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NFC Championship Preview
In a game where the home team has suddenly become the underdog, the Falcons and 49ers face off for a shot at the Super Bowl
By Bill Barnwell on January 18, 2013
It's fair to say that the San Francisco 49ers looked pretty good last week. How good? Facing off against a quarterback who is 34-61 at home during his professional career, they're about to be the biggest road favorites in a conference championship since 1978.2 That's how good they looked. And yet, there are reasons to wonder whether they'll be that same team again this week. This is the same team that summarily dispatched 2011 playoff teams in consecutive weeks to start the season before losing by double digits to the Vikings, the same one that then destroyed the Jets and Bills by a combined 76 points before getting blown out by 23 points at home by the Giants, the team that went up 31-3 on the Patriots and was outscored by 50 points over its next six quarters.
Jekyll and Hyde isn't a 49ers thing; it's a football truth. There have been 29 instances of what the 49ers did last week — win by 14 or more points as a 2.5-to-3.5-point favorite — since 1978, and in the following playoff game, those teams went 14-15. Momentum doesn't mean anything heading into the playoffs, and it doesn't mean anything when you get there. You don't get to take your points with you to the next round.
So, does that all guarantee a Falcons victory? Well, not so fast. After all, the 49ers looked pretty damn good last week.
In writing about Colin Kaepernick, I am making the not-entirely-supported-by-reality assumption that he's mortal. I generally try to use objective evidence to back up my opinions, but mortal humans don't take snaps and run for 181 yards in the playoffs, so the evidence isn't really in my favor here. If he turns out to be a Cylon, please ignore this section of the preview.
It seems really clear: If the Falcons want to continue on their path to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, they're going to have to get past the superstar quarterback standing in the middle of the road stiff-arming anyone who tries to tackle him. It's not impossible to imagine the 49ers winning a game in which Kaepernick struggles, but it feels so incredibly unlikely that the Falcons would be able to pull out a victory in a game where Kaepernick looks anything like the guy he was last week. So, let's try to figure out if they have any prayer of slowing Kaepernick and the San Francisco offense.
It's safe to say that the Packers didn't do the best job of game planning for Kaepernick and the pistol heading into last week. They had a good excuse: The 49ers stopped running it. San Francisco barely ran the pistol in Week 16 and did not use it whatsoever during their Week 17 tilt with the Cardinals, letting it disappear off of film and make its way out of the attention of Green Bay's defenders. Then, after practicing heavily out of the pistol all week, they lined up in the formation for about half of their offensive snaps against the Packers. Clay Matthews might still be spinning and trying to figure out which 49ers player is carrying the ball.
In a way, we know that the Falcons can't be as unprepared for the Pistol and the threat of Kaepernick running the football as the Packers were last week. The 49ers might have a few new wrinkles up their sleeve for Sunday's matchup, but the sort of wholesale scheme change is something you can only pull off once per postseason. The Jets did it most recently, switching to a heavy zone package from a man-to-man scheme overnight to surprise the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs and pull off a huge upset victory, but they lost in the subsequent round to the Steelers.
On the other hand, the 49ers could also just beat up the Atlanta front seven the same way they beat up the Packers. Ben Muth of Football Outsiders did a great job of breaking down just how extensively San Francisco whupped the likes of B.J. Raji. If the 49ers execute to perfection up front, they can run any offense they'd like and they'll be able to beat the Falcons. That's how good their offensive line is.
Atlanta really hasn't had much success against the read option this year, either. The most similar opponent the Falcons had to Kaepernick's bunch would be the two times they played Cam Newton and the Panthers. Carolina managed to run the ball down Atlanta's throat in September and December, producing 394 rushing yards on 67 attempts across the two games, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. Scarily, Newton was the biggest weapon in those rushing attacks, as he ran for 202 yards on 18 carries, with runs for 52 and 72 yards. On the other hand, when the Falcons faced Robert Griffin III, he only ran once for seven yards, a run that ended with Griffin slipping as he scrambled and being knocked out of the game with a concussion. Alfred Morris had 115 yards on 18 carries in that game. The Falcons did do an effective job against Marshawn Lynch last week, limiting him to 46 yards on 16 carries, but Lynch was clearly at less than 100 percent, and Russell Wilson was able to pick up 60 yards and a touchdown on his seven carries. The jury's still out, but it doesn't appear that Atlanta has all that much luck against teams who employ the sort of attack the 49ers will likely show off this Sunday.
But He's Such a Good Athlete!
If San Francisco really want to surprise the Falcons with a sudden change in their game plan, they might want to consider throwing the ball to Vernon Davis a few times. One of the casualties of the Kaepernick Revolution in San Francisco has been Davis's role in the passing game. After catching six passes for 83 yards in Kaepernick's first start, that Monday Night Football blowout of the Bears, Davis simply hasn't been a part of the passing attack. In San Francisco's seven subsequent games, Davis has a total of seven catches for 105 yards. He had seven catches for 180 yards against the Saints alone in the playoffs last season. For whatever reason, he's simply fallen out of favor and stopped getting targets; he has a ton of value as a blocker and a possible decoy, so it's not like he doesn't deserve to be in the lineup, but it's bizarre for a player so talented to be thrown so few passes.
That's a disappointing fact for the 49ers, too, because the Falcons are somewhat susceptible to passes in the direction of tight ends. Football Outsiders has a split for their core stat, DVOA, that separates out what each team defense has done against players in a given role within each offense. Per that split, Atlanta has been brilliant against starting wideouts this season, ranking seventh in DVOA on throws to the opposing team's best wide receiver and tops in football in DVOA on throws to the second-best wideout. The only place where they're below average, not coincidentally for the terms of this paragraph, is against tight end. There, the Falcons rank 21st. If San Francisco ever wants to get Davis back involved with the passing offense, now is the time.
And if there's any place the 49ers have truly improved with Kaepernick at the helm, it's been in the red zone, where his ever-present running threat and athleticism have stretched teams to the bri—
Sorry, had you going there for a second. Did you know that the 49ers are actually significantly worse in the red zone with Colin Kaepernick at the helm than they were under Alex Smith? Doesn't that seem weird? Somehow, it's true. During San Francisco's first nine games this season, the offense averaged 5.2 points per trip inside their opposition's 20-yard line, a figure that would rank fourth in the league if they kept it up over the entire season. Once Kaepernick came in, things changed. Even after a brilliant performance against the Bears in his first start, the 49ers were decidedly worse with Kaepernick under center in the red zone. In his 29 trips to the red zone, Kaepernick could only muster 4.1 points per possession, which would actually be the third-worst red zone offense in football if it held up over a full season. It's a pretty scary drop, but then again, the 49ers also performed brilliantly against the Packers in the red zone last week, so all bets might be off there.
San Francisco's defense obviously doesn't have these problems. The brutal, aggressive 49ers defense attacks opposing offenses and makes points disappear in the red zone, where the—
Nope, got you again. They're terrible in the red zone on defense, too. San Francisco gave up 5.3 points per trip inside the 20 this year, which was the fourth-worst rate in the league, as only the Titans, Bills, and Chargers were worse. Their secret is to not let teams get into the red zone to begin with, as the Niners have allowed a league-low 36 trips to the red zone this year. They're not bend-but-don't-break; they're don't-bend-and-ah-what-the-hell-go-score.
Atlanta, meanwhile, has been a very good team in the red zone on both sides of the ball. Only the Patriots and Broncos made more trips to the red zone this year than the Falcons' offense, and they averaged 5.1 points per attempt, which was the sixth-best performance in the league. And the Atlanta defense only allowed 4.2 points per trip inside their 20, the fourth-best figure in the NFL. So if Atlanta's looking for a place where they hold the advantage, it might be in those spots where they can turn a field goal into a touchdown on offense (and vice versa on defense).
Abetting the Cause
The 49ers will happily launch big plays past the red zone and into the end zone if opponents can't get any pressure on Kaepernick, something the Packers experienced last week when Matthews & Co. barely touched the second-year quarterback. Atlanta doesn't normally have quite as good of a pass rush as Green Bay, and their best pass rusher is injured. After leading the team with 10 sacks this past season (in a year when nobody else on the roster had more than four), John Abraham is suffering from an ankle injury that will likely limit his participation in Sunday's game to passing downs and well-spotted situations. Their second-best rusher is Kroy Biermann, but Biermann could spend most of his time dropping into coverage or even serving as a spy on Kaepernick, depending upon how Atlanta chooses to try to stop the pistol this Sunday.
As was suggested in this space last Friday, the Falcons enjoyed great success running the ball against a Seattle defense that was already falling apart against the ground game before they lost Chris Clemons to a torn ACL. Atlanta ran the ball 26 times and picked up 167 rushing yards, averaging a smooth 6.4 yards per pop. Virtually all of their success came during that explosive first half, as Atlanta could only muster 34 yards on 10 carries after the break.
Will they be able to repeat that against the Niners? I doubt it, but if you're looking for a sign of life, the lowly Green Bay running game was able to move the ball a bit against San Francisco last week. The Packers somehow mustered 104 yards on 16 carries from DuJuan Harris, Randall Cobb, and Aaron Rodgers, with Harris even averaging 4.8 yards per carry as the feature back. San Francisco brought back Justin Smith and played him on virtually every defensive snap, and he looked good, but he's also not 100 percent. That might help Atlanta a smidge in their attempts to control the clock by running the football. I don't believe it'll work, but every little bit of faith helps.
Single Wing Going Steady
Are the Falcons a big-play offense? When I look at their personnel at wide receiver, my inclination is to say that they are. It's hard to imagine teams preventing Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas from running by them or jumping over them to make huge catches, and that bomb against the Panthers in September still sticks out in my head. With that being said, the numbers absolutely don't bear out the idea that they're picking up huge chunks of the field in single plays. In situations where Atlanta was within 14 points of their opposition and dropped back to pass, the Falcons gained 20 yards or more just 7.4 percent of the time; that's in the bottom 10 around the league. Meanwhile, the 49ers only allow teams to pick up 20 yards or more in that situation on 6.8 percent of dropbacks, which is the fourth-best rate in the league.3
Instead, the place where the Falcons make their money on offense is on third down. Again focusing on 14-point margin situations, the Falcons have converted on a whopping 44.7 percent of their third downs this year, the seventh-best rate in the league. The lead dog there is, unsurprisingly, Tony Gonzalez, who has gone 22-for-30 for 215 yards in that very spot this year. The only problem? They're facing the league's best third-down defense. San Francisco only allows teams to convert on 31.1 percent of their third-down attempts with the same score margin qualifier, a figure that no team in the league can match. If the Falcons can pick up more than 50 percent of their third downs while the game's still a contest, they've got a serious shot at winning the game.
You're never as good as you looked last week in the playoffs, but the 49ers were also a better team during the season, especially after Kaepernick got under center. I think they'll slow down the Atlanta running game and stop the Falcons on third down more often than they get beat. And even if Kaepernick doesn't run his way into the history books for a second consecutive week, the absence of Abraham means that Kaepernick should have enough time to find Crabtree and — yes — even Vernon Davis. It'll be closer than the public perception of the matchup has suggested, but I think the 49ers pull it out. San Francisco 27, Atlanta 24.