The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons meet for the NFC Championship on Sunday, and while the game will be played on artificial turf in the Georgia Dome, it's still helpful to look at what insight can be gathered from the numbers.
This game offers some interesting matchups. How will Matt Ryan fare against a tough 49ers defense? Will the Falcons be able to handle a mobile quarterback better than they did last week? Time to take a look at what the statistics say about the these two teams.
When the Falcons have the ball...
The 49ers have built a reputation as one of the best defenses in the NFL under Jim Harbaugh, and it has been well-earned. San Francisco's front seven features a dominating, physical line and speedy, hard-hitting linebackers. Many teams have struggled to figure out how to reach even the second level against their attack.
Atlanta's offense is not too shabby, either, and it may have the tools to exploit the 49ers on the back end. The Falcons feature big wide receivers and an accurate quarterback who can get them the ball if he has time.
The Falcons' passing offense has been their bread and butter all year. Football Outsiders' DVOA metric ranks Atlanta as having the 10th-most efficient passing game in the NFL, 23.6 percent better than an average squad. Ryan completed nearly 69 percent of his passes and ranked fifth in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) with 1,216. That means Ryan contributed 1,216 more yards than an average quarterback would.
Of course, Ryan gets plenty of help from his stud receiving corps. Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez all received over 120 targets this season. Gonzalez was the most reliable in terms of catching the ball, nabbing 75 percent of the balls thrown his way. White and Jones were more explosive despite catching less passes, averaging 9.4 and 9.3 yards per target.
How equipped are the 49ers to stop Ryan and all his weapons? The stats say pretty well.
San Francisco finished the regular season as the sixth-best team in defensive passing DVOA, 10.3 percent better than an average team. The 49ers can focus on stopping the pass more, as Atlanta's running game isn't much of a threat. The Falcons were 29th in rushing DVOA.
Getting pressure on Ryan will be important, and it was something the Seahawks failed to do last weekend. The 49ers' defensive line is only slightly better at getting to the quarterback than Seattle, with a 6.4 percent adjusted sack rate compared to Seattle's 6.1, so San Francisco likely rely on blitzes getting home to apply pressure. With Justin Smith in the middle taking up space, it makes it a lot easier for linebackers to reach the QB.
The battle between the 49ers' stout defense and Atlanta's prolific passing game will certainly be fun to watch. The Falcons were able to move the ball against another top defense last week, can they do it again?
When the 49ers have the ball...
The story of the last half of the season for San Francisco's offense has been the switch from Alex Smith, who was having a fine season, to Colin Kaepernick, who had very little NFL experience. Kaepernick made Harbaugh look like a genius as he tore up Packers in the Divisional round.
Atlanta's defense was shaky, especially in the second half, against a similarly mobile quarterback in Russell Wilson. The rookie passed for 385 yards and two touchdowns, while also picking up 60 yards and a score on the ground in a losing effort.
Much of the focus will be on Kaepernick's ability to make plays with his legs, but he has been effective through the air as well. The second-year quarterback amassed 553 DYAR in a little less than half a season at the helm. That was better than all but 12 quarterbacks, and ahead of guys who played whole seasons like Joe Flacco and Cam Newton.
That ability to make big plays in the passing game loosens up the front seven for the running game to thrive. The 49ers ranked third in the league in weighted rushing DVOA.
Will Atlanta's defense be able to keep up? Well, they may have to hope for the offense to win a shootout.
The Falcons ranked 20th in the league in weighted DVOA against the run, but there is some hope. Atlanta was able to bottle up one of the league's top rushers in Marshawn Lynch, holding him to just 46 yards on 16 carries.
Of course, that focus on Lynch led to a gashing of the secondary, but sometimes a team has to pick its poison and hope for the best. The Falcons were hoping their pass defense would hold up, and that wasn't a terrible option. They did rank 11th in weighted passing DVOA allowed.
Breaking through the line and getting pressure to disrupt the 49ers' young quarterback may be an easier task than usual for the Falcons. They ranked just 26th in adjusted sack rate, but San Francisco's offensive line was 29th in that same statistic. The Niners allowed a sack on about 8.5 percent of dropbacks.
This side of the ball doesn't offer quite the same intriguing battle that the other does, but this is where the Falcons to do perform over their heads to have a chance. If they can limit the 49ers and Kaepernick in a hostile road environment, the offense may be able to do enough to come away with the victory.
San Francisco is the clear favorite in this one, but some of that is mitigated by the fact that the Falcons are playing at home. Atlanta was an underdog in many of the same statistics last week, but they were able to overcome and steal a victory in the waining seconds.
Oddshark has the 49ers as 3½-point favorites on the road, which seems about right. They are better in almost every facet of the game. Still, the margin for error is slim in the playoffs, and the Falcons are close enough to San Francisco to grab the victory in the Georgia Dome.