The Atlanta Falcons have finally put it all together to notch a playoff victory, while the San Francisco 49ers will get another shot at an NFC Championship Game that they probably should have won a season ago. Before either can stake their claim for this year's Lombardi Trophy though, they've got to play each other.
San Francisco made it this far last season, only to make several mistakes on special teams to put the game out of their hands. Throughout the season, special teams had been a strength, with many calling their unit the best in the NFL. Against the Giants, Kyle Williams fumbled on punt and kickoff returns and the 49ers were crippled.
They lost, and felt they fell short of their "destiny," so to speak. Looking at the way the Super Bowl played out, they certainly felt like they could have beaten either team that day.
Atlanta, meanwhile, has had all the makings of a great team for a few seasons now, but have consistently stumbled and been unable to make that jump to being an elite team. This season, though, they won their first eight games, and had a 7-1 record at home, with the lone loss coming to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers long after Atlanta had secured its spot as the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The Falcons will hope to create mismatches against the San Francisco defense. They are certainly more offensively oriented, while the 49ers rely on their defense, but are becoming more balanced by the day, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick continues to progress.
Let's take a look at where both teams are coming from.
Where They Come From: Falcons
The Falcons cruised to their No. 1 seed in the NFC, winning games against tough opponents like the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Washington Redskins over the course of the season. They did happen to lose to the Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, though.
They also played some fairly poor teams over the first eight weeks of the season, in which they compiled their 8-0 record, guaranteeing a .500 season right then and there. Given the way things have went for Atlanta in recent seasons, finishing with an 8-8 record wouldn't have been entirely surprising, but they kept up their strong play and finished with an NFC-best 13-3.
They enjoyed their bye week and played their first playoff game on Sunday, in the divisional round against the Seattle Seahawks. They came so very close to losing it, too.
Atlanta held a 20-0 lead at halftime, and after three quarters, held the 27-7 advantage. But things went downhill from there, as the Seahawks scored 21 unanswered points to take the lead late. Seattle scored with time running out, but Matt Ryan hit his receivers for two big receptions and Matt Bryant was able to kick a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining.
Bryant would have missed his first attempt, but the Seahawks called a timeout to attempt to "ice" the kicker. Seattle took back over and went for a hail mary as opposed to a 65-yard field goal, and it was caught by a receiver in the end zone .... the only problem is that it was Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones.
Where They Come From: 49ers
San Francisco had a very odd season, as they switched from quarterback Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick mid-season. The switch came when the 49ers had a winning record and were playing well, and Smith went down with a concussion.
Jim Harbaugh was questioned for his decision, but San Francisco's divisional win over the Green Bay Packers on Saturday silenced anybody doubting his decision. Kaepernick threw two touchdown passes, rushed for two touchdowns and a quarterback-record 181 yards in the 45-31 win over the Packers.
He looked prepared, he looked mature, and he out-gunned Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The game was much more slanted in San Francisco's favor than the final score might indicate.
As noted, the 49ers lost in the NFC Championship Game a season ago, and actually finished this season with a worse record than last year. This time around, they are a more well-rounded unit though, with offense and defense able to take over a game, and the mistakes on special teams have been few and far between.
Whether or not that will remain the case when they head to Atlanta (they could have hosted the game at Candlestick Park if the Seahawks had completed their comeback) is anybody's guess.
Something Extra: Falcons
As if winning alone isn't enough motivation, the Falcons celebrated their victory as having "finally" won a playoff game, and all eyes were on tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, the long-time tight end of the Kansas City Chiefs who signed with the Falcons to try and get that elusive Super Bowl ring before calling it a career, was in tears following the victory. It was Gonzalez who caught the 19-yard reception with 13 seconds left on the clock, that set the Falcons up for the game-winning field goal.
He's never been in this kind of position, but he's played his entire career like a winner, despite being on a losing team. He's been called a future Hall-of-Famer and if the Falcons are ever lacking motivation, they can look to Gonzalez.
This might be his last season before he calls it a career, which means it is his last chance to add a Super Bowl ring to his list of achievements. Atlanta is a dangerous team for that intangible aspect alone.
Something Extra: 49ers
Now that doubts about Kaepernick have been put to rest for the most part, the focus for San Francisco will once again turn to defensive end Justin Smith and his arm injury. Just 27 days prior to Saturday's game, Smith suffered a partially torn triceps tendon, and his status was in doubt heading into this game.
He had a brace over the arm, and played anyway. The 49ers were adamant that they would pull Smith is his performance wasn't up to par due to the injury, and would have put in Ricky Jean Francois in his place.
On Saturday, he looked unhampered by the injury. He had five tackles, was consistently double teamed, and his presence was felt every bit as much as it has been all season. Following the game, Harbaugh simply said "And his legend grows. What a player."
Smith did say that he felt good and that it didn't feel "much worse" after the game, but he's one of the best players in the NFL and the focus will remain on his status coming into the game. If there's any kind of setback, the 49ers could be in trouble. Getting sustained pressure on Ryan will be key, and Smith is the guy that makes that happen.