When the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons face off in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, there are bound to be some players with wide-eyed expressions on their faces. That’s because neither team boasts many players with much playoff experience, as both Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick earned their first playoff victories last week. With so much at stake, how these teams handle this unfamiliar territory will determine who moves on to the Super Bowl. With that, here are a few storylines to keep in mind heading into Atlanta on Sunday:
1) Can the Falcons’ Offense Fly High?
Boasting a fearsome duo at the wide receiver position in Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta posses some serious talent at its skill positions on offense. Oh, and they also have Tony Gonzalez, who’s still playing at a hall of fame level despite his age. However, the 49ers defense, lead by linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Aldon Smith, is a physical unit that is capable of pressuring opposing quarterbacks at will. How Matt Ryan handles San Francisco’s blitzes will play a huge role in this game.
2) Slowing Down Kaepernick
If the Falcons want to stand a chance, it’s imperative that they slow down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who amassed more than 400 total yards of offense against Green Bay last week, rushing for two touchdowns and passing for two more scores. What makes Kaepernick most dangerous is his ability to get out of the pocket and throw on the run. In order for Atlanta to be successful, they need to keep Kaepernick stationary and contain him when he runs the read-option.
3) Fool Me Once, Shame on You. Fool Me Twice….
The 49ers were that close to earning a Super Bowl appearance last year, when they lost at home to the eventual champion New York Giants in overtime, 20-17. Here they are a year later in the same position, only this time they’re heading into the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons went 7-1 during the regular season. Having gotten back to within one game of the Super Bowl for the second straight year, will San Francisco get over the hump, or will Matt Ryan earn his second straight playoff victory having none before 2012? Either will be a hot topic come Monday morning.
Although the Falcons have been basically unbeatable in the Georgia dome over the past several years, history has shown that teams can challenge them there in the playoffs, as they lost to Green Bay in 2011 and narrowly escaping against the Seahawks last week. Despite Colin Kaepernick’s inexperience, he will turn in a good enough performance to go along with a strong outing by the San Francisco defense, and the 49ers will be on their way to New Orleans for a long-awaited Super Bowl appearance.
Score: 38-24, San Francisco