49ers vs. Falcons: 5 Matchups That Will Decide NFC Championship Game
It's conference championship week in the National Football League, and for the first time since 2009, the top two seeds will meet in the NFC when the San Francisco 49ers travel to face the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons, at 13-3, tied for the best record in the NFL this season, but Las Vegas oddsmakers apparently don't think that means a whole lot, as the Falcons have been installed as four-point underdogs, a rarity in the postseason.
The Falcons are embracing that underdog role, with safety Thomas DeCoud telling Jim Corbett of USA Today, "We've been the underdogs the whole season." But if the Falcons truly are going to pull the "upset" and advance to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, here are a handful of matchups they have to win.
Michael Turner vs. NaVorro Bowman
Atlanta running back Michael Turner has a tough task ahead of him on Sunday, as few teams in the NFL are harder to run the ball against than the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers were fourth in the National Football League in run defense, allowing just over 94 yards a game in 2012. That run defense is led by hard-hitting linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who paced the team with 149 total tackles.
The Falcons were a moribund 29th in the NFL in rushing this season, but it's important that they at least try to establish some semblance of a running game.
Otherwise, the San Francisco pass rush, led by linebacker Aldon Smith, is just going to pin its ears back and make life very unpleasant for Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
Peter Konz vs. Ray McDonald
About that San Francisco pass rush.
Like many 3-4 defenses the defensive linemen for the 49ers aren't tasked so much with wreaking havoc themselves as they are with holding the point of attack so that their talented cadre of linebackers are free to make the opposing offense miserable.
That places a great deal of pressure on Atlanta's offensive front, as they have to hold their own. Otherwise, Bowman, Patrick Willis and Smith will spend all day in the backfield, making it hard to get anything going on the ground or through the air.
The weak link on that line is rookie guard Peter Konz, who graded out as one of the worst pass-blockers in the entire NFL this year according to Pro Football Focus.
Konz is going to have to play a lot more like the player the Falcons thought they were getting and less like the one they've gotten if the Falcons are going to win this football game.
Tony Gonzalez vs. Dashon Goldson
One of the great stories of the divisional round was the big game turned in by veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, as "Gonzo's" huge fourth-quarter catch helped set up the Matt Bryant field goal that was the difference in the game.
The victory was the first in the playoffs in Gonzalez's 16-year NFL career, and the future Hall of Famer is going to have to put forth a similarly stellar effort if he's going to reach his first Super Bowl.
That won't be easy, as this week Gonzalez will match up against All-Pro Dashon Goldson, who graded out very well in coverage in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus.
Kroy Biermann vs. Joe Staley
As Colin Kaepernick showed quite well in rushing for an NFL-record 181 yards in last week's win over the Green Bay Packers, the read-option offense can be lethally effective when executed proficiently.
It's going to fall to defensive end Kroy Biermann, as much as any player on the Atlanta defense, to try to slow that offense down.
Not only does the ankle injury suffered by fellow end John Abraham leave Biermann as Atlanta's most proven pass-rusher, but how the defensive end reacts to the "fake" to the tailback also determines whether the quarterback hands the ball off or keeps it in the read-option.
So all Biermann has to do is be both aggressive and disciplined, all while facing a Pro Bowl tackle in Joe Staley.
Other than that, it's going to be a walk in the park.
Colin Kaepernick vs. the Georgia Dome
It may seem silly to call a matchup involving fans of the Atlanta Falcons one that they have to win in the NFC Championship Game, but frankly, there may not be a more pivotal matchup in the ballgame.
In no game this season did Kaepernick struggle more than in a blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16, due in large part to a Seattle crowd that made it nearly impossible for Kaepernick to hear.
In the first road playoff start of Kaepernick's young career, fans at the Georgia Dome need to be every bit as inhospitable, as they probably have a better chance of rattling Kaepernick early than the Falcons defense does.