By Jerrell Richardson
Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Head Coach: Mike Smith
Players to Watch: Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez
The scene on the Atlanta Falcons sideline after their dramatic 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks showed a team that was relieved to finally get a playoff win. After years of regular season success followed by post season failure, they were finally able to get a win. Tony Gonzalez was crying while the players, coaches and owner were celebrating like they had just won the Super Bowl. This reaction is somewhat understandable, as the outcome came down to the wire, but they did not look like a team expecting to win. This will need to change. Going into the NFC Championship Game, Atlanta will need to believe that they can win Sunday. The Falcons will be facing a team that has been here before, and unlike Atlanta, San Francisco will have all the confidence that they can handle the moment. So the question is with the Falcons one win away from the Super Bowl, how will they respond?
When Atlanta Has the Ball: Advantage Falcons
No team lines up across Atlanta and feels that they can cover everything. The Falcons are overflowing with talent offensively and an even bigger nightmare to cover when they are at home. By playing on turf they can play to their speed on the outside and with a dome overhead, there is no concern about weather conditions hindering the passing game. They have in Roddy White and Julio Jones, two receivers that the San Francisco secondary will be hard pressed to cover one-on-one down the field, and roaming the middle of the field will be the team’s leading receiver Tony Gonzalez. The 49ers are no strangers to elite quarterbacks and gifted receivers, but nothing like the high flying Falcons waiting for them in the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta will come out and run the ball to keep the 49ers honest, but any success for the Falcons offensively is going to start and end with the pass. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are both physical backs, whose styles are great for the playoffs, but not so great when going against Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and the rest of the 49er front. As the ground game is not a huge part of their offense, this should not set back the Falcons too much, but may allow the 49er pass rush to pin back their ears and come after Matty Ice.
When San Francisco Has the Ball: Advantage 49ers
Atlanta has experience playing against mobile quarterbacks this season, so Colin Kaepernick is nothing new. The Falcons will hope for different results however, as division rival Cam Newton, rushed for over 100 yards twice against them, and Russell Wilson had a field day against them last week, after his team feel behind. After Kaepernick’s record setting performance against the Packers, the Falcons will spend a lot of in film sessions to figure out a way to stop Kaepernick, but must be careful to not ignore the weapons that surround number 7.
Frank Gore is coming off a 100-yard rushing performance, and Michael Crabtree is coming off a 100-yard receiving performance. The team has Vernon Davis, Randy Moss and LaMichael James waiting in reserve, and are not the same offense that was incapable of making a big play a year ago. The Falcons’ defense was ranked 20th or below against the run (21) and pass (23), and will not consistently stop the 49ers, if San Francisco can handle the crowd noise and execute. A key will be the 49ers ability to cash in on their red zone trips, but can turn to multiple players.
Who Wants It More?
If the Falcons thought they were under pressure a week ago, they have no idea what they are in store for Sunday. By getting a playoff win, all they did was wet the thirst of their fans, and raise expectations. They were the best team (record wise) in the NFC for the entire season and can’t salvage any moral victories if they lose to the 49ers. The heart break they avoided by winning a game will be dwarfed by the disappointment of losing one win away from the Super Bowl. Based on their post game reaction last week, the Falcons look like a team that reached their goal, and not a team focused on a Super Bowl. This is not the same for their opponent and Atlanta needs to bring the same urgency to this game that they showed when they were still winless in the post season under Mike Smith and Matt Ryan.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.