The Atlanta Falcons are one of only two NFC teams that Jim Harbaugh has not faced so far in San Francisco (Carolina being the other). That changes today when the top two seeds in the NFC face off for a trip to the Super Bowl. It marks the first time that the Falcons have ever hosted a NFC Championship game.
Atlanta comes in as a sizable 4.5 point underdog at home, the largest home underdog in a championship game going back to 1978. It’s understandable that the 49ers would be a slight favorite despite being on the road, as they have looked amazing when they play at their best. The season long results would suggest it should be closer to one point (basically a toss up), with the difference being the public reacting to Kaepernick’s amazing game and Atlanta almost squandering a 20 point halftime lead.
We now have an almost equal number of games to assess the move to Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. He’s been better as a passer, and also adds a tremendous dynamic as a runner. Kaepernick is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt to Smith’s 8.0, and in addition to being a great runner when he escapes the pocket, is also taking far fewer sacks than Smith (which was one of my biggest knocks against Smith over the last few years, holding the ball too long). All told, he’s been about a yard better per play when we account for sacks, and that doesn’t get into the boost his running out of scrambles and read option keepers provides.
One of the positives out of that game for Atlanta was the running game, which had been anemic most of the year. Atlanta gashed Seattle for some big runs with both Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, and if they are successful into getting Matt Ryan into manageable situations, and can also pick up short yardage, it makes Atlanta more dangerous.
Two defensive stars for either team have struggled with injuries, and their effectiveness today will be a key factor. John Abraham did not play in the second half of Seattle’s big comeback, and his absence was noticed. He is the lone true pass rusher that dictates attention, and Atlanta needs him to be effective rushing Kaepernick. He is expected to go.
On the other side, Justin Smith plays a vital role in San Francisco’s scheme, eating up blocks and drawing attention. Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks on the year, but has not had a sack in four straight games since fellow Missouri alumnus Justin Smith got hurt with a triceps injury. The rush defense has also allowed 4.5 yards per carry over the last four games, a yard per carry more than the rest of the year.
Atlanta is 8-2 in close games this year, with Ryan leading seven late drives to win. San Francisco, meanwhile, is 8-2 in games that were not decided by one score, and when they get rolling, they can be tough to stop. You know that Atlanta would like to play the counterpuncher role here, converting on long drives where they make plays on third down, and limiting Kaepernick’s opportunities to make big plays.
The line: San Francisco by 4.5
The pick: San Francisco 27 Atlanta 24
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]