It's no great surprise Atlanta (14-3) and San Francisco (12-4-1) have reached this point as both were among the favorites to represent the NFC in New Orleans on Feb. 3. The Falcons cruised to the South title while securing the conference's best record for the second time in three seasons. Second-seeded San Francisco had to wait until Week 17 to clinch the NFC West, but they're back in the title game after suffering a mistake-filled 20-17 overtime loss to New York last season.
This postseason, coach Jim Harbaugh has the versatile Kaepernick under center instead of Alex Smith, who threw five touchdowns without an interception in last season's playoffs and was one of the league's highest-rated passers until suffering a concussion in Week 10. Kaepernick has a 98.7 passer rating while going 6-2 as a starter since taking over, and his overall performance in last Saturday's 45-31 divisional round victory over Green Bay seemingly makes San Francisco a more dangerous opponent than it was a year ago. The second-year pro rushed for a quarterback playoff-record 181 yards with a pair of touchdowns and overcame an early interception returned for a TD by throwing for 263 with two scores.
Versatile quarterbacks have given the Falcons trouble this season. Carolina's Cam Newton threw for 502 yards with four TDs and no picks while rushing for 202 and two scores in two games against them in 2012. In last Sunday's 30-28 win over Seattle, Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson passed for 385 yards with two TDs and an INT while running for 60 and a score on seven carries.
Atlanta surrendered 5.90 yards per play this season - 29th in the league - and allowed the Seahawks to average 7.44 in the divisional round. Backed by Kaepernick and one of the NFL's best defenses, the 49ers are eager for the chance to avenge last season's championships game loss and return to the Super Bowl for the first time since beating San Diego 18 years ago.
Atlanta, which blew leads of 20-0 and 27-7 against Seattle before Matt Bryant kicked a game-winning 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left, does not expect anything to come easy again Sunday. Though the Falcons possess one of the game's top passing offenses behind Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez, it was a running game that averaged 87.3 yards - 29th during the regular season - that played a key role last weekend. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combined to run 24 times for all but five of Atlanta's season-high 167 yards. Ryan has completed 64.0 percent of his passes for 602 yards with three TDs and three INTs while going 2-0 against the 49ers. White has 18 receptions for 369 yards and two scores in three career victories against them.
Kaepernick dispelled any doubt about his readiness for the big stage. Can you imagine how fast he’ll be on artificial turf and how deep he’ll be able to pass without having to throw into a wind? San Francisco’s defense makes a few more stops and the running game wears down the Atlanta defense just enough to secure the 49ers’ sixth NFC title and a chance to claim a sixth Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans on Feb. 3.