NFC title game preview: 49ers vs. Falcons
Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
Where: Georgia Dome
Time: 3 p.m.
Records: No. 1 seed Falcons (13-3, 1-0); No. 2 seed 49ers (11-4-1, 1-0).
Point Spread (Danny Sheridan’s odds): San Francisco is favored by 4 with an over of 48.5.
Key Offensive Matchup: The Falcons have to be able to protect quarterback Matt Ryan against a 49ers defense that has six Pro-Bowlers, including linebacker Aldon Smith, who has set an NFL record with 33 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons in the league. Falcons left tackle Sam Baker has had a career season, but he could be matched up at times with Smith and will have to win those matchups to keep the Falcons in the game. The 49ers’ right defensive end Justin Smith has a torn muscle attaching to his left elbow, which has hurt his effectiveness – a factor in the Falcons’ favor. Justin Smith could be matched up against left guard Justin Blalock or Baker. The 49ers also move Aldon Smith around and in passing situations he lines up on the left side against right tackle Tyson Clabo. Clabo said the 49ers try to physically dominate their opponents, a tactic the Falcons must withstand. In particular, rookie right guard Peter Konz has shown his strength to be a weakness at times. If the Falcons can give Ryan time, their wide receivers of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas along with tight end Tony Gonzalez ought to be able to win enough of their matchups against cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and the other pass defenders. For the Falcons, the offensive line is where the game could be won or lost.
Key Defensive Matchup: The 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick ran for 181 yards last week, an NFL record by a quarterback. He reminds many of Carolina’s Cam Newton – a player who has bedeviled the Falcons – especially since both teams use the read option. The Falcons need to make Kaepernick beat them with his arm. Head coach Mike Smith has said the responsibilities of defending Kaepernick on scrambles will change on a play-to-play basis, depending on what defense they are in. That means that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, among others, not only have to track him down but will have to get him to the ground – and tackling has not been a Falcons’ strength this season. Additionally, if defensive end John Abraham, who has been hampered by an ankle injury the last three weeks, can help stop Kaepernick, it will greatly help the Falcons’ cause.
Inactive: For Atlanta: quarterback Dominique Davis, wide receiver Tim Toone, guard Phillipkeith Manley, guard Harland Gunn, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, defensive tackle Travian Robertson, tackle Lamar Holmes; for San Francisco, quarterback Scott Tolzien, safety Trenton Robinson, running back Jewel Hampton, linebacker Cam Johnson, defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie, guard Joe Looney, nose tackle Ian Williams.