With just a couple of hours to go until San Francisco take on Atlanta in the Georgia Dome, here’s my preview of what promises to be an epic battle between the two potential NFC representatives in the Superbowl.
When Atlanta has the ball..
Offensive co-ordinator Dirk Koetter was employed last off-season in large part because head coach Mike Smith wanted to open up the passing game. Koetter has delivered exactly what Smith wanted and taken quarterback Matt Ryan’s game to a new level. Ryan has always played well during his five year NFL career but he’s well and truly established himself this season as a top 10 QB. Julio Jones gives the Falcons an elite deep threat and in addition to the dependable Roddy White and future hall of fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez Ryan is almost spoilt for choice when it comes to distributing the football. Michael Turner still churns out the tough yards in the running game which gives Atlanta an important change of pace in goal line and short yardage situations. The Falcons will be up against it tonight, however, against one of if not the best defense in football. San Francisco boasts the best inside linebacker combo in the game thanks to Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, so you can almost forget about running the ball straight up the pipe when those two are manning the middle of the field. Justin Smith is perhaps the best 3-4 defensive end in the game, further strengthening the niners front seven. However their secondary is good, not great, and the Falcons should be able to take advantage of some mismatches as the game wears on.
When San Francisco has the ball..
Halfway through the season the 49ers offense was described using words such as “methodical” and “efficient”. That all changed when Alex Smith was benched for the current golden boy of the NFL, Colin Kaepernick, who broke the NFL rushing record for a QB in a single game with 181 yards against Green Bay last week. Kaepernick threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more in a breathtaking display of dual threat QB play and it’s likely the fast indoor surface in the Georgia Dome will suit the former second round pick perfectly. Michael Crabtree has evolved into a move-the-chains type receiver and gives Kapernick a reliable outlet in crucial situations, whilst Vernon Davis is one of the best play making Tight Ends in football. Frank Gore is a consistent and valuable running back who helps give the 49ers multiple running options when you include Kapernick. Atlanta has an experienced defense that boats names such as Asante Samuel at cornerback and John Abraham at defensive end who should help the unit deal with the pressure of such an important game. On the other hand it might suit the niners to face a defense who are perhaps past their physical peak when facing an athlete like Kaepernick.
Whilst San Francisco are coming off the most impressive win of any of the four remaining teams last week Atlanta is the NFC’s number one seed and has home field advantage. Personally I’m excited for this game as I can’t see either defense having a great day in favourable offensive conditions. Often running quarterbacks come unstuck in January when they have to play outside in near freezing temperatures – not so tonight. The other benefit Kaepernick has is that teams don’t have a book on him: how can you plan to stop an attack that’s so original and has only been in effect for five or six weeks? The Falcons were lucky last week that Pete Carroll chose to ice the kicker, they won’t get the same break this time round and that’s the kind of margin which could decide the game.
49ers 30, Falcons 28