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NFL Atlanta FalconsSan Francisco 49ers

49ers at Falcons: 2103 NFL Playoffs NFC Championship Game Preview

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NFC Championship Game

NFC Championship Game
Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

@craigballard77

For the second straight year under Jim Harbaugh we see the San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) in the NFC Championship game. This time they will be on the road as they head to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons (14-3). The 49ers are 5-3 on the road, while the Falcons are 8-1 at home.

This slideshow article will preview things we should look for in this game. We will look at the 49ers passing game and running game, and then do the same with the Falcons (of course we will look at their defenses too). Let's get started with some stat comparisons...

One thing to watch in this game is discipline/penalties as the Falcons were the least penalized team all season, while the 49ers were flagged a ton (especially on the road - only the Cleveland Browns yielded more road penalty yards than the Niners).

These two teams are both excellent at time of possession with the 49ers averaging 31:24 (no.4 in the NFL) and the Falcons are at 30:53 (no.9 in the NFL). Both teams average 2.9 touchdowns per game.

The Falcons average 2.2 takeaways at home (no.6 in the NFL) and the 49ers average 1.9 takeaways per road game (no.7 in the NFL). Hotlanta averages 1.2 giveaways (no.8 in the NFL) while the 49ers average just 1.0 giveaways per game (no.3 in the NFL).

Each of these teams has a top-10 special teams unit. This game will feature a dozen Pro Bowl players. The 49ers have six defenders named to the Pro Bowl, while both teams have three offensive players named to the Pro Bowl.

This game looks very close/tight. Check out the average points per game comparisons: Atlanta 13.7 in the first half at home, San Fran 11.2 first half road points - and in the second half ATL averages 11.4 at home while the Niners get 13.6. That makes the average home points for ATL = 25.1 and the average on the road for the 49ers = 24.8.

Click NEXT in the top right and you can navigate through the different pages of this preview. If you like what you see please do pass it on...

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49ers Passing Game

49ers Passing Game
Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

Over the last two+ months the best total quarterback rating in the National Football League belongs to Colin Kaepernick. He has started four road games for the Niners and they are 2-2, interesting to note that they were 3-1 on the road under Alex Smith. The passing section is not really the right spot for me to talk about why Harbaugh went with Kaepernick over Smith because we will look at that on the 49ers ground game page (next page). Let's take a look at Kaepernick's air production on the road...

He has tossed six touchdowns and three interceptions on the road, previously Smith had tossed six touchdowns and just one pick on the road. A massive difference here is that Smith was sacked a whopping 13 times on the road, while Kaepernick has attempted more passes than Smith and has only been dropped five times (impressive). It is worth noting two things about the offensive line that will look to keep Kaepernick upright in this game...1) they are banged up...but...2) they are extremely good and despite dealing with injuries they have produced for Harbaugh and the offense.

One #RML to watch will be that three times in the last four weeks Kaepernick-to-Michael Crabtree has produced multiple touchdowns. In San Fran's last three victories overall Crabtree has six touchdowns. Since Kaepernick took over he has had Crabtree as his BFF, and we can certainly anticipate double-digit targets in this game. I feel like either one of Dunta Robinson or Asante Samuel can be beat by Crabtree.

Kaepernick does not throw to the tight end very much, but when he does it is to Delanie Walker who has a touchdown catch in each of San Fran's last two road games. Over the past six games (including playoffs) Vernon Davis has just seven catches on 16 targets (same span Walker 14 catches on 24 targets plus a pair of touchdowns). Davis was a star for the 49ers in the 2012 playoffs, but he is struggling a tad currently as he has not scored a touchdown in two months.

Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas is bad in coverage, while on the other side Sean Weatherspoon is good so we will watch to see how Harbaugh uses formations and personnel to set up the match-ups they want with Walker and Davis. We may see the Niners tight ends get more action than usual as the Falcons often struggle vs opposing tight ends in the passing game.

One major story to keep an eye on is the health/status of John Abraham as he is dealing with a wonky ankle. The word is that he should be able to return to practice late this week and should be good to go on Sunday which is surely a must for the Falcons as 7.0 of his 10.0 sacks have come at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons are 7-0 when Abraham records a sack (4-0 at home).

@craigballard77 ...craigballard77@myself.com

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49ers Ground Game

49ers Ground Game
Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE

This 49ers ground game is morphing into something special right before our eyes. Harbaugh wanted to go with Kaepernick over Smith because he believed Kaepernick could add several positive plays throughout the game with his legs, and right here right now we would have say well done! This offense uses I-back, Shotgun, Pistol, etc etc etc formations and they have become so explosive and dangerous through their ground game that it is truly worthy of praise. Their ability to attack so diversely on the ground is causing defenders in the front-7 to become befuddled and confused more and more often which is leading to big romps by either Frank Gore or Kaepernick. LaMichael James is also getting in on the fun lately.

In the Harbaugh era the 49ers are 18-1-1 in games where Gore goes for 75+ yards from scrimmage (rushing + receiving) and incredibly the one loss was last years NFC championship game. Last weekend Gore had his first 100+ game since week seven, but it is worth noting that only four (three rushing and one receiving) of his ten touchdowns have come on the road. On the season Gore averaged 4.7 yards per carry, but that dipped to just 4.1 on the road.

Last weekend the Falcons held the combo of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson to 104 yards on the ground, and they held Lynch to a measly 2.9 yards per carry average. The Falcons did allow a pair of rushing touchdowns.

Not only do guys like Kaepernick and Gore have talent, but the offensive line blocking for them is awesome at run blocking. Center Jonathan Goodwin is improving annually, guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone are fantastic, as are tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis. This is a #RML area of this game that could be a major advantage for the 49ers.

@craigballard77 ... craigballard77@myself.com

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Falcons Air Attack

Falcons Air Attack
Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

The 49ers yield just 200 yards through the air per game. Last week Aaron Rodgers went 26 of 39 for 257 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. His quarterback rating was 91.5 so he had a good game, but not by his standards as the 49ers never really allowed the Green Bay Packers to get in gear with their passing game. This week the 49ers take on Matt Ryan who has 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions at home this season. Ryan won his first playoff game last weekend, but in his four playoff games he has tossed multiple interceptions three times.

I could go on and on about how special Tony Gonzalez is, but you already know that. If you add up all of the receiving yards in NFL history from every tight end that played as a 36 year old it would add up to 557, but this season the future Hall Of Fame tight end had 930. What? 373 more yards than all other 36 year olds ever combined?!?! Astonishing. Gonzalez was much better on the road this season than at home, but he was massive in last weeks Divisional round victory.

#RML match-ups will be Julio Jones and Roddy White vs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. Opposing quarterbacks have not had much success vs Brown, but Rogers has been beat often this season. The Falcons want to throw to their wide receivers a lot so we will watch these four closely this Sunday, plus Dashon Goldson is a guy who can help in coverage too.

Ryan took 17 of his 28 sacks at the Georgia Dome, and the 49ers had 21 of their 38 sacks on the road. Aldon Smith had 7.5 of his 19.5 sacks on the road, but he has as many sacks in his last four games as you or I have, which is to say - zero. The 49ers are 8-1-1 when Smith records a sack, 5-0 on the road. Justin Smith is back and he figures he will be more comfortable in this game as it will be the second time he will be wearing a brace to protect his triceps. Smith and Smith have formed an awesome duo who have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks for the majority of this season, and they will need to be disruptive and effective in this game.

@craigballard77 ... craigballard77@myself.com

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Falcons Running Game

Falcons Running Game
Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

Veteran Michael Turner had 800 rushing yards this season which was his lowest in his five years as a Falcon, but he did average 4.4 yards per carry at the Georgia Dome plus seven of his 11 touchdowns have come at home (six rushing, and one receiving). Last weekend he had 98 yards on just 14 carries, but it was the first time in the last six home games where he did not take one to the house. I would think in this game that the Falcons will require at least one (to be honest perhaps two) touchdowns from Turner on Sunday.

Turner has his most success when he runs to the right so we will watch the battle of offensive lineman Todd McClure, Peter Konz, and Tyson Clabo vs the rush defense of Ray McDonald, Ahmad Brooks, and Navorro Bowman. Overall the 49ers yield just 3.4 yards per carry on the road which is the best in the NFL.

Overall San Fran is no.4 against the run, and only three teams allowed fewer than the seven rushing touchdowns allowed by the Niners this season. On the road San Fran allows an average of just 82.2 yards per game on the ground (only the Washington Redskins at 81.2 were better) while the Falcons average 126 rushing yards at home (that makes them the no.8 home rushing team in the NFL). Hotlanta was 5-1 this season at home when Turner took one to the house.

As the Rant Sports 2013 NFL Playoffs Insider I will have an X-factor article for this game later this week, but spoiler alert one name mentioned could well be Jacquizz Rodgers. The second year running back had four games this season where he had 70+ yards from scrimmage, but he is hot as he has 70+ in each of his last two games.

The Falcons want to throw the football, but they need a contribution from the running game too. Not a massive contribution, but still this team gets 96 yards per game in their wins but just 48 when they lose. Turner averages 60 rushing yards in wins, and a measly 22 in losses.

@craigballard77 ... craigballard77@myself.com

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49ers at Falcons

49ers at Falcons
Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

I thought that the Seattle Seahawks would eliminate the Falcons last weekend, but Matty Ice got a massive monkey off his back with a pair of late passes that set up a somewhat miraculous game-winning field goal. I think that the Seahawks ran out of gas as they had a remarkable run, but I do not see this 49ers team losing steam. I give the Falcons full marks for winning last weekend, but I feel like this 49ers team is a different animal and they are seemingly getting better weekly.

Last season the 49ers were this close to winning the NFC, but a few special team bloopers cost them. I have faith that Harbaugh will have these guys preparred to play a great game and win convincingly.

At the beginning of the season I picked the Falcons to win the NFC, but I am taking the 49ers to win this game based on what I have seen from them lately. The 49ers seem destined to earn a birth to Super Bowl XLVII.

Thank you for checking out my work! If you enjoyed the read please do pass it on...

As the 2013 NFL Playoffs Insider for Rant Sports I have a game preview of Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots RIGHT HERE.

All of my NFL articles are RIGHT HERE.

@craigballard77 ... craigballard77@myself.com

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