by Frank Martin
The San Francisco 49ers are returning to the NFC championship game for the second time in as many years, but this time the offense is significantly different. Colin Kaepernick put together one of the most dynamic performances for a quarterback in playoff history to help topple Green Bay on Saturday in the divisional round and will be looking to repeat the effort when the 49ers visit the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The Falcons got a strong performance of their own from quarterback Matt Ryan in the divisional round but will be home underdogs against San Francisco after squandering a big lead and needing a late field goal to survive the Seattle Seahawks. Atlanta is 8-1 at home, including the playoff victory, but has serious questions about its defense after surrendering 21 fourth-quarter points in the divisional win. Kaepernick has proven he is equally comfortable throwing the ball and pulling it down to run - a combination Atlanta struggled against with Russell Wilson last weekend.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1): Kaepernick faced the questions that any first-time starter faces going into his first playoff game and answered every one against the Packers. After throwing an interception on his first series, Kaepernick set a playoff record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 181 and passed for 276, totaling four touchdowns along the way. The 25-year-old made a strong connection with wide receiver Michael Crabtree and helped open things up on the ground for Frank Gore, who rushed for over 100 yards (119) for the first time since Week 7. Defensively, San Francisco finished third in the NFL during the regular season but showed some cracks in the first half against Aaron Rodgers and company in the divisional round. Defensive tackle Justin Smith is dealing with a torn triceps and the 49ers struggled at times to get pressure on Rodgers.
Atlanta Falcons (14-3): Ryan does not have the same ability to escape the pocket that Rodgers has and will need more from his offensive line against the San Francisco pass rush. Ryan finally proved he could win a playoff game last weekend, throwing three touchdown passes and driving Atlanta for the game-winning field goal in the final seconds. Overlooked is the fact that the Falcons’ defense put Ryan in the position to come back by breaking down in the fourth quarter. Ranked 24th in the regular season, Atlanta’s defense allowed Wilson to pass for 385 yards and rush for another 60 while squandering a 20-point lead. Defensive end John Abraham, who will be one of the keys to keeping Kaepernick in the pocket, tweaked his ankle against the Seahawks and is listed as questionable for this week, though the Falcons expect him to play. Atlanta has had trouble with mobile quarterbacks like Wilson and Cam Newton, who used a similar read-option offense to put up 58 points in two regular-season games.
1. The 49ers (1995) and the Falcons (1999) have gone a combined 32 years without a Super Bowl appearance.
2. The teams have not met since the 2010 regular season, when Ryan led a game-winning drive for a field goal with two seconds left in a 16-14 triumph. Atlanta has taken four straight in the series.
3. San Francisco LT Joe Staley suffered a bruised arm in the divisional round and is listed as probable for Sunday.
NFL Football Prediction: 49ers 35, Falcons 24.
john abraham - justin smith - aaron rodgers - atlanta falcons - cam newton - colin kaepernick - frank gore - joe staley - matt ryan - michael crabtree