The San Francisco 49ers versatile, innovative offense racked up 373 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in an extremely balanced, efficient effort in a come-from-behind 28-24 victory in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
For the second consecutive week, the Falcons collapsed in the second half and weren't able to rectify another home deficit in the waning minutes with their high-powered passing game. What is holding this team back from the Super Bowl is their defense, which needs to be a high priority for general manager Thomas Dimitroff this offseason.
It wasn't easy matching up with the NFC West champions and their divisional rival, the Seattle Seahawks, in the previous week, but the bend-but-don't-break style in Atlanta isn't going to cut it anymore.
Can the Falcons win a Super Bowl without any significant improvements on defense?
Against the weakest schedule in the NFL, the Falcons gave up a ton of yards, ranking in the 20s against both the pass and the run. But all season long, they were able to stifle opponents at the goal line and also generated 31 takeaways.
That was the case again in the Georgia Dome on a critical play late in the third quarter. Falcons CB Dunta Robinson stripped 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree at the goal line on what would have been a go-ahead score.
However, the act would not keep up, and it ultimately sealed Atlanta's postseason. As both of their playoff games wore on, the Falcons were giving up yards—but they weren't getting any stops in the scoring area.
Seattle had three touchdown runs from close range in the fourth quarter of the divisional round, and the Niners pounded in three TDs of their own on the ground inside the 20. TE Vernon Davis also had a four-yard touchdown grab.
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks sent out a tweet that proved to be prodigious despite Atlanta's sizable advantage early on:
Love Falcons go-for-the-jugular offense. Having a hard time seeing Falcons defense holding up for four quarters. Might take 40 to win today.— Don Banks (@DonBanks) January 20, 2013
Unfortunately for the Falcons faithful, the offense didn't reach 40—or even 30. In neither playoff game could they cover the tight end. Seattle's Zach Miller and San Francisco's Vernon Davis both led their teams in receiving.
Mike Nolan threw everything he had at Niners QB Colin Kaepernick, but the explosiveness of Kaepernick's arm and the zone-read option with LaMichael James and Frank Gore were not stopped beyond the first couple possessions.
So frequently in Sunday's game, Kaepernick made checks at the line of scrimmage, which presumably middle linebacker Akeem Dent was meant to adjust to. On nearly every occasion, the Niners snapped off a big gain on the ground, so upgrading that position would be a good start.
Despite Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan turning the ball over twice, the defense didn't allow a point off of those possessions—thanks to Crabtree getting the ball ripped out just short of pay dirt.
Kicker David Akers also missed a relatively easy 38-yard field goal on the other drive, so it's not as though Atlanta really shut their opponent down on either occasion.
With all the firepower in Ryan and Co.'s offense, there needs to be an emphasis on improving the front seven. Otherwise, the Falcons will continue falling short of their ultimate goal despite having most of the pieces in place for a Super Bowl run.