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Who cares that the Falcons are 4.5 point underdogs at home? Let's talk about these Georgia Aquarium otters rooting for the Falcons instead.
Vegas doesn’t think the Falcons will beat the 49ers on Sunday. And the experts at ESPN, except for Chris Mortenson and Keyshawn Johnson, apparently, don’t think so, either. So, we should probably just give up, right? Because it’s a lost cause, clearly. I mean, who can argue with logic like, "Mike Smith is the worst coach left in the playoffs, because what if the Falcons had actually lost on Sunday?" Thanks, Adam Schein, for clearing that up for us.
Dave covered all of the disrespect beautifully earlier today, and thankfully, media perspectives don’t actually play a role in determining who wins and loses games. For clarification, please see media coverage of the week 13 matchup between the Saints and Falcons, and week 15, when the Falcons welcomed the New York Giants to the Georgia Dome, and for good measure, read up on a little Falcons at Eagles, specifically regarding Andy Reid’s invincibility after a bye. What all of these perspectives have in common is that they turned out to be errant. So, let’s look at some actual objective facts about Sunday’s game instead. Novel concept, I know.
This is, without a doubt, Matt Ryan’s best season yet. Not only did he finish the regular season with career-best passing yards with 4,719, and touchdowns, with 32, but he just achieved his first postseason win, which was also statistically his best postseason performance.
San Francisco’s defense is aggressive, and they can get after the opposing quarterback. Atlanta’s offensive line is going to have to hold up, and effective run blocking will be beneficial, as any kind of ground game will help to pull safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson out of coverage, soften up the front seven, and make it easier to establish the pass.
Speaking of the ground game, how great was it against the Seahawks on Sunday? Seattle’s run defense had been stout this season, ranked 10th in the league and allowing 103.1 yards per game, and San Francisco’s is actually slightly better than Seattle’s, ranked 4th in the league in the regular season, and allowing an average of 94.2 yards per game. It will be no easy task on Sunday, but Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling don’t have to put up hundreds of yards on the ground; they just need to do enough on Sunday.
If there’s one aspect of San Francisco’s defense that’s a favorable matchup for Atlanta, it’s their secondary. Their cornerbacks, Chris Culliver and Carlos Rogers, are both solid, and their aforementioned safeties are both Pro Bowlers this season, but Roddy White and Julio Jones are difficult to cover. Tony Gonzalez is very physical, which will help him against San Francisco’s linebackers, particularly Patrick Willis, who is very solid in pass coverage. Safety Donte Whitner may also be assigned to cover Tony, and according to my new friend East Bay Sports Guy, Whitner misses a lot of tackles and allows a high percentage of completions, which can be dangerous against talent like Gonzalez. According to data from FootballOutsiders.com, San Francisco’s defensive effectiveness drops when covering a receiver other than a number one or number two, so Sunday may be an opportunity for Harry Douglas to shine. Heck, throw touchdowns to Mike Johnson, if that helps.
San Francisco placed both Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams on injured reserve this season, so Randy Moss, aging but talented, and Michael Crabtree, who seems to have excellent chemistry with Colin Kaepernick, are their top receivers. Vernon Davis is also a coverage concern, seeing as how Seattle tight end Zach Miller looked like he was superhuman against Atlanta last week.
San Francisco’s offensive line is also very reliable. They do an excellent job of run blocking and pass blocking. Add to this a very mobile quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, and Frank Gore, an excellent running back, and it’s clear that the Falcons will need to be on their game.
John Abraham’s injury is definitely a concern, as is Jonathan Babineaux’s. Having a healthy, effective defensive line will be fundamentally important in containing Kaepernick. Keep an eye on Vance Walker, who, according to Pro Football Focus, is somewhat of an unsung hero this season, and Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon’s respective speed can be an asset against a mobile quarterback like Kaepernick. Also, Dunta Robinson has been excellent against the run this season, and he will definitely need to be on Sunday.
Good field position will help the offense against an aggressive defense like San Francisco’s, so a decent return game on Sunday will be important. Conversely, the Falcons definitely want to make Kaepernick work for it, so pinning them deep will be imperative. Please, for the love of all that is sacred and holy, don’t let us see any weird squib kicks on Sunday.
The main thing with special teams play on Sunday is, if this game comes down to Matt Bryant’s leg, it will be a win for the Falcons. And if it comes down to David Akers’ leg for the Niners, I wouldn’t be so certain.
Home Field Advantage:
Falcons fans showed the world what home field advantage looked, and sounded, like in the Georgia Dome last Sunday. Expect it to be even louder this Sunday. It will most certainly be a hostile environment for Kaepernick, who will be making his eighth career start after a long flight to Atlanta.
In press conferences and interviews, the Falcons seem focused and ready. They know what’s at stake. They want this win. And, what we’ve seen from this team time after time this season is a will to win--even when they aren’t playing their best football, even when Matt Ryan throws five interceptions in one game, even when Seattle mounts a huge comeback in the second half of a playoff game, they find ways to win. They’re not a "trendy" pick, and that’s okay. Apparently the Tony Gonzalez "future Hall-of-Famer achieving playoff success for the first time in his storied career" angle isn’t interesting enough, and that’s fine, too. The Falcons don’t need that validation. They just need to win, and I anticipate that they will, as they have done over and over again this season, find a way to prevail.