The San Francisco 49ers are playing in their second straight NFC Championship game. Last year they lost to the New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl, and this year they'll face the No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. The two 49ers teams are fairly similar except at one key position: quarterback.
In Week 11, Alex Smith, who led the Niners to the NFC Championship game last year, lost his starting job to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick started over Smith as a backup when Smith was injured, but when Smith came back from injury, head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stick with his new quarterback. That decision has been a good one so far, as Kaepernick is capable of not only throwing the ball down the field, but he's capable of running the ball as well. In last week's Divisional Round game against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns, and he threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns as well.
Standing in the Niners' way of a sixth super bowl berth is the No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons and a game in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons finished the 2012 season with a 13-3 record, and quarterback Matt Ryan and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez are coming off their first career playoff win in an extremely close game against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Falcons' offense has moved the ball down the field at ease throughout the season behind Ryan, who threw for over 4,700 yards, and a talented group of receivers, including Roddy White, Julio Jones and Gonzalez. Running back Michael Turner also ran the ball for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Falcons defense flew under the radar for much of the season as well, allowing just 18.7 points per game, fifth least throughout the regular season.
Ryan will face a tough 49ers defense on Sunday. The Niners gave up only an average of 294.4 yards per game this season, the third least in the league. The Falcons offensive line will have to contest with the pressure that the 49ers apply on the opposing quarterback to give Ryan time to find one of his receivers down the field. Since the 49ers have shown that they can score 45 points in a game with Kaepernick under center, the Falcons will have to make sure they can put a fair amount of points on the board. The Falcons defense will not only have to face a quarterback that can throw down the field, but one that can run the ball as well. The Falcons play Cam Newton and the Panthers twice a year, so they have faced quarterbacks that know how to throw and run, however, they lost one of those games against the Panthers this season.
For the Niners to win, they'll have to stop Matt Ryan from throwing all over the place and cover two of the more talented wide receivers and a future Hall of Fame tight end. Most defenses have found that task overwhelming this season, which is one of the biggest reasons the Falcons are playing in the NFC Championship game at home. To stop them, the Niners will need to be able to run the ball, keeping Ryan on the sidelines. Kaepernick and Frank Gore need to be able to pound the ball like they have throughout the season.
The Falcons are 7-1 in the Georgia Dome this season and the Niners are 5-3 on the road. The winner of Sunday's NFC Championship will face either the Baltimore Ravens or the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVII. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. EST on Sunday and the game will be broadcast nationally on FOX.