Here I was. . . making sure I had a ton of popcorn ready for the 3rd episode of the season’s Seahawk and 49er rivalry for my Conference Championship Sunday party. “What a great game that’ll be for the 30+ guests I’ll have packed into my house”, I thought. It was a foregone conclusion that the ‘Hawks, who have been hot enough to boil the sea, wouldn’t lose to an Atlanta team whose accolades include 13 wins in the regular season with only 2 coming against teams with a winning record while losing to all 3 7-9 division opponents. And that’s without mentioning nearly dropping games to such “esteemed” squads like the Raiders and Cardinals. Close as they came to blowing a 20 point deficit, the Falcons still managed to win the game. Not only did Seattle lose, but so too did all NFL fans because the Dirty Birds are a less challenging matchup for San Francisco. . . I guess that means the fans of the Red and Gold didn’t lose after all.
I don’t mean to imply Atlanta enters this game with 0% chance of victory. Under QB Matt Ryan, the Falcons have been a competitive team since his rookie year and have been a high seed in the playoffs before. WRs Roddy White and Pro Bowler Julio Jones provide flight down field and an ability to strike as human metaphors personifying the airborne predator that their team’s mascot suggests. Combine them with the football legacy that is TE Tony Gonzalez who made the catch to set up the game winning field goal while facing 2 defenders and thereby proving the title “Future Hall of Famer” isn’t just a clever nickname, and you have a potent pass attack.
But in fairness, the 49ers defense faced Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in the divisional round. With accomplishments including 2011′s NFL MVP, Super Bowl XLV’s MVP, and making his 4th consecutive playoff appearance this season, the Packer field general is certainly no slouch. Among his weapons are WRs Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings as well as TE Jermichael Finley. Even with all that prowess on offense, the Packers still lost by 14 points even after the Niners’ rising star QB Colin Kaepernick spotted them 7 with an INT returned for a TD on the game’s opening drive. There were some big plays allowed, but the Niners forced Rodgers to scramble about his backfield to escape being crushed like an eggshell by the forces of DEs Aldon and Justin Smith. They often forced him to “double-check” his position within and sometimes out of the pocket “discounting” his ability to look down the field.
This comparison of the 2 air attacks show similarities in possessing solid skill players as well as O-lines of average aptitude — but there is a glaring difference. Aside from the fact the kid they call “Matty Ice” in Atlanta due to his alleged coolness in the pocket only won his 1st playoff game in this postseason after throwing an INT instrumental to his rival’s overcoming a 3 score difference, Ryan’s mobility is inferior to Rodgers who has lead his team in rushing in several contests. This would bring me to believe that the San Fran D-line could send enough heat to melt
“Matty Ice” under pressure.
Of course, the Dirty Birds’ QB wouldn’t be leading in ground yards in many box scores even if he were mobile because their running committee is far superior to the Lords of Lambeau. This crew features RBs Jacquizz “Quizz” Rodgers, Michael “the Burner” Turmer, and Jason Snelling. Talking about field generals on the run at the start of this article may have implied that I had forgotten about the running threat posed by this group and if that were true, I’d be in the company of several defenses’ that the Falcons have faced in the season were they were accounted for 334 attempts gaining 1,225 yards averaging 3.67 yards per carry.
Considering Atlanta has a balancing presence on the ground, it may appear that they could take a few pages out of the Vikings’ playbook where they upset San Francisco in week 4. It would stand to reason that if Minnesota’s QB Christian Ponder and Kyle Rudolph, their hard-nosed TE, could put together an effort to topple the Niners, a Pro Bowler signal caller like Ryan and a legendary TE like Gonzalez should easily create a release valve to overcome the Red and Gold front 7 should DBs Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, and the rest of the 49ers’ secondary manage to contain options down the field.
But with the Falcon running corps gaining only about 58% of what Adrian Peterson did in the same number of games for the Vikings, as well as superior O-line blocking for AP, thwarting the Niners Twin Pro Bowl LBs Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis may prove more difficult for Atlanta’s short game.
With all the focus on defensive talent wearing golden helmets, there are also plenty of impressive specimens playing for the Falcons’ squad such as veterans CBs Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel supported by Safeties Chris Hope and Thomas DeCoud. DeCoud, who is famous for his “Rise Up” commercial, proved he was as much a Dirty Bird as a song bird by placing among the NFL’s Top 5 in INTs with 6 on the season. Combined with a defensive front that features DE John Abraham, this unit is one worthy to carry a team to number #1 in the NFC on paper.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, paper doesn’t account for the ankle injury that pulled Abraham from the second half where we observed the evaporation of the aforementioned 20 point lead at the hands of an offense lead by talented QB and Rookie of the Year candidate Russell Wilson. That squad’s skill set is matched by San Francisco’s Colin “Kap” Kaepernick with a TE in Vernon Davis who is superior to the Seahawks’ Zach Miller who was the top target receiving in the near upset.
While Davis may be a worse blocker than Miller, the Niners not only have the support of an elite O-line anchored by OT Joe Staley and G Mike Iupati, but FBs Delanie Walker and Bruce Miller are in place to supplement pass protection as well offer pass connection out of the Pistol formation. So even if the Falcons supplant WRs Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss as well as Davis down the field, there are still options for Kap. And I didn’t even list RBs Frank Gore or LaMichael James in the mix.
But when you think Gore, you think a combination of bruiser back and homerun threat in a smash mouth scheme that brought the Niners back to prominence in 2011 when Head Coach Jim Harbaugh first took over. Still though – if all of the above has been accounted for, if every Falcon defender perfectly executes their assignment, or even if a play happens to be blown up, Kaepernick reminds you that he’s not only a QB that bested Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees in shootouts during the year, he’s also the same QB that chalked up 76 yards against the Packers on a pair of TD runs as a portion of the 181 total yards he had on the night with his legs.
After walking through these juxtapositions, I realize the guests for my Conference Championship Sunday party may not need as much popcorn as I forecasted. But as a San Francisco 49er fan at heart, I may need to add one more item to my shopping list this week – champagne to celebrate my team heading to Super Bowl XLVIII for an opportunity to complete the Journey to San Fran-six-o.
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