By Kevin York
I debated on if I should write game previews for the NFC and AFC Championships. After all, the last time I did this, and first time I did a preview on this blog, it didn’t work out so well, did it? Oh well, life goes on. At least after I spent Saturday night and Sunday angry, bitter and constantly muttering about how the Packers didn’t prepare the right way, how ridiculous it was that they weren’t prepared for San Francisco since even I knew how San Francisco would attack them. I mean, if I’m a sports blogger I’m supposed to make irrational statements like that, right?
So, yes, it’s time to move on and do another preview. This one may even be better because I don’t have any emotion behind it…other than hating the 49ers.
The Atlanta Falcons are in an odd position of being the number one overall seed, playing at home, yet being the underdog. They’re the higher seed. And it’s not like they have Peyton Manning playing for them or anything (too soon?).
In all seriousness, Atlanta started the season on fire and were the last team in the league to take a loss. Yet, there was just something about them that didn’t seem complete. No one seemed to give them the same type of respect that another team might receive for accomplishing the same feat. Even looking back at our NFL Power Five that we did throughout the season and posted to our Facebook page on a weekly basis, I could see a clear bias against the Falcons. It’s like we found ways to rank other teams ahead of them, even teams with more losses.
So why the bias against the dirty birds?
In all honesty, I think it’s because the Falcons are a team that flies under the radar (pun intended). There’s not a lot of hype about them. They’ve really taken on the model of their head coach. They’re pretty workman-like in their style and they don’t do much to draw attention to themselves. They have an offense that can be high powered with Matt Ryan connecting with Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. On the other hand, they have an offense that can also grind it out behind the running of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. In fact, it often seems to be one or the other. For some reason they struggle to find a balance blending the two, as head coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter sometimes appear to forget they have such a strong running game and shy away from it.
Nonetheless, the offense has the potential to be powerful. Matt Ryan improved greatly from last year to this year and I think defenses had to respect him more. The playoff win last week really got a monkey off his back so I expect him to play a bit looser this week. He showed a lot of poise by driving the Falcons into position for Matt Bryant to kick the game winning field goal – especially after the Falcons had a significant lead which they’d blown earlier.
On the defensive side of the ball, I think Atlanta’s pass rush is pretty underrated. The front four applied some nice pressure to Russell Wilson last week against a Seattle offensive line that has played very solidly all year long; however, that front four, front seven really, struggled to defend Cam Newton as a runner in two meetings this year. On Sunday, they’ll face a similar quarterback in Colin Kaepernick so he could certainly create some problems for them.
Atlanta’s secondary is a solid unit, but they raised some questions with the way they allowed Seattle back into the game last week.
I still think their defensive game plan comes down to containing Kaepernick. Green Bay wasn’t able to do it. The Falcons use a base 4-3 defense while Green Bay was using a 3-4. Is the 4-3 better suited to defend a running quarterback attacking you with a read option? I’m not totally sure. I think it’s more dependent on your total team speed. Is Atlanta a faster overall defense than Green Bay? Maybe a little, but they don’t jump out at me as blazers.
San Francisco 49ers
I think San Francisco is the heavy favorite. Yes, they are going cross country and playing in a very, very loud indoor stadium, but they’ve been playing much better than Atlanta as of late. While Atlanta struggled with Seattle, San Francisco put on a convincing second half against Green Bay and handedly beat them.
When you look at San Francisco’s offense, it jumps out at me that this unit is now the strength of the team. I mentioned that in my initial thoughts after the divisional round games, but I really can’t get over it. When I look at the weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities of that team, I now see less with the offense than I do with the defense. The element Kaepernick brings with his running has really evolved their attack. He brings something different than a running quarterback like Robert Griffin. Kaepernick has a bigger body, so he appears to be a little more capable of sustaining hits, but more importantly, he looks to throw as he’s rolling out. Now, his field vision can use some work, but when a guy’s running like that, a defense doesn’t really have as much time to focus on where his eyes are looking as he’s going through his progressions.
On a side note, I find the increasing use of the read option by NFL teams very interesting. The option is an offensive play that was actually used for years by teams that had inferior talent, either in size or speed or both. It was a way of tricking the defense and using some sleight of hand to gain an advantage over a team that had more talent than you. That’s the reason that in college football, a team like Air Force is able to compete with teams that have much more size, speed and strength. Air Force traditionally has run not just an option, but a triple option offense (My high school football team, consistently ranked near the top of our division, played one conference team every year, the same one, who ran a triple option offense. It was always one of the hardest games to prepare for even though they were never one of the best teams we’d play. The offense is a pain in the ass to defend and speaking from experience, it really does take away a team’s speed and size advantages). They have to because they don’t have 300 pound linemen. Those guys can’t do the necessary military drills and exercises if they’re that huge. Knowing that history associated with the option offense, I find it somewhat ironic that it’s now being used by NFL offenses to further utilize the speed (and with Kaepernick, the size) of skilled offensive players as an advantage rather than using it to combat larger and faster defenders. In high school I always sort of viewed those running the option as unable to run a “real” offense.
My thoughts on San Francisco’s defense are well versed on this blog. I don’t think they’re quite as good as everyone else seems to think are. However, against Atlanta, I think they match up pretty well. The only potential difficulty they could face is the running game of Atlanta. The 49ers haven’t been quite as good against the run late this year as they were last year and at the beginning of this season. In fact, the Packers even did a decent job of running the ball on them and they don’t have a star running back. Atlanta has a nice mix of power and speed with Turner and Rodgers. That has the potential to create problems for San Francisco because it could pull one of their two safeties into the box to defend the run, opening up Atlanta’s passing game. Against Green Bay it was easier. You dare the Packers to run on you and leave two safeties back, out of the box, to make sure you can defend Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. It’s not quite as easy with Atlanta. Vic Fangio will be forced to make more decisions with his defensive schemes, probably bringing Donte Whitner in to support stopping the run.
The Final Word
So who’s going to win? That’s right, I’m actually going to predict a winner. Now that my team is out, I have no qualms about predicting a winner.
All the momentum in the world is with San Francisco right now. They’re the hotter team and probably the stronger team at this point. It would take someone out of their mind to pick Atlanta to win this game. That’s exactly why I heavily considered it. It’s just a gut feeling, one of those scenarios where you just know the game won’t play out like everyone predicts it to. I think Atlanta will actually be the looser team since all the pressure is on San Francisco. Atlanta knows no one thinks they can win this game. They’ll use it as motivation all week and I think it’ll push them to come out hot. If they get a big lead, that’s the recipe needed for beating San Francisco. Trying to come from behind takes some of Kaepernick’s abilities away from him because it doesn’t allow him to be quite as free with his decision-making. You can’t use a read option offense when you’re down two touchdowns or more. Let’s also not forget that this week Colin Kaepernick made his first appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The SI cover jinx is well documented. Seriously, look at that list. It’s long. Way longer than I realized. Let’s also not forget my past comparisons of Jim Harbaugh to Rex Ryan. It would be the ultimate validation of my comparisons for Jimmy to lose his second straight conference championship in only his second season (Rex’s Jets lost two straight AFC championships in his first two years).
All that said, as much as I’d like to pick against San Francisco, I can’t do it. There’s a simple reason that I can’t do it. I want San Francisco to lose. That, of course, means they will win. Buy your tickets and book your Super Bowl flights, Niner fans.
You can read The Couchletes’ preview of the AFC Championship game here.