The San Francisco 49ers are riding high into the Georgia Dome to face the underdog Atlanta Falcons with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Following San Francisco's beatdown of the Green Bay Packers last Saturday night, everyone and their tortoise is picking this team to advance come Sunday afternoon.
Not so fast, my friends. San Francisco was considered favorites this time last season to take out the New York Giants in the 2012 NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park. We all know how that turned out.
Today's article is going to focus on five things San Francisco must do in order to keep the era of good vibes going directly into New Orleans in the first week in February.
1. Get Pressure on Matt Ryan
Much like last week. San Francisco simply cannot rely on the likes of Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson to cover targets for five or six seconds. Instead, it is going to need to get into Ryan's face and force the issue relatively early in the play. As I have indicated in the past, San Francisco's strength is in its front seven, not in its secondary.
Julio Jones and Roddy White will have field days against San Francisco if it is unable to get pressure on Ryan. That much is pretty clear to me. While Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown have had a lot of success this season, you cannot expect them to hang with those two receivers in one-on-one situations if Ryan isn't pressured. In addition, Carlos Rogers will need help over the top, no matter what.
2. Continue with the Running Game
No, I am not saying that Colin Kaepernick needs to run for 181 yards again. In fact, the chances of that happening are about as good as Manti Te'o and Leenay going on Oprah this weekend. Instead, I am talking about getting Frank Gore and LaMichael James the necessary touches to be big parts in this game. Both can have big games against a weak Falcons' rush defense. It is now up to offensive coordinator Greg Roman to actually draw up the scheme that best utilizes their talent. One thing is for sure. San Francisco cannot expect to win this game with Kaepernick throwing the ball 40-plus times. That is not its recipe for success.
3. Protect Colin Kaepernick
San Francisco has allowed just four sacks in the last four games. Meanwhile, the Falcons' defense has netted only five sacks in their last six games. If this trend continues, the 49ers are going to be in a good place. In addition, John Abraham is nowhere near 100 percent and will be limited come game time (this if he plays).
On the other hand, San Francisco's offense may be going with the silent count in the championship game. This could cause Joe Staley and Anthony Davis to get off the snap slowly, giving Atlanta a built in advantage. San Francisco's success on the offensive side of the ball will rely heavily on Kaepernick getting time to actually utilize the read option and find receivers open on the outside against a solid tandem of corners.
4. Deal with the Noise
San Francisco performed well in hostile environments against the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. It has, however, struggled in St. Louis against the Rams as well as in the Pacific Northwest against the Seattle Seahawks.
Kaepernick is also making his first career postseason start on the road. Recent history doesn't necessarily tell us a good story about that. In reality if Kaepernick is able to pull off a win here he is joining Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in terms of second-year success from the quarterback position.
The 49ers will need to come in and quiet the crowd from the onset. They cannot afford to get off to a slow start and expect Atlanta to let them back in the game like we saw last week against Seattle. Those types of scenarios are few and few between.
5. Don't have that "off third game."
Like clockwork, San Francisco has struggled every third game this season. Its four losses and tie have come in these types of games. Is this more of a coincidence than anything else? A trend towards the 49ers struggling every third game tells us a story that is friendly to the road team. Maybe we are reading more into this considering that playoff football is a completely different game than the regular season.
Either way, San Francisco needs to come out strong and continue its momentum from last week. If not, it could be in deep trouble when all is said and done.