The NFC West Champion San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) travel to Atlanta to take on the NFC South Champion Falcons (14-3) on Sunday (3 p.m. ET) on Fox.
Last week in the divisional playoffs, San Francisco thumped the Green Bay Packers 45-31 at home behind 181 rushing yards and 263 yards passing from second-year phenom quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was making his first career playoff start.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons narrowly escaped a near meltdown against the Seattle Seahawks to clinch his first career playoff victory, 30-28, in four tries. Ryan had two interceptions but played his best playoff game to date in the win.
Atlanta was also seriously aided by a revamped running game that had been missing for all of 2012. The Falcons were by most accounts in the bottom five of the league in all relevant rushing statistics.
Last Sunday, the team attempted 26 runs and found great success, gaining 167 yards (6.4 average). The dedication to the running game and the increased productivity made for a better Atlanta offense, which won the time-of-possession battle and dominated much of the game.
The Atlanta defense, though, surrendered a 20-point lead to give up the lead with 31 seconds to play. That defense will have to figure things out in a hurry as the most devilish version of the "Pistol" offense yet is set to hit them.
In the 49ers' divisional round win, the "Pistol" was employed on 34 offensive plays. Quarterback keepers and zone reads were dispersed relatively evenly to produce two 100-plus-yard rushers (Kaepernick and Frank Gore) for a total of 323 yards on the ground.
The 'Niners ran 75 total plays and gained an astounding 579 total yards. According to ESPN Stats & Info, San Francisco has won the Super Bowl in every season that it eclipsed 450 yards of offense in one of its playoff games for that year.
It should also be noted that San Francisco dominated the clock, owning the ball for 38 minutes (and one second).
For a Falcons defense which struggled to handle the mostly one-dimensional Seahawks in the fourth quarter of Sunday's contest, the multi-dimensional offense used by San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh figures to give Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan giant-sized headaches.
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio figures to face similar headaches trying to figure a way to contain the trio of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
The good news for Fangio is that he has a dynamic pass-rusher in Aldon Smith, and his best defensive lineman, Justin Smith, is apparently back to full health:
Justin Smith: I'll be more comfortable this week wp.me/p14QSB-6U8N— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 17, 2013
Using some elaborate pressure schemes, and the natural talent of those two players and other San Francisco stars, Fangio will attempt to create enough pressure on Ryan to make him uncomfortable.
The success of the defensive unit will largely depend on the play in the back seven of the defense. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner make up the best current safety tandem in the league.
It appears to be a fairly even matchup. The winner is crowned NFC Champion and earns a berth in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
Will the first championship game set up a potential "Harbaugh Bowl" or some other intriguing matchup?