Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
A look at how the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons match up heading into the NFC Championship game.
The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons are set to meet in the NFC Championship on Sunday - fitting, given that they are the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the conference. They were supposed to get to this point and they were able to, even if they took different routes to get to this point.
The divisional round directly led to San Francisco opening as 3.5-point favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. That line has been climbing as well, with the 49ers being favored by as much as five points on some books.
That being said, the Divisional Round matchups are immaterial. Clean slate and all that. This one will come down to the matchups on the field and not some intangible notion of momentum or destiny. Put on your lucky jersey, do your rituals, but in the end, all we can do is break down the game.
So here's some of the biggest matchups to pay attention to heading into this one.
Smith was the big injury of the playoffs for the 49ers. He suffered a partially torn triceps tendon and many felt he wouldn't even be able to return to the playoffs. Despite that, Smith put on a brace and other protection, and played 91 percent of the team's defensive snaps against the Packers in the divisional round.
Not only that, he looked as ferocious as ever. Smith has recently received recognition for being one of the premier defensive players in the league and many doubted whether or not the 49ers would be the same if he was limited.
Against the Packers, he held his double-team blocks and made five tackles, tied for third on the team for the day.
On Sunday against the Falcons, Smith will be up against Blalock, who has been excellent in pass protection this season. Blalock allowed just one sack this year, and has consistently kept some of the best interior linemen off of quarterback Matt Ryan.
His strength is not in the running game, however, and Smith, being so good in that area, would likely have a high success rate in stopping the run up against him, if things go as the matchup indicates.
That being said, getting to Ryan will be crucial for the 49ers to win this one. That offense is just too strong, with too many weapons, and without pressure from Smith and the rest of the front seven, then the 49ers could be in line to lose another NFC Championship game.
49ers LB Patrick Willis vs. Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez
There's been a lot of talk about Willis missing snaps lately in favor of certain defensive backs, but that's less about him being inadequate or some silly notion, and more about the ridiculous range of TED linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
When it comes to tough matchups against tight ends, Willis is still the 49ers' man. They'll stick Willis to Gonzalez and allow the safeties to concentrate on helping the cornerbacks deal with guys like Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Regardless, it's going to be a tough out for Willis. He's struggled here and there against certain tight ends, like Jermichael Finley, Brandon Pettigrew and Aaron Hernandez. Gonzalez, at this stage in his career, is still definitely in the same realm as those guys.
He led the Falcons with 93 receptions this season, after 16 years in the NFL. It's really amazing what he's been able to consistently do for so long. That being said, he's got the best linebacker in the NFL to contend with and it should be a good matchup.
If Willis can work to negate Gonzalez, who had a crucial catch in Atlanta's win against Seattle that set up the game-winning field goal, then the 49ers will have a much better chance to win. If he can't, that brings a safety down and that potentially exposes guys like Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
49ers QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Falcons Edge Rushers
To expect Greg Roman's gameplan in this one to perfectly emulate the Green Bay game is folly. Jim Harbaugh wouldn't allow such a thing, so expecting Kaepernick to near 200 yards rushing at this point is, again, folly.
That being said, Kaepernick will certainly be running some of the read option offense (thankfully, calling it the "wildcat" has somewhat died off). He took someone like Clay Matthews and made him look like he didn't know how to properly follow a football.
Green Bay defensive players were shrugging their shoulders on the sidelines when being confronted by defensive coaches. Kaepernick had the football and was in one place, and then suddenly he was in another. Read option.
On Sunday, he'll be up against guys like Kroy Biermann and John Abraham. The latter of which has been one of the premier defensive linemen in the league for years now. He's great at getting the quarterback, and he's always been one to chase down a play.
Will he chase down Kaepernick? That's the intriguing aspect.
49ers Secondary vs. Falcons Wide Receivers
Is this an easy matchup to list? Sure is, considering it's the most obvious, but there's so much there. Because it's generally not one cornerback versus one receiver, it's a group of high-powered, physical receivers versus great cover corners backed by two of the most physical safeties in the NFL.
The tone of the game will be set early on. Carlos Rogers will likely get a one-on-one matchup, likely with White, while Brown will likely get help from Dashon Goldson, who wants to get a big hit and establish physical play early and often.
How will Atlanta's group of receivers respond to getting knocked around? The 49ers showed that this style of play is effective, perhaps more so than just establishing a strong pass rush or creating the best matchups. In recent times, teams like the Packers and New Orleans Saints saw their offensive attacks completely negated by receivers who were simply beat up.
White isn't likely to take that laying down, given that he's one of the more physical receivers in the league. It's going to be a knock down, drag out war in the secondary, one in which momentum could play a strong factor late in the game.