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By Jerrell Richardson
With the Georgia Dome rocking and emotions running high, the Atlanta Falcons came out and it looked like they were going to turn the NFC Championship game into a rout. They Falcons were clicking on both sides of the ball, completely dominated the first quarter and found themselves up 17-0 early in the second quarter; then San Francisco woke up. The 49ers took Atlanta’s best punch and from the second quarter on, outplayed their opponent. The Falcons proved a game opponent and made big plays on both sides of the ball, but with 8:23 left in the 4th, the 49ers took their first lead of the game, and they refused to give it back. Fittingly, it came down to the San Francisco defense against the Atlanta offense, and NaVorro Bowman’s pass deflection sealed the 28-24 49er victory.
Colin Kaepernick, still in his first tour at the position. continues to outplay the more seasoned quarterbacks he faces. Matt Ryan had a big game, but there there is no question that Kaepernick had the better day. Kaepernick was very efficient, completing 16 of 21 attempts for 233 yards, one touchdown and, unlike Ryan who had two, Kaepernick did not commit a single turnover. After protecting the ball, what made Kaepernick’s day so impressive was that he had two rushing attempts, and one of those was a run designed for him and not a read option. The Falcons’ game plan was to let Frank Gore and LaMichael James run in between the tackles and stop Kaepernick from getting outside. Instead of forcing it, Kaepernick continued to hand the ball off, and never got impatient or lazy with his read. He showed the mindset of a player who wants to win, not accumulate his own stats.
The depth of the 49er offense caused problems all over the field. After watching Michael Crabtree torch single coverage for weeks, the Falcons decided to take him out of the game. This worked, but allowed Vernon Davis to roam free, and after a quiet end to the regular season, Davis lead the team with 106 receiving yards and added a touchdown. Atlanta tried to adjust, and rotated coverage back to Davis in the 3rd and 4th quarter, but that left Crabtree open, who outside of his fumble on the goal line had a big second half. As it has been all year though, it was the steady play of Frank Gore, who finished with 90 yards and 2 second half touchdowns that was the difference. After the first quarter, the offense was impressive, ripping off yards with the run or pass and spreading the ball around to everyone. Grade: B+
The fact that the Falcons scored 24 points in the first half is not good. However, fact that they scored 0 points in the second half is outstanding. The 49ers; defense certainly struggled for the first half, but they made their adjustments and blanked a very potent offense for an entire half. The forgettable first half was also not as bad as the scoreboard showed. The first touchdown was due to a blown assignment, and the second Julio Jones touchdown was an incredible throw and catch. Even the Tony Gonzalez touchdown at the end of the first half was a thing of beauty. What the defense can hold their hat on is that nothing was easy, and you are going to give up plays when playing against a team like Atlanta.
Patrick Willis again led the charge with a team high 11 tackles, but he got a lot of help. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers both played extremely well despite the gaudy numbers by Matt Ryan, and Ahmad Brooks batted down two crucial passing attempts while providing pressure on Ryan. Chris Culliver had an interception and Aldon Brooks recovered a Ryan fumble, resulting in the 49ers winning the turnover battle. NaVorro Bowman sealed the win with a great play in pass coverage. It was not pretty, and Atlanta was knocking on the door of a touchdown a few times in the second half, but in the end it was the defense that stepped up and put the nail in the Atlanta coffin. Grade: B
The 49ers may need to call back Billy Cundiff. David Akers again missed another field goal, this one from 38 yards, and after a Falcon turnover that would have tied the game. Akers’ body language is evident on the bench and he remains the biggest concern for the team as they are now only one win away from the Lombardi Trophy. The rest of the special teams added something to the win, with LaMichael James averaging over 20 yards per kick return, Ted Ginn Jr. had a 20 yard return that set up a scoring drive, and as usual, Andy Lee was Andy Lee. Grade: B
In the first quarter the 49ers were out coached. After no first downs on their first two drives, the defense unable to even slow down the Falcons, and his team facing a 17-0 deficit, Harbaugh made an important decision; he did nothing. The 2nd year coach knew that the slow start was more about his team than their opponent. Instead of adjusting what they were doing, he stayed the course and stuck to the game plan. The 49ers worked their way back into the game before getting the win. There were a lot of things that went against San Francisco, but the team followed the lead of their coach and remained poised, while the Falcons could not avoid untimely mistakes down the stretch. Despite trailing most of the game, Harbaugh had the momentum of the game on his side the entire second half, and kept his team calm, even when things looked bleak. Grade: A-
Still The Most Complete Team
San Francisco looked like a championship team on Sunday. They weathered the early storm by their opponent, stayed their course, took the the lead late in the 4th and then stopped Atlanta from getting in the end zone. As was expected to beat a team as talented as the Falcons, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line it took a contribution from both sides of the ball, and as the team gets ready for their next opponent, they have to be considered the most complete team left, as long as they don’t need a last second field goal.
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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.