With both clubs looking to snap long Super-Bowl droughts, the San Francisco 49ers take on the Atlanta Falcons Sunday afternoon in the NFC Championship at the Georgia Dome.
The winner will meet either the Baltimore Ravens or New England Patriots in New Orleans in Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since 1995, when Steve Young and Jerry Rice beat the San Diego Chargers. Atlanta’s only Super Bowl appearance was in 1999, and they fell in John Elway’s send-off victory with the Denver Broncos.
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh has now led his squad to the NFC title for the second straight year, and the 49ers hope for a different result than last year’s 20-17 heartbreaker against the eventual champion New York Giants. San Francisco was one muffed punt return by Kyle Williams away from the title game.
Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick could erase those memories by continuing his dominate play. Last week against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick totaled 444 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown run that put San Francisco up for good in a 45-31 victory.
Harbaugh was initially questioned for his decision to stick with Kaepernick after previous starter Alex Smith recovered from a concussion. Thus far the move has paid off. San Francisco has gone 5-2-1 since the 25-year-old took over full time in Week 10.
Running back Frank Gore also had a solid game with 119 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and in three career playoff games is averaging 5.4 yards per attempt.
Firing on all cylinders, the 49ers have proven they can win in the playoffs, something Atlanta had to overcome last week.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan skirted doubts they could win in the postseason with a 30-28 last second victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Divisional round. Down by one with 31 seconds remaining, Ryan led Atlanta on a three-play 41-yard drive that culminated in kicker Matt Bryant’s 49-yard game-winning field goal.
The drive saved what could have otherwise been a disaster for an Atlanta defense that gave up a 27-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Ryan completed 24-of-35 passes for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, and running back Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries.
It was also the first playoff victory for tight end Tony Gonzalez, who ranks second all-time in receptions, but had been on the losing end in six straight postseasons during his 12-year career. Gonzalez had six receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was San Francisco’s head coach from 2005 to 2008, and helped the club draft Smith with the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. Nolan was fired after going 18-37, and has worked as a coordinator for Denver, Miami, and now Atlanta since then. Yet he was quoted throughout the week saying he had no ill feelings toward the 49ers organization.
This was Nolan’s first season with the Falcons, and they gave up a fifth best 18.7 points per game. That’s a stark improvement for a team that was 18 th in the NFL last season, allowing 21.9 points per contest.
However, Atlanta did have trouble against mobile passers like Kaepernick this year. In two games, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton torched Atlanta for 704 total yards and six touchdowns.
Betting Odds: San Francisco is favored by five points
Over/Under: 49 points
Prediction: The 49ers are favored on the road due in part to their 11-5 away record since Harbaugh took over. Should Kaepernick repeat his stellar performance from last week San Francisco will move on. Gore and Turner, along with their offensive lines, may be the deciding factor in this game. Look for the 49ers to avenge last season’s loss and move on to New Orleans.
Predicted Score: San Francisco 33, Atlanta 24