The top-seeded Atlanta Falcons got the playoff monkey off their back last weekend and are now one step away from Super Bowl XLVII as they host the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history against the dynamic Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers.
Atlanta built a 20-0 first-half lead which was quickly erased by Seattle in the divisional round. The Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch nearly capped one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history with a 2-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Matt Ryan, however, finally lived up to his nickname "Matty Ice," when it counted. The Pro-Bowler whipped a 22-yard out to Harry Douglas followed by a 19-yarder up the seam to Tony Gonzalez, setting up a 49-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, which sailed through the uprights with eight seconds to play.
"Our quarterback is a special player," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "They call him 'Matty Ice,' but I feel like we've got two 'Matty Ices.' There's 'Matty Ice' Ryan and 'Matty Ice' Bryant."
Ryan passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs in the postseason, and earned his first career playoff win as the Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship for the third time in franchise history (1998 and 2004).
"I think the one thing that I've learned in my five years, and specifically in the postseason, is that it's hard," Ryan said. "I thought that collectively as a team, and as a coaching staff, nobody flinched. We just kept battling, kept doing what we do, and that's just kind of been the makeup of our team this season."
Ryan, who had dropped his first three playoff appearances, finished 24-of-35 with two interceptions, while Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries for the Falcons, who had lost their last four postseason games.
"We knew coming into it, it was going to be tough. That's a very good defense" Ryan said. "Luckily we made enough plays to come out with the win."
San Francisco, meanwhile, advanced to the franchise's 14th NFC Championship Game, matching the Dallas Cowboys for the most since 1970 thanks in large part to Kaepernick. The second-year signal-caller set an NFL rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards and scored twice as San Francisco beat Green Bay, 45-31.
Kaepernick, who was born in Milwaukee and grew up as a Packers fan, outplayed reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and helped the 49ers reach the NFC title tilt for the second straight year.
Sam Shields picked off Kaepernick's second pass of the game and returned it 52 yards for a score, but the second-year player took over on the ground by running for touchdowns of 20 and 56 yards. He also completed 17-of-31 passes for 263 yards with a pair of scores to Michael Crabtree, who had nine catches for 119 yards. Frank Gore had 119 yards and a TD on 23 carries.
"He does a great job of responding. He's done that every time he's thrown an interception, safety, or turnover," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of Kaepernick. "He's responded with a scoring drive. That's a rare quality. He's shown he's had the ability to come back."
The performance by Kaepernick in his first playoff game shredded the previous QB rushing record for any game, set by Michael Vick (173) in 2002. It was also the most rushing yards for the 49ers in their postseason history.
"It feels good," Kaepernick said. "We're one step closer to where we want to be. I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team."
One more win by the 49ers would send them to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season. They lost to the Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the NFC title game last year.
San Francisco leads its all-time series with the Falcons 44-29-1 but Atlanta has won four straight and six of nine overall. The two clubs have met just once in the postseason with the Falcons earning a 20-18 win in 1998 en route to its lone Super Bowl appearance.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Kaepernick has complied a 98.7 passer rating while amassing a 6-2 mark as the 49ers starter since taking over for Alex Smith. Although he's far more explosive than Smith, understand the veteran was 6-2-1 as the starter and took the Niners to the NFC title game a year ago so there really hasn't been a huge spike in performance by the team.
And some still question whether the game manager, in this case Smith, might be a better option in a spot like this, especially since the 49ers haven't won a road playoff game since the 1988 NFC Championship Game in Chicago.
Whether you agree with Harbaugh's decision or not you can't help be impressed by Kaepernick's 444 yards performance during San Francisco's amazing 579-yard offensive effort against the Packers.
"He's that new-style quarterback in the NFL that can run the read-option, that can pull the ball down, run it and take it the distance from anywhere on the football field. Extremely strong-armed, accurate," said 49ers safety Donte Whitner.
"I think quarterbacks that have a talent for running the ball can be very effective," Harbaugh added. "A quarterback that can get out of the pocket, run, pick up first downs, that's a threat that the defense has to account for. There are some quarterback-driven runs that have been added because our quarterbacks are very good at those, and Colin especially. It's already noted that he's very fast. He's very good at reading and executing that type of offense."
That said it's hard to imagine Atlanta not learning from the Packers' flawed defensive game plan last week. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers, inexplicably, called a ton of man-to-man coverage against the 49ers forcing the Packers' secondary to turn its back to Kaepernick, a disastrous and ill- conceived scenario.
The Falcons defensive leader Mike Nolan, who was once the head coach in San Francisco, going 18-37 before being fired in the middle of the 2008 season, is far too smart to commit the same mistakes Capers did and will likely rely on spies with zone behind them to keep Kaepernick from running up his defense's back.
It's all about forcing the strong-armed signal-caller to read the defense and make the proper progressions in the passing game. He's most dangerous when the running game is hitting on all cylinders, opening up easy play-action reads.
The Packers are booking flights out of Titletown this week because the 49ers offensive line thought it was at an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast last week with the Green Bay front seven playing the role of speed bump on the way to Denny's.
That doesn't bode well for Atlanta since dual-threat quarterbacks like Kaepernick have given a pedestrian Falcons defense plenty of trouble this season. Carolina's Cam Newton threw for 502 yards with four TDs while rushing for another 202 and two more scores in two games against Atlanta this season while Seattle rookie Russell Wilson passed for a career-high 385 yards with two TDs and added another 60 rushing and a score last week.
"These young guys, they are athletic and they can run," Nolan said. "That creates a whole new set of problems."
As a whole Atlanta's defense has plenty of holes, allowing 5.9 yards per play this season -- 29th in the NFL. That was only exacerbated by the Seahawks, who averaged 7.44 yards per play in the Divisional Round.
On the injury front for Atlanta, defensive end John Abraham, the Falcons' best pass rusher, continues to be hampered by a sprained ankle which he suffered in the Falcons' regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 30. The 34-year-old led the Falcons with 10 sacks this season and also recorded 35 tackles along with seven passes defensed.
One glaring advantage the Falcons figure to have in this matchup is their success at the Georgia Dome. Since Smith took over as head coach, the Falcons are 34-8 (.810) as the host, the third best mark in the NFL over that span. A big reason for the Peach State prowess is Ryan. The Pro-Bowler has completed 64.0 percent of his passes while going 2-0 against the 49ers during his career and has plenty of weapons, with a pair of No. 1-type receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones along with a future Hall-of-Fame tight end in Gonzalez.
"They've got a good quarterback, a real good quarterback," 49ers Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Willis said. "The team, they're fundamentally sound, have some great skill players. I feel like they have a complete offense."
When Ryan is on Atlanta is virtually unbeatable. The Boston College product has recorded a passer rating of 100 or better 33 times, going 32-1 in that stretch. The Falcons are 20-0 in 20 home contests which Ryan has registered a 100-plus QB rating.
"He's a smart heady quarterback, one of the top in the league," Harbaugh said when queried about Ryan.
The running game was the Achilles heel this season, averaging only 87.3 yards per game -- just 29th in the league -- but Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers turned it on last week, combining for a season-high 167 rushing yards.
A sequel could be difficult since the talented 49ers defense allowed an average of 94.2 yards on the ground during the regular season, fourth in the NFL.
Aldon Smith led the NFC with a team-record 19.5 sacks and teams with leading- tackler NaVorro Bowman and Willis to form one of the top linebacking groups in football.
One key for the Niners was the return of star defensive tackle Justin Smith, a high-motored defensive lineman who hadn't played since hurting his triceps in Week 15. Smith is still plenty banged-up but his presence and leadership can't be emphasized enough.
"It should be even better this week after going through it, knowing how it felt, what to expect from it," Smith said of the injury. "So it should be a lot better this week."
You're already amped up for the game, but guys get a little more amped up for championship games," San Francisco defensive lineman Ray McDonald said. "When you're growing up, these are the kind of games you want to be in."
There are no style points in the NFL and Smith finally got to advance in the playoffs after what was one of his worst performances as an NFL head coach last week.
Smith did everything he could to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory last week. The Falcons' mentor was extremely conservative as the Seahawks chipped away, flashed some awful clock-management in the closing moments before ordering the ill-advised squib kick giving Seattle a chance at a Hail Mary.
Ryan also alleviated the pressure on him and you get the distinct feeling things will get easier now.
"Our goal is not to win one playoff game," said Ryan. "Our goals are still in front of us. We still have two more games to go. That's the mindset I have. That's the mindset this team has."
The raucous crowd and the fast track at the Georgia Dome should help the Falcons' undersized defense against the powerful Niners offensive line.
"Crowd noise is something you're always going to have to deal with on the road," Kaepernick said. "It's something we prepare for."
Meanwhile, believe it or not, San Francisco only has two postseason road wins in franchise history and none since beating Chicago on Jan. 8, 1989. Expect that 24-year drought to continue as the young Kaepernick makes one or two key mistakes at pivotal times.
"It's a big task," said Harbaugh. "(The Falcons) had a great season. They're solid in every regard."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, 49ers 17