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10 reasons Falcons can beat Niners
Play of Matt Ryan, slumping Aldon Smith will aid Atlanta
Originally Published: January 17, 2013
By KC Joyner | ESPN Insider
The 1972 Miami Dolphins won all 17 games they played that year but they could never defeat a perception problem.
According to pro-football-reference.com, the unbeaten Dolphins were considered a pick 'em selection for their AFC divisional and title games and were underdogs against the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
The reasons for this lack of respect stemmed from Miami being seen as a team that racked up its unbeaten record against weak competition and it was assumed the Dolphins would falter once they squared off against playoff-caliber opponents.
This year's Atlanta Falcons are not unbeaten but in many ways they look to be in the same boat, as they are considered underdogs against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
This is understandable at some level considering that, according to a study done by ESPN Stats & Information, the Falcons had the easiest schedule in the NFL this year. Add that to their late-game collapse against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC divisional round and the 49ers' dominant win over the Green Bay Packers and it's easy to see why Atlanta has perception issues.
Having noted those, the truth of the matter is there are at least 10 reasons to think that the Falcons will be like the '72 Dolphins and show the world their underdog status is undeserved.
Matty Ice is more than just a cool nickname
The general takeaway from that Seahawks-Falcons game is Seattle's comeback grit, but it should be remembered just as much for Matt Ryan's moxie in driving his team 41 yards in only 23 seconds to set up a game-winning field goal.
This type of occurrence has become second nature for Ryan as, according to pro-football-reference.com, during the regular season he led the Falcons on a game-winning drive (defined as an offensive score in the fourth quarter or overtime that puts the winning team ahead for the last time) on seven occasions this season, a number that ties him with Andrew Luck for best in the league.
The Falcons' ability to dominate top-level secondaries
AP Photo/David Goldman
Atlanta's receivers decimated a talented Seattle secondary.
To get a true sense of just how strong the Falcons' passing offense is, consider that last week Ryan posted an incredibly high 85.4 Total QBR mark against a secondary that has a Pro Bowl free safety (Earl Thomas), a rare shutdown cornerback who has terrific ball hawking skills (eight interceptions) and should have made the Pro Bowl (Richard Sherman), a very good cornerback who has nine picks over the past two seasons (Brandon Browner) and one of the most feared hitters in the NFL (Kam Chancellor). If the Falcons could post great numbers against this group, there isn't a secondary in the NFL that Atlanta should fear.
The 49ers' pass defense may not be as good as is generally thought
San Francisco finished second in the league in passing yards per attempt (6.1) and placed six defensive players on the 2013 Pro Bowl squad, and yet this group ended up finishing 15th in Total QBR allowed to opposing teams. That number indicates this platoon does not fare as well in the area of situational football as their overall numbers indicate.
The game is likely to be a shootout
Atlanta scored 20 or more points in all but two of its games this year and San Francisco allowed 31 or more points in three of its past four games.
That trend points toward this game potentially being a shootout. A game of that nature would favor the Falcons, as they are 6-3 this year in contests in which the other team scores 20 or more points. By contrast, the 49ers are 4-3-1 in games in which the opponent scores 20 or more points. In addition, it should be noted that San Francisco scored fewer than 20 points in five games this year, including two of its past six in total and two of its past three on the road.
Colin Kaepernick tends to struggle when forced to throw the ball often
A shootout doesn't look to favor Kaepernick. He has thrown the ball 30 or more times on three occasions this year and two of those games resulted in his lowest YPA totals of his season.
This is not merely a pro-level trend for Kaepernick, as he had a solid but not spectacular 131.6 passer rating in the 13 games in college in which he threw 30 or more passes. Those mediocre figures were also skewed by a couple of games against creampuff opponents and thus indicate Kaepernick has had very little consistent collegiate/pro success when forced to be a high-volume passer.
In roughly half a season as an NFL starter and his last two years as a college starter, Kaepernick has been appreciably better at home than on the road.
For proof, check out his home/road splits in that time frame:
Kaepernick Home/Road Splits
Season Home/Away Pass Comp Pass Att Pass Yds YPA TD Int Rush att Rush Yds YPC TD
2012 NFL Home 83 130 1173 9.0 6 1 44 359 8.2 5
2012 NFL Away 70 119 904 7.6 6 3 35 237 6.8 2
2009-10 CFB Home 199 306 2628 8.6 20 2 163 1402 8.6 23
2009-10 CFB Away 165 273 2077 7.6 19 10 173 984 5.7 13
All home -- 282 436 3801 8.7 26 3 207 1761 8.5 28
All away -- 235 392 2981 7.6 25 13 208 1221 5.9 15
That's more than a yard of drop-off in yards per attempt (YPA), a huge increase in interceptions and more than 2 yards of difference in rush yards per carry (YPC).
Those numbers might partially explain why, over the course of his football career, Kaepernick is 21-5 at home and 16-11 on the road. That doesn't bode well for a 49ers club that lost two of its last three road games this season.
Read-option runs are not likely to win this game for San Francisco
The Falcons faced four read-option quarterbacks this year (Cam Newton twice, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) and they allowed that trio to gain 269 yards on 26 rush attempts, numbers that would seem to suggest that the read-option will be a huge problem for Atlanta.
The issue with that assessment is those numbers were mostly compiled via two long gains by Newton (a 32-yard read-option run in Week 4 and a 72-yard read-option touchdown run in Week 14). Take those plays out of the equation and Atlanta gave up 165 rush yards on 24 carries in four games to read-option quarterbacks, so for the most part the Falcons were able to keep this type of running in check.
It should also be noted that prior to his record-setting performance against Green Bay (which was assisted by the Packers' odd defensive game plan and lack of in-game adjustments), Kaepernick's best rushing total of the season was an 84-yard mark against the Rams in Week 13 that was bolstered by a 50-yard scramble. San Francisco's offense has not revolved around Kaepernick's read-option running for most of the year and Atlanta should be able to make sure that doesn't happen this week.
San Francisco gives up a lot of sacks
John Abraham's injury will hurt Atlanta's pass rush but let's not forget that San Francisco ended the year with the third highest sack-allowed percentage in the NFL (8.7). Some of that had to do with the frequent use of single-read plays where Alex Smith didn't have the first receiver open and then couldn't make a play with his feet, but Kaepernick also has a fairly high sack percentage this year. Joe Staley's injury could also impact this matchup and help the Falcons tally a couple of big plays in this category.
Aldon Smith isn't the same without a fully healthy Justin Smith
From Week 4 of the 2011 season through Week 14 of the 2012 season, Aldon Smith had at least one sack in 21 out of 28 games and never went more than two games in a row without a sack.
Over the past four games, he has not posted a single sack and that streak perfectly dovetails with Justin Smith's injury. This pass rush simply isn't the same without these two being able to work together at full speed and Atlanta's pass protection should benefit accordingly.
Atlanta has a significant edge at kicker
This could very well be a close game that comes down to which team can convert a higher percentage of field goals. That factor favors Atlanta since David Akers, San Francisco's specialist in this area, had the second worst field goal percentage among qualifying kickers this year.
Put all 10 of these advantages together and it should be enough to see Atlanta win a game that is just as much a battle for respect as it is for a berth in Super Bowl XLVII.