide on the read-option play and Kaepernick wisely read it correctly and made the hand off to his backs over and over, with dramatically good results. 

    Kaepernick took what the Falcons gave him in the passing game too, and he finished the day a very efficient 16-of-21 for 233 yards with a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis. He found Davis early, then Randy Moss for a bit, and then Michael Crabtree late and seemed to have a ready answer for whatever blitz or coverage the Falcons threw at him. 

    Kaepernick showed maturity and poise and patience and he was definitely well-prepared for the moment. Front offices across the league (especially Jacksonville and Tennessee) have to be kicking themselves for not taking this wunderkind over the stiffs they selected in the 2011 draft. 

    Kaepernick wasn't perfect, he did have a couple of near interceptions, but even then his wondrous skills benefited him, in that he throws the ball so hard that most defenders just don't have the ball skills to come up with the passes. Whichever defensive coordinator the 49ers face in the Super Bowl, they'll want to spend a lot of time with their guys on the Juggs machine at the highest setting, the way tight end Delanie Walker did to prepare himself for Kaepernick's velocity. 

Running Backs

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    Frank Gore: B+

    Gore, 29, may not be of this world. Already with a ton of mileage on his tires and playing in his 18th game of the season, he was able to batter the Falcons defense for 90 yards over the course of 21 carries and had two touchdowns, including the go-ahead one that would prove to be enough to send the team to their sixth Super Bowl.

    Gore was the benificiary of the Falcons' game plan to hedge their ends wide on the zone-read play, which caused Colin Kaepernick to stick the ball in his gut time and again. Gore ran hard and he ran smart, taking what the Falcons gave him and then some. 

    He also had one of his better blocking games of the season when called upon to do that. 

    LaMichael James: B+

    A bit more work for James than last week, six touches for 38 yards in all, and he scored the first touchdown of his career, from 15-yards out on a carry out of the shotgun spread to get the comeback underway for the 49ers. 

    He took some big hits and didn't put the ball on the turf, too. 

    Bruce Miller: B

    No touches, no targets, but some effective blocks. Didn't get to work on the edges as much as usual.

    Anthony Dixon: Inc.

    A short-yardage carry for a first down on his only touch. If he could've only done that last season against the Giants...

Wide Receivers

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    Michael Crabtree: B

    Was clearly the focus of the Falcons game plan early on and the attention paid to him opened up the field for Vernon Davis and later Randy Moss. Once the coverage opened up, he got quite a bit of work in the second half and finished with six grabs for 57 yards, including one terrific 33-yard catch-and-run where he broke a pair of tackles.

    He did fumble on the goal line, on a play where Dunta Robinson stripped him, but it was still a play born of effort, where Crabtree refused to be tackled at the 2. 

    Randy Moss: B

    Played his highest number of snaps all season and finished with three grabs for 46 yards, with a long of 21. Also blocked well downfield. Did not have any opportunities for the big play, as the Falcons still respected him on those routes. 

Tight Ends

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    Vernon Davis: A

    Davis came into the NFC title game with seven receptions over his past seven games, but broke out in a big way here, with five grabs for 106 yards and a touchdown. It's the third time in four career postseason games he's eclipsed the century mark and he's scored five touchdowns overall in those games.

    Davis took advantage of the attention the Falcons were paying to Michael Crabtree and he got open on short crossing routes and on wheel routes outside, zooming past safety Thomas DeCoud or linebacker Stephen Nicholas. He had another 30-plus yard reception wiped out by a holding penalty. 

    It will be interesting to see how Davis is game planned for in the Super Bowl. It's just impossible to take away everything against the 49ers. 

    Delanie Walker: B-

    Had one reception for 20 yards that led to a touchdown and blocked well but didn't get many chances overall. 

    Garrett Celek: C+

    The undrafted rookie played a few snaps in the jumbo package and drew a late-hit personal foul. 

Offensive Line

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    Joe Staley: B+

    Shut out a hampered John Abraham, though Colin Kaepernick was forced to step up in the pocket a couple of times. 

    Didn't get to get out in space on those toss plays due to the game plan, and had a few sloppy blocks. 

    Mike Iupati: C

    Lunged at Falcons tackle Corey Peters on an a first quarter pass play and whiffed badly, leading to a sack of Kaepernick. Also drew a holding flag that negated a long gain by Vernon Davis. Rebounded with a great second half.

    Jonathan Goodwin: A-

    No bad snaps, but had a couple of instances where either he or Kaepernick (or both) weren't aware of the play clock winding down and they took delay-of-game penalties. Had a great day in the run game and opened up a number of holes. 

    Alex Boone: B+

    Had a couple of mental mistakes and at least two sloppy blocks, but was very good overall and got better as the game went on. Dominant late. 

    Anthony Davis: B+

    Had a great block on James' early touchdown run and had a couple of pancakes in the second half. Gave up nothing in the pass game. He did miss a few blocks on runs though.

    Daniel Kilgore: C+

    A few cameo appearances in the jumbo package, nothing to write home about.

    Leonard Davis: C+


Defensive Line

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    Justin Smith: B-

    Was very strong in the run game early on and his effectiveness there discouraged the Falcons from running later in the game. Had some strong rushes in the second quarter on the only series of the first half where the defense stopped the Falcons. Wore down in the second half and it certainly appeared that he was wincing from pain on the sidelines when his brace was being adjusted by a trainer. 

    Now he's got two weeks to heal up some more. 

    Isaac Sopoaga: A-

    Played a bit more than usual (he only saw four snaps last week against the Packers) and held his own in neutralizing the Falcons blockers in the first half and had the team's only sack, bringing down Matt Ryan a half-yard behind the line of scrimmage on a play where Ryan thought he had some room. 

    Ray McDonald: B-

    In on five tackles, got some push on Ryan late in the game and combined well with Ahmad Brooks in collapsing the pocket. 


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    Patrick Willis: C+

    Led the club with 11 tackles, but wasn't very good in coverage against Tony Gonzalez overall. Obviously Gonzalez is a nightmare matchup, but Willis could've done better and was beaten soundly a few times. 

    He did tackle very well, taking advantage of the good work the front three did in front of him.

    NaVorro Bowman: B-

    Not involved in many tackles but stouter in coverage (by far) than anyone else in the back seven and not only covered well against the backs but made the NFC Championship-winning play by knocking down Matt Ryan's fourth down pass to Roddy White with 1:09 to go. 

    Aldon Smith: C-

    Shut out in the sack department for the fifth straight game and only had a couple of close misses on Ryan in the second and third quarters. Only involved in one tackle. 

    Alertly pounced on a Ryan fumble in the fourth quarter and outfought a gaggle of Falcons for the ball in the pile.

    Ahmad Brooks: C-

    No tackles, but he held the edge well in the run game, he batted down two of Ryan's passes (including one on a third down play right before Bowman's clincher) and he had a couple of big hits on Ryan, including one that may have injured the veteran QB's left shoulder.  

Defensive Backs

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    Carlos Rogers: C

    Broke up one deep pass and made sure to tackle Julio Jones down securely on the game's final play, but Rogers was beat quite a few times by both Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. 

    Slipped and fell on a long gain by Harry Douglas that might have turned into a game-winning touchdown for the Falcons if Ryan hit Douglas in stride. 

    Tarell Brown: F

    Julio Jones simply abused him, over and over and over again. Then Roddy White got a turn and he too got open repeatedly. Brown needs to forget about this one, quickly. 

    Chris Culliver: C+

    Had a diving interception on a play where White slipped on a cut. Got called for an illegal contact penalty and was beaten cleanly by White on a few balls. Had the best day of anyone in the secondary, but that's a low bar to clear.

    Donte Whitner: D

    A couple of big hits after the fact, but beaten like a drum by Gonzalez and other all game long. I have no idea how he's a Pro Bowler. I don't know what I'm missing with him, really. He's simply terrible in coverage. 

    Dashon Goldson: C-

    An early miscue gave Jones an easy 46-yard touchdown, but aside from that his coverage wasn't too bad. Jones simply stole a ball from him later in the first quarter. Had a strong second half, but didn't make many plays.

Special Teams

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    David Akers: C-

    At least his kickoffs were good and he was a perfect 4-for-4 on PATs, so he's got that going for him.

    Andy Lee: B

    Averaged 50.2 yards on three punts, including a long of 62. Buried one inside the 20 and his final punt, which helped clinch the game, was perfect, both long and angled to the sidelines. 

    Brian Jennings: A

    Perfect on his snaps, as always, and the longest-tenured 49er will be heading to his first Super Bowl.

    Ted Ginn: A-

    Had a 20-yard return to set up the team's go-ahead touchdown and fair caught his only other opportunity. 

    LaMichael James: C-

    Averaged 21.3 yards on three returns and nearly put the ball in the turf early in the second quarter, but his knee was ruled down first. 


10 of 10

    Down 17-0 early, Jim Harbaugh and his staff did not panic. 

    Offensive coordinator Greg Roman did not abandon his game plan, he did not flood the field with three and four receivers (first-round pick A.J. Jenkins never saw the field) and the 49ers kept on plugging away with the run.

    Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio did not go for jailbreak blitzes and zero coverage looks against Matt Ryan in a desperate gamble to "make something happen." Rather he trusted his guys to keep the Falcons receivers in front, to tackle well and to eventually make a play.

    Basically, the 49ers' coaching staff coached like they believed they had more talent on both sides of the ball and that talent would manifest itself over the course of the game, and it did. It wasn't a perfect game on either side of the ball by any means, and there were times where Ryan and his receivers were making the game look way too easy, but Fangio's troops were able to contain them eventually. 

    Where the coaching staff deserves a ton of credit is that they were able to keep the players' emotions in check on the road. The Niners defense has been notorious this season, especially on the road, for taking stupid, unnecessary personal foul penalties, but they didn't have any of those in this game while the Falcons had two to extend 49ers drives. 

    It took 18 games, but the 49ers have finally won three in a row, and now the challenge will be to make it four.