When the NFL schedules were released, many probably had this game circled on the calendar. It's a rematch of what was an enthralling postseason contest, and before the season, you would've expected both these teams to be Super Bowl contenders.
That can still be said of the 10-4 49ers, but the 4-10 Falcons have been out of the playoff race for some time.
Although the stakes for this game are significantly lessened from where they were prior to the 2013 season, there are plenty of compelling storylines to draw in fans.
How Will Colin Kaepernick Perform?
One of the ongoing stories that has surrounded the 49ers this season has been the performance of Colin Kaepernick. He's been solid, if unspectacular, but nothing close to the explosive dual-threat star he was last season. His passing (2,690 yds., 18 TDs, 8 INTs) and rushing (449 yds, 3 TDs) don't exactly jump off the page.
That's led some people to wonder whether or not the 49ers can win the Super Bowl without Kaepernick back to his all-conquering 2012 self.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal isn't one of those people:
The 49ers' recent penchant for ripping off long, soul-destroying drives has a lot to do with Kaepernick's play on third downs. He does not need to carry this team, but he's playing his part with more confidence lately.
This is a team, and a quarterback, that is quite capable of getting back to the Super Bowl. Seattle should be hoping for any other divisional-round opponent.
With Atlanta 31st against the pass, according to Football Outsiders, it's a great chance for Kaepernick to have a monster game. Doing so would help to stop some of the questions about his ability to take this team forward.
Do the Falcons Have Some Late-Season Surprises in Store?
The Falcons have almost nothing left to play for this season besides pride and the opportunity to play spoiler. With this game, there's the added revenge factor from the NFC Championship. Atlanta was eight-and-a-half minutes away from the Super Bowl, only to have Frank Gore cap off San Francisco's second-half comeback.
A team with nothing to lose can be dangerous. The Falcons will be playing without the pressure that comes from being in a playoff race, and the players will likely relish the opportunity to dent the 49ers' playoff standing. They could possibly do the same to the Carolina Panthers next week.
Although fans will take little solace in Atlanta winning its next two games in terms of the entire season, it would at least offer hope for the future.
Will Matt Ryan's Road Struggles Continue?
Matt Ryan has been a vastly different quarterback away from the Georgia Dome this season.
At home, he has completed 73 percent of his passes for 2,061 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. On the road, his completion percentage has plummeted to 59.9 percent, his yardage has decreased (1,826) and and his interceptions have increased (12).
Falcons head coach Mike Smith addressed the issue during a pre-game press conference (via AtlantaFalcons.com):
Well, we have turned the ball over a lot more on the road. I don’t know that I could put a finger on it. They weren’t really good decisions; they weren’t really good throws, and there wasn’t good protection. That is what caused it. I don’t know that it was because it was not in our building. I think we’ve got to really, truly drill down on it when the season is over, but I don’t’ think there is going to be anything that stands out that that was the reason.
You could see where a quarterback would be worse on the road when he's playing his home games in the controlled atmosphere a dome provides. However, that doesn't account for how poorly Ryan has played outside Atlanta.
It's a problem he has to solve at some point in the future.
The Falcons can't afford to have Ryan running into the same problem that have plagued his road performances on Monday night.
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