Both teams have been tested time and time again this season, persevering through countless battles of will. Still, only one team will emerge from this weekend with a ticket to the big game in hand. As the old saying goes: this one is for all of the marbles.
So who has the leg up? My money is on the 49ers, who are riding a tsunami-sized wave of momentum following their resounding victory over the Green Bay Packers last weekend. The key reason, though, is because of Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who is quickly proving to the entire NFL just how dynamic of a gunslinger he can be.
Since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the 49ers starter, he has made a mockery of opposing defenses and their abilities to contain him as both a passer and runner. Combining an outstanding arm with a superhuman ability to pick up yards with his feet, Kaepernick has quickly become one of NFL’s biggest underdog stories. Can the Falcons find a way to slow Kaepernick down or will he make them his next victim?
If they play the way they played against the Seattle Seahawks last weekend, the Falcons won’t stand a chance. Throughout the second half, the Atlanta defense sat back in zone and watched as rookie quarterback Russell Wilson took advantage of the open holes in the secondary. Although they limited his effectiveness as a runner, their conservative coverage allowed the Seahawks to whittle away at the lead. It’s going to take a much more aggressive, complex approach in order to keep Kaepernick from obliterating the scoreboard.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, even blitzing and putting pressure on Kaepernick might not be the answer. When the Packers tried to send extra defenders at him last weekend, instead of panicking due to the collapsing pocket, Kaepernick used his tremendous instincts and vision to find an escape route. Time and time again, he maneuvered his way through the traffic and found open field. Hence the record-breaking 181 rushing yards on the day.
To top it off, the Falcons didn’t really prove throughout the 2012 campaign that they were capable of keeping running quarterbacks under wraps. Although they only played three games against “dual-threat” quarterbacks, they gave up a total of 210 yards – including a 116-yard performance from Cam Newton. No offense to the Carolina Panthers, but Atlanta will have much more to worry about against the 49ers offense, which could also make wrangling Kaepernick a difficult task.
No matter how they play it, it’s going to be quite a challenge for the Falcons to keep Kaepernick from running rampant on their defense. He’s playing with confidence, swagger and everything in between that equates to a legitimate Super Bowl run.
When Kaepernick was handed the keys to the 49ers offense, I called him the next Randall Cunningham. If he continues to play at the level we’ve been seeing, comparisons won’t be necessary; he’ll be on a level of his own.