The NFC Championship Game brings together two unlikely opponents. There aren’t many who correctly predicted Atlanta and San Francisco meeting for the conference title. While both teams were thought of as being upper-tier talents, it was the Atlanta Falcons who had yet failed to prove their worth come playoff time. Well the monkey is officially off their back and they now find themselves facing a very tough 49ers squad with a trip to New Orleans on the line.
For the 49ers, this is a chance to show the world that they are this good. To start the year they were viewed by many as being close but just not battle tested enough to get through teams like Green Bay and the New York Giants. Those doubters were proved wrong by mid-season; however, a quarterback change then brought about more doubters as Colin Kaepernick was inserted under center in lieu of Alex Smith.
Come Sunday the Atlanta Falcons will have the benefit of home field advantage given their number one seed coming into the playoffs; this should be an advantage as the Georgia Dome is considerably more favourable for the Falcons receiving corps and especially favourable for speedster Julio Jones. Back in the day analysts used to handicap teams going against Randy Moss on an artificial field as it accentuated his speed; the same advantage must now be considered for Jones as he is flat out devastating on turf.
The Falcons are going to need the passing game to be explosive come Sunday; however establishing the run game will be equally important. Against a top-ranked Seattle Seahawks defense they were able to scrape out over 160 yards on the ground; if this can be duplicated this week the Falcons will find themselves in the Superdome on February 3rd. This could be a daunting task given that the 49ers have only given up 160 rushing yards in a game once all season long and that occurred against the Seahawks, a game in which the 49ers were absolutely spanked 42-13. The Falcons have the personal to do it as a two-headed running attack of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers can wear defenses down and change up the pace out of the backfield to keep the defensive line out of sync.
For Matt Ryan he must keep the offense on the field and to do so the chains need to move with efficiency on third downs. If the Falcons can’t at minimum maintain a 50% success rate on third down conversions then the ball is going back to San Francisco far too frequently. Another key for Ryan is to avoid any costly sacks. He did a great job of avoiding the pass-rush pressure from Seattle and he must be even more alert facing the fierce 49er offensive line. If the offensive line can protect Ryan with a back-to-back zero sack yielded game then the deep threat passing game will be there for Ryan to exploit.
I really don’t expect Matt Ryan's counterpart, Colin Kaepernick to be able to duplicate a 180 yard rushing day as he did against Green Bay; however, the ground game can still be highly effective if the 49er’s offensive line can control the line of scrimmage like they did last week. Frank Gore also had himself a solid game as he contributed greatly to a running game that spurned out a ridiculous 320 yard combined effort. This is going to be near to impossible to replicate but that is actually okay as the passing game wasn’t too shabby either.
What will be a real key to success for the 49ers is the total time of possession and their third down conversion rate. If last week was any indication, the 49ers are capable of not only dominating the ball (38 minutes possession time) but also of converting on those all-important third down situations (a 62% conversion rate). Should the 49ers be able to replicate this success they will have no problem keeping the Falcons offense off the field and ultimately out of the game.
I actual see the Atlanta Falcons being able to contain Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers running game while being able to establish their ground game. The Falcons have a superior receiving corps and should be able to exploit the mismatches as the game progresses. I like the Falcons to keep this game close and depending on my mood, I actually like them to pull out a win here. If the 49ers come out flat like they did against Seattle in week 16 and the Giants in week 6 then this game will be over by halftime. I have my faith in Coach Jim Harbaugh and staff to avoid this pitfall; however, the players need to come out ready for a fight because the Falcons will be bringing it from the opening snap.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had the 49ers and Patriots meeting in New Orleans to decide the Super Bowl come February 3rd. It would be slightly hypocritical of me to back down on this now given that both teams are playing for the right to be in the big game. Given my pre-season prediction I’m sticking with my teams; however, the likelihood of seeing the dirty bird dance on Bourbon Street come February remains high.
Pick: San Francisco 49ers