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NFC Championship, One Falcon To Watch: Mike Smith

The genteel coach is still under a lot of pressure as the Falcons head into the NFC Conference Championship.

Kevin C. Cox

The Atlanta Falcons head into their first conference championship since 2004 with an underdog's line and plenty to prove. That's why I'll be watching Mike Smith in this one.

In all of the team's wins and losses both big and small in the last five years, we've gotten to see Smitty at his best and worst. At his best, he's a great player's coach with a nuanced understanding of managing games and a mastery of how to get the best out of his players. At his worst, he does a poor job handling the clock and he's not nearly aggressive enough with a lead, which makes too many potential blowouts turn into close games.

If you balance everything out, take into account his record and what came before him and look at where the Falcons stand, you should conclude that Smitty is a good-to-great coach. But as we saw a week ago, those flaws can lead to some heart attack moments.

This game will be close. The 49ers have a ton of talent, the Falcons seem to specialize in close games and the talent level is pretty comparable, though certain the Falcons are the strong passing team and the 49ers the better defensive one. It may well come down to coaching, and Smitty versus Jim Harbaugh is thus the matchup worth watching here.

So watch Smith and the team's strategy closely in this one. It ought to be a great NFC Championship Game.