#2 San Francisco 49ers (NFC West Champion)
- 2012 Record: 12-4-1 (defeated Green Bay 45-31 in Divisional Round)
- Regular Season Point Differential:+124 (4th)
- Strength of Schedule: +2.5 PPG (4th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.44 (2nd)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.45 (2nd)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 6.9 (8th)
- Yards per Carry: 5.1 (3rd)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 5.3 (3rd)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 3.7 (3rd)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 4 (Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
#1 Atlanta Falcons (NFC South Champion)
- 2012 Record: 14-3 (defeated Seattle 30-28 in Divisional Round)
- Regular Season Point Differential: +120 (5th)
- Strength of Schedule: -1.1 PPG (t-21st)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.15 (9th)
- Defensive PY/P Rating: 2.01 (24th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 7.0 (4th)
- Yards per Carry: 3.7 (29th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6.7 (22nd)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 4.8 (29th)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 0
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
2:00 P.M. Sunday, January 20th, FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Erin Andrews)
The last time the 49ers and Falcons played was Week 4 of the 2010 season in a game that served as a portent of each team’s general fortune the remainder of the year. The 49ers leapt out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter behind an Alex Smith touchdown throw to Vernon Davis and Taylor Mays recovering a blocked punt in the end zone on one of the coolest special teams plays you’ll ever see (seriously, if you don’t remember it, go watch it again. It’s easily the greatest moment of Taylor Mays’ NFL career. The second-greatest moment is the day he got drafted and the third-greatest is that one day he showed up to practice on time. There is no fourth-greatest moment.).
But they struggled mightily to move the ball after that and allowed Atlanta to crawl back within one and give themselves a chance to win late in the fourth quarter. On Atlanta’s final drive, Nate Clements picked off Matt Ryan in what should have been a game-sealing interception and what would have been a game-sealing interception if Nate had just gone to the ground. Nate didn’t go to the ground. Instead, he tried to take it back to the house, which wouldn’t have been such a bad idea if he had endeavored to make ball security his number one priority. Unfortunately, he did not endeavor to make ball security his number one priority. Roddy White caught him from behind and swatted the ball out of his hand and Harvey Dahl recovered the ball for the Falcons at their own seven, giving them new life. And at this point I think we’re all familiar enough with the Falcons’ magical ability to get into game-winning field goal position at the end of games to know how this one turned out. Matt Bryant kicked a 43-yard field goal and the Falcons won 16-14 to send them to 3-1 and eventually 13-3. The 49ers dropped to 0-4 on their way to a bitterly disappointing 6-10 record and Mike Singletary’s eventual ouster. Things have worked out okay for them since then.
Whether it be that 2010 game driven by White’s semi-miraculous forced fumble or last week’s snatching of victory from the jaws of Seahawk defeat after nearly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Atlanta has become borderline legendary for their ability to pull out close games since Mike Smith and Matt Ryan came to town in 2008. In a development that likely surprises no one, they own more home victories with a winning margin between one and six points than any other team in the past five years. But does that make them the true kings of greased-teeing it (Please refer back to the Wild-Card Quick Thoughts post for further definition of the term “greased-teeing”)? Remember, the Falcons have been a very good team overall over the past five years, so it would be natural for them to be near the top of the leaderboard in just about any wins statistic. So put it this way: over the past five years, the average NFL team has had about 34% of its home wins come by margins of one to six points. The Falcons have won 47% of their home games during that time span by a margin somewhere in that span – a high figure, but slightly lower than the Bears’ and Cardinals’ 48% figures and WAY below the Jaguars’ 71% figure. Apparently, you aren’t allowed to win a home game at EverBank Field by a comfortable margin.
So while the Falcons obviously have a strong history in close games at home, that home-field advantage doesn’t appear to be as overwhelming when you consider overall team quality over the past five years. Yes, Atlanta has won a lot of nailbiters at home; they’ve also won a lot of games on the road during the Obama administration’s tenure, too. They’re just a good team in general that gets a bit of a boost from playing in the Georgia Dome but nothing that a superior opponent couldn’t overcome.
And that looks like a problem for Atlanta’s chances Sunday, because by just about any measure San Francisco is a superior opponent. The Falcons were unexpectedly great running the ball with Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers last week against Seattle and the 49ers were uncharacteristically sloppy in run defense against DuJuan Harris, allowing 6.5 yards per carry in their eventual victory against Green Bay. Compared to their play the rest of the season, however, both of those performances were massive aberrations, however. The Falcons were one of the five worst teams in the league when they tried to run the ball and the 49ers were one of the five best at stopping the run. San Francisco DID have the most trouble this season facing big backs similar to Michael Turner’s build (i.e. Marshawn Lynch, Steven Jackson, and Adrian Peterson, although who didn’t have trouble against Adrian Peterson?). In all likelihood, however, running the ball will probably be a bit of a dead end for the Falcons and it will be almost entirely up to Matt Ryan and Co. to put up offense.
And they’ll likely be successful, at least to some extent. Roddy White and Julio Jones provide Ryan with what is probably the best combo of #1 and #2 receivers in the league – even Seattle’s big, physical corner tandem of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner had major problems matching up with the elite route running of White and the sheer size and speed of Jones. San Francisco’s starters, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, both had excellent seasons once again this year, but they’ll run into similar disadvantages Sherman and Browner faced on Sunday. The matchup the entire game may key on, however, is Tony Gonzalez against Patrick Willis and/or Navorro Bowman. It’s one of the most fascinating one-on-one matchups of the entire season and one that Atlanta absolutely has to win if they’re going to move on to the Super Bowl. Gonzalez is so crucial to Ryan’s success on third downs and in the red zone and remains such a master of body control and establishing position that he’s still relatively uncoverable despite his diminished speed. On the other hand, Willis and Bowman might be the two best inside linebackers in the league – is it not just a LITTLE BIT unfair that they play on the same defense? We’ll see who gets the assignment to cover Gonzalez Sunday – normally Willis draws man coverage duties, with Bowman playing a middle zone around him – but whoever draws the short straw will be tasked with blowing up the absolute key for Atlanta’s offensive success.
And if Gonzalez doesn’t have a big game for the Falcons offensively, they may be in big trouble. My assumption is Mike Nolan will not repeat the Dom Capers method of defending Colin Kaepernick’s running ability – that is, completely ignoring it. But even if Atlanta effectively slows down Kaepernick as a runner (and given that they gave up 202 combined rushing yards to Cam Newton in their two matchups with the Panthers, that’s a big “if”), there’s little reason to think they can shut down Frank Gore and the rest of the San Francisco power running game that annihilated Green Bay in the fourth quarter and has been punching huge holes in opposing defenses all season long.
The tale when Kaepernick throws the ball isn’t likely to be much better. Jim Harbaugh had to be drooling with glee watching Russell Wilson tear up the Falcons’ secondary in the second half last week with repeated corner route combinations fifteen-to-twenty yards down the field – those same route combinations are some of Harbaugh’s favorites and have been used extensively by the Niners throughout this entire season. Kaepernick may not be as polished a passer as Wilson yet, but he’s certainly shown in games against the Bears and Patriots that he can make those same throws with ease. Nolan has come up with some truly zany defensive schemes this season, including sending defensive end Kroy Biermann back deep as a free safety, and if he’s able to abjectly bewilder Kaepernick a handful of times, we saw last week on Sam Shields’ pick-six that Kaepernick isn’t above throwing some EXTREMELY QUESTIONABLE passes. If the Falcons can’t force multiple turnovers, however, it’s going to be a long afternoon.
You can’t count the Falcons out at home. If you do, you run the risk of them going thirty yards in eleven seconds and kicking a game-winning field goal or Roddy White running you down from behind and forcing a fumble that sets up a game-winning field goal or Arthur Blank running onto the field wearing only his boxers and picking off a pass that sets up a game-winning field goal or any other zany scenario that sets up a game-winning field goal. They’re really good at those. Like last week, however, they face an opponent that is clearly better than them – and, unlike last week, this opponent doesn’t have an Achilles’ heel in run defense. The 49ers have come a long, LONG way since that game in the Georgia Dome two years ago: they now have a defense that is fully living up to its potential and an offense that, quite unexpectedly, has become one of the most versatile and explosive in the league. Simply put, San Francisco has far more avenues to victory than Atlanta and, as has been the case since October, remains SSLYAR’s pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. I reserve the right to change that pick, however, if the score is tied with thirty seconds left in the game.
Projected Final Score: San Francisco 49ers 27, Atlanta Falcons 21
Team to Bet On If Gambling Were Legal: 49ers (+4)