Conference Title Games (Part One)

Championship_NFC_rgbIf the Conference Championship games can provide half as much drama as the Divisional Round, this weekend will go down as one of the greatest in playoff history. There is so much potential on paper. So many possibilities. The story lines and backdrops and the historical undertones of what’s at stake really is setting us up for something special to transpire this Sunday.

We have the greatest quarterback of our generation seeking his 6th Super Bowl appearance – a would-be record. We have two brothers as head coaches who could earn their way to New Orleans….AND if they both win – they’ll be facing off against one another for the Lombardi Trophy. We have the next “great one” seeking to erase a reputation and establish a new legacy. And we have the an all-time great defender who might be playing in his last game ever. There are plenty of story lines but only four teams remain.

Here’s The Spotter’s View on the NFC Title Game and what we can expect to see.

San Francisco 49ers vs Atlanta Falcons

If you’re a regular visitor to my site, you’ve already read my piece on Falcons QB Matt Ryan. If you’re new to The Spotter’s View – here ya go.

It’s clear, after having digested that information, that this game is a legacy-maker for Ryan. He has all the individual skill. The numbers are there. He’s been a winner – in fact – at this point in his career, he’s totaled more wins than any other QB in league history (56 in 77 games). The only thing that’s left for him to achieve in order to quiet his doubters is playoff success. He got win number one last week but now he needs to prove it wasn’t a fluke. This time against a superior team with more talent than American Idol.

The 49ers are back in the NFC Championship for the second year in a row and are coming off their most complete game of the 2012 season. They dominated the Packers in all phases of the Divisional Round. They ran it – at will. They threw it – deep. And they hit. Hard. Really hard. This team is intimidating and physical.

Their offensive line consists of five road-graders, RB Frank Gore is part tank and I can’t be certain but I believe safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner have had their hits register on the Richter Scale. These guys hit so hard that I stand in a doorway when the Niners are on D.

The question is….can they stop Matt Ryan from reaching his Super Bowl moment? Let’s break it down:

The Falcons have the weapons and the trigger man to move the ball on this great 49ers defense. Ryan can be lethal if given time and he benefits from having two of the best WRs in football on his side – Julio Jones and Roddy White. Their presence on the perimeter should force the San Francisco defense to keep their safeties back in coverage and limit their ability to blitz for fear of leaving Jones or White in one-on-one situations. That’s good news for Atlanta but the 49ers can still pressure Ryan with just their front four.

San Francisco runs more games upfront than any team in the league. By games, I’m referring to stunts and twists and slants and anything that involves moving their defensive lineman to create confusion in the protection plan of the offense. The onus will be on the Falcons offensive line to handle those stunts and twists if Ryan is to be successful throwing the ball. Individually though, I’m not sure Atlanta has those parts upfront.

This is a good group but there will certainly be a few breakdowns on Sunday against this movement based pass-rush. One way Atlanta can slow these guys down and help its o-line is to anticipate when the Niners will stunt (3rd and long situations are typical) and utilize some draws and screens to keep these pass rushers off-balance.

Jacquizz Rodgers will be listed as the second RB on the Falcons depth chart against the Niners but he might just be the most important player on the field when the Falcons have the ball. He can be an effective runner (broke a 45-yarder against the Seahawks), he’s a matchup problem in the passing game (amassed 53 catches this season despite playing in a limited role) and he had two phenomenal blitz pickups during the Falcons game-winning drive last week that ultimately allowed Ryan to move the ball into field goal position.

In my opinion, Rodgers has the tools to neutralize the 49ers most reliable defensive scheme – the stunt. If the Falcons guess right a few times and give Rodgers some draws or screens on those 3rd down, stunt-likely situations….he might be able to break a big play or two. It’s also worth noting that Patrick Willis doesn’t typically stay on the field on 3rd down meaning Rodgers will be matched up with Navarro Bowman in these spots. Bowman is excellent in coverage but he doesn’t have the speed to stay with the explosive Rodgers. Think Darren Sproles. Would you want a LB to matchup with Sproles on 3rd Down? No. You don’t want that with Rodgers either. He’s a unique player that can take advantage of Bowman in the passing game – a luxury most teams don’t have.

The importance of staying on schedule with regards to the down-and-distance is also paramount to the Falcons success. This means keeping offensive penalties to a minimum, taking the underneath throws when they’re there and staying committed to the running game – even if it’s not overly successful early on. Although the Falcons have excellent talent on the perimeter and a terrific, young passer orchestrating their attack – it would be in their best interest to follow these guidelines. Putting Ryan in known passing downs against this suffocating group would only make his job that much tougher.

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers are riding the momentum of Colin Kaepernick who burst onto the scene last week with a record-setting performance. He ran for 181 yards as a quarterback scoring twice and threw for another 263 yards adding two more TDs through the air. That’s video game type stuff.

He’ll need to be at his best again down in Atlanta this weekend if the Niners hope to get over the hump and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994.

The good news: Kap has the mindset to deal with the hype. I’ve seen it live three times already (once on MNF vs Chicago in his first NFL start, twice in college vs a much better Boise State team – he won all three). This guy doesn’t get rattled or overwhelmed by the moment.

But he might get confused. That’s what Atlanta is hoping for, anyway.

The Falcons defense disguises coverages better than any team in the league. This season they’ve successfully fooled both Manning brothers and Drew Brees into a combined 10 interceptions! Say that again out loud. Their best chance at winning this game involves fooling Kap – a far less experienced QB than the previously mentioned trifecta.

They key for the Falcons defense will be to stop the running game of the Niners during the early parts of this game, force a few stalled drives and allow Ryan an opportunity to get an early lead. If they can find their way to a 10 point margin or more by half – it may force Kap and the Niners to throw the ball more than they’re comfortable with in the second half. One poor decision or late throw to the outside against a defense that thrives on confusing opposing passers may ruin the 49ers season.

But how can the Falcons stop the most progressive and versatile rushing attack in the NFL? First, you need to take away its’ best play – the read-option. You need physical corners and speed upfront to corral a read-option attack. The Falcons have Dunta Robinson – who did this – and they have Asante Samuel – who did this. Both players are capable of being physical but they need to be willing to do so for four quarters on Sunday. Samuel isn’t always a very reliable tackler – ask an Eagles fan – if he reverts back into the Philadelphia version of himself, the Falcons will lose this game. He and Robinson need to be solid in run support for 60 minutes this week. Missed tackles or poor effort will doom the Falcons. Period.

The Falcons will also have to bring an 8th defender into the box in the hopes of keeping Frank Gore from getting a head of steam. During the early stages of this game, it’s imperative that the Falcons win these two matchups. They NEED to limit Kap’s effectiveness on the read-option. They NEED to get to Gore behind the line of scrimmage and force him to run laterally.

Ultimately, they NEED to force Kap into a one-dimensional, play from behind scenario. If he’s afforded the luxury of play-action and has the comfort level of being able to run at will – none of the Falcons strengths defensively will come into play. Atlanta needs early success against the run so their secondary can do what it does best….bait opposing quarterbacks into bad throws. If they’re successful, I’m betting Kap makes a back-breaking mistake throwing into a coverage he didn’t anticipate.

Overall, this game is extremely interesting. These are two of the new powers in the NFC and possibly in the entire league. The 49ers have been to the Conference Championship game twice in a row. The Falcons, who have been to the Playoffs four of the last five years, are coming off their first post-season win in the Ryan era. I don’t think it’s his last.

This game is a legacy-maker for Ryan. It’s at home and will take place in front of an emotionally charged crowd still fired up from last week’s heroic finish. I like Atlanta’s personnel at the skill positions. Jones and White along with TE Tony Gonzalez represent the best receiving corp left in these playoffs. I think Jacquizz Rodgers – if used properly and in the right situations – can turn a 49er strength (their ability to create pressure by stunting it’s d-line) into a weakness. I LOVE Matt Ryan and his unflappable nature. Those last :34 seconds from a week ago would be daunting to a lot of quarterbacks….they weren’t for Ryan. He can win in tight spots. He can come from behind. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and he’ll understand the importance of not turning the ball over in a game like this against a defense like this.

As entertaining and flashy and dominant Kap was last week and despite his big-game pedigree, I think the Atlanta defense fools him once or twice resulting in momentum shifting turnover. This is Ryan’s game. This is Ryan’s time. I’m taking Atlanta.

Falcons 27, 49ers 21

Can ya blame me? These guys are loose…

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