In positive news, I can only be wrong about the Falcons twice more this season. In negative news, I’m picking against them again this week. Sorry to ruin the suspense, but I think the ‘Niners go into Atlanta and get the win on Sunday. Here’s 10 reasons why:
10. Experience: It seems crazy that the 49ers have experience on their side with a starting quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who didn’t even start for a full season yet, but team-wide San Francisco has been here before. Last year they took the Giants to the brink in the NFC Championship before some crucial turnovers on special teams cost them their chance at a Super Bowl. For the most part, these players have played in a championship game before although there are some notable exceptions. The Falcons have one win in their recent playoff history which came in heart-stopping fashion last week. As a team, this is all new territory for Atlanta. They don’t have the pressure of “never won a playoff game” but they don’t have that motivation either for the first time ever.
9. Coaching: Jim Harbaugh has showns since taking over that he’s one of the best in the game instantly transforming the 49ers into contenders. Mike Smith has done a good job as well, but he’s struggled with clock management and made some head-scratching decisions throughout the year. When it comes down to crunch time, I’d take Harbaugh over Smith as the coach of my team.
8. Momentum: The way San Francisco rolled past the Packers in the second half can’t be overlooked. It’s hard to carry momentum from week-to-week, but if any half can do it that one could. On the other hand, the Falcons had a rough second half against the Seahawks allowing Seattle to fight their way back into the game before finishing them with a late field goal and a Julio Jones interception. Momentum from one week to the next is hard to maintain but while the Falcons felt relief the 49ers should feel empowered after trouncing a good Green Bay team last week.
7. Turnovers: The Falcons and 49ers both have good turnover ratios but when Atlanta commits turnovers they tend to come in bunches. Last week, Atlanta overcame a pair of Matt Ryan interceptions while the Niners just had one from Kaepernick’s early pick six. Ryan has thrown multiple interceptions three times this season including five against the Arizona Cardinals. If the San Francisco defense can get pressure (discussed later) the turnovers could start flowing their direction.
6. Michael Crabtree: Crabtree isn’t the physical talent of big name of either Julio Jones or Roddy White, but he’s put together a fantastic second-half of the season with Kaepernick under center. In his last six games, Crabtree has been targeted at least nine times a game and has been over 90 yards in all but one of those games. He has three multi-touchdown games in that span including 119 yards on nine catches and a pair of scores last week.
5. Falcons Secondary: Atlanta allowed the sixth-most passing yards per game this season allowing 249.8 passing yards per game. They specifically struggled with defending the tight end so don’t be surprised to see Vernon Davis reemerge. Last week Russell Wilson threw for 385 yards after never throwing for more than 300 in his career. The Falcons pass defense could be in for another rough game if Kaepernick can get Crabtree and Davis involved early and create mismatches throughout the secondary by requiring players commit to “spy” him to protect against the QB run.
4. Falcons Run Defense: The Falcons run defense had been a weakness until last week when they actually did a great job limiting Marshawn Lynch although still allowing 123 yards rushing since Wilson ran for 60 yards and a score. Overall this season, the Falcons ranked 19th allowing 123 yards per game and 25th in rushing touchdowns allowed giving up over one per game. The 49ers rushing attack is even more potent with Kaepernick in the game, but Frank Gore is also coming off a nice season in which he rushed for 1,214 yards in the regular season. Last week he had over 100 yards and a touchdown while San Francisco racked up a total of 323 yards on the ground.
3. 49ers Secondary: Last week the 49ers secondary matched up with the top-rated QB from the regular season as Aaron Rodgers came to town. They were able to limit the vast array of weapons at Rodgers disposal and allowed just 257 yards while snagging an interception by Tarell Brown. On the season, the Niners finished in the top ten in the league in least passing yards allowed, least passing touchdowns allowed, and lowest passer rating against. Matt Ryan doesn’t have lots of options in the passing game, but the options he does have are great ones. Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Roddy White will have their work cut out for them against this sure-tackling, hard-hitting secondary.
2. Defensive Line: The 49ers defensive line tandem of Smith & Smith (Justin and Aldon) were back last week against the Packers. While Justin Smith didn’t make a slew of plays while playing with a partially torn triceps last week, his presence makes teams divide the focus and allows others to get pressure on the quarterback. Although the ‘Niners only had one sack last week they hurried Rodgers on an amazing 17 dropbacks. Matt Ryan isn’t known as a mobile quarterback, and his receivers down-the-field routes may take too long to develop against the Niners voracious pass-rush. Look for the 49ers defensive line to win the battle in the trenches and get pressure on Matty Ice all game long.
1. Colin Kaepernick: In a year packed with new QB’s stepping up for their teams, Kaepernick has been among the biggest breakout players of the year. After stepping in for a concussed Alex Smith, Kaepernick’s overhaul of the Niners offense culminated in his unforgettable 444 total yard performance last week including four touchdowns (five if count the pick six he started the game with for the Packers). Kaepernick is the ultimate X-factor in this game especially given the Falcons struggles to contain dual-threat quarterbacks this year. Atlanta’s defense has been trampled by Cam Newton twice this season and struggled with Russell Wilson last week. I think Kaepernick has another huge game and gets his team to the biggest game of the year.
I’m very confortable taking the Niners to win straight-up. The line is about 3.5 right now in favor of San Francisco making the Falcons home ‘dogs for the first time this season. I think the 49ers front line and a big game from Kaepernick ends up in a runaway as Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team wins and covers on his way to Super Bowl XLVII.