Just taking into account their 13-3 record during the regular season, no one should say they were surprised to see the Atlanta Falcons going to the NFC Championship Game to take on the San Francisco 49ers. There's good reason to believe they are charmed, however, after they escaped — and "escaped" is the perfect word in this instance — with a 30-28 victory over the Nate Silver-approved Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The Falcons, arguably as balanced as any team in the NFL this season, have been a tough sell for NFL fans and pundits for whatever reason, and last week's heart-stopper certainly didn't help their case.
Fortunately for the Falcons, the game is in the Georgia Dome, where they didn't lose until Week 17 after they had already wrapped up the NFC's No. 1 seed. Less fortunately, they will be taking on Colin Kaepernick, who is just as en fuego as the rookie quarterback that nearly completed a miracle comeback last week.
Meet the Falcons
Matt Ryan is the starting quarterback. You may know him better as the guy who used to be 0-3 in the playoffs. He got that monkey off his back, but it was far from pretty. In the fourth quarter, Ryan started missing passes badly. He was just 2-of-5 passing for three yards and an interception until he completed two big throws on the final possession to set up Matt Bryant's game-winning field goal.
When Ryan was on, the Falcons were extremely impressive on offense, however. Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez make up an extremely talented group of pass catchers, and Ryan had plenty of time to find them behind his offensive line. If you just look at the first half, the Falcons' defense looked darn good as well. They struggled to contain Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' various play actions off the read-option look in the second half, in large part because John Abraham had left the game in the second quarter. The good news is that Abraham is expected back. The bad news ...
Meet the 49ers
... Kaepernick may be playing as well or better than Wilson. At the very least, he is the bigger home-run threat with his legs. Kaepernick had touchdown runs of 20 and 56 yards against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night. Few teams have embraced the read-option like the 49ers have this season, and defenses still appear to be adjusting. In case you missed it, Kaepenick also passed for 263 yards and threw two touchdowns to Michael Crabtree.
The Niners' defense finished third in total yards allowed (294.4 per game) and second in points allowed (17.1 per game) during the regular season. On Saturday, they frustrated Aaron Rodgers to a mortal stat line of 257 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a Patrick Willis sack. Against the reigning NFL MVP, that's really good.
Local Takes: Falcons
Alex Welch and the rest of the team at The Falcoholic don't take too kindly to your sarcastic tweets:
If you were actively involved on Twitter throughout the game, how many "Haha typical Falcons!" or "THEY SO OVERRATED" tweets did you encounter on Sunday? And how great was the feeling to see those folks silenced when Matt Bryant sank that 49-yarder?
Atlanta isn't respected, by critics, fans or mere passersby. I'm not sure this city ever will be in regards to sports. But that doesn't stop us from getting riled up every time kickoff rolls around, or rejoicing in one of the biggest wins in franchise history for an entire week (which I completely plan on doing). Atlanta is my home, always has been, always will be in one way or another. I wouldn't have it any other way. Seriously, though, a Super Bowl win would be nice.
Local Takes: 49ers
David Fucillo at Niners Nation highlights a potential matchup problem against a Falcons offense that runs three-wide-receiver sets on 54 percent of their plays:
This also means we'll see a lot of the nickel. Chris Culliver is the 49ers third cornerback, taking over the outside, while Carlos Rogers moves in over the slot receiver. When Gonzalez is working in the slot, it will be interesting to see how the 49ers cover him. He is likely too physically imposing for Rogers to handle him. Patrick Willis is likely to get a lot of work against Gonzalez (Bowman also to a lesser extent), so the 49ers will have some options depending on what looks the Falcons present.
The 49ers inside linebackers are extremely talented, but at times they can be inconsistent in their coverage of linebackers. They are facing one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history this weekend, and he is playing as well as anyone can expect from a 36-year old tight end. The 49ers linebackers, safeties and corners will have their hands full.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
@lancezierlein I'm entertained by people talking about how this is all gimmick football. It's football evolution— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) January 14, 2013
"What we saw from these Falcons today was a microcosm of everything that is both good and terrible about them in 2012." Agree?— Dave Choate (@TheFalcoholic) January 14, 2013
Last 6 games: Crabtree 44-657-6; Moss-VDavis-Walker-Ginn-Jenkins-Celek combined 35-524-1. He is still proving himself. bit.ly/UYQnhO— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) January 14, 2013
The Falcons may be better than anyone is giving them credit for, but the shadow of last week's outright collapse still looms. Matt Ryan seemed to exorcise his second-half yips last week on the team's final drive, but it's still worrisome that he regressed at all from one half to the next. Meanwhile, Kaepernick seems to be playing on another level. I just don't know if the Falcons can survive the same type of game twice, even with the benefit of an Atlanta crowd.
The Pick: 30-24, 49ers
The 49ers opened the week favored by 3 points, but the line has since moved to as many as 4.5 points in favor of the away team, according to Oddsshark.