Last year’s NFC Championship Game went down to the wire between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. Since then, the two teams have gone in opposite directions.
The 49ers are one of the top contenders for the Super Bowl. They have yet to clinch a playoff spot, and are well on their way to winning a wild card spot. At 10-4, they have a one-game lead and own the tiebreaker over the Arizona Cardinals. A San Francisco win or Arizona loss would guarantee them the No.5 or No.6 seed. The defending NFC West champs do have an outside chance of winning the division and getting home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. For that to happen, though, they’d need to win out and hope the 12-2 Seattle Seahawks would be upset two straight times.
Since the game is set for Monday night, it’s possible that the 49ers will have already clinched a postseason spot, as well as lost out on any hope to win the division. Atlanta is not concerned with any such playoff scenarios. Their postseason chances ended weeks ago. The Falcons are in the basement of the NFC South at 4-10 and headed towards a high draft pick. With the teams in two very different positions, the contest from January shouldn’t have an effect on this matchup.
"That was then, this is now. It's the next game," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said of the rematch aspect. "We desperately want to win. I'm sure they feel the same way. It certainly has been evidenced this whole season that everybody's fighting tooth and nail for wins. No team, no exception. The competition has been the most heated."
Even if the 49ers clinch, they haven’t shown any signs all year that they will have a letdown. They’ve faced seven teams that are currently under.500, winning all of those games. Their smallest margin of victory in those contests has been 10 points. For Monday, most Las Vegas casinos have them favored by 13 points. They have the second-best record against the spread.
Atlanta has struggled mightily against elite competition. Their only wins have come against losing teams, and they have a 0-7 record against teams that are above .500.
With Julio Jones and Roddy White at wide receiver, the Falcons were expected to be an offensive juggernaut. That has not been the case, though, as White has battled injuries all year and Jones has missed nine games. Without his top target for most of 2013, Matt Ryan has already reached his interception totals from 2012, but completed 10 fewer touchdown passes.
Ryan and the Falcons offense will have their hands full, going up against a top six passing and rushing defense. Especially on the ground, Atlanta isn’t likely to have much success. They have the worst rushing attack in the league. Steven Jackson is having the worst year of his career, following up eight straight 1,000-yard seasons with 449 yards this season.
The 49ers, on the other hand, are fifth in the NFL in rushing. Frank Gore leads the team with 1,017 yards on the ground, and Colin Kaepernick has added 449 of his own.
"Frank's an amazing running back. I feel like he's the most underrated running back in the NFL. He does everything for our offense," Kaepernick said. "He runs the ball. If we ask him to block, he does it. If we ask him to catch a pass, he does it. What he means to this team and what he contributes really can't be quantified."
Betting Odds: San Francisco-13, 45
Prediction: San Francisco 33, Atlanta 17