For the second-straight season, the San Francisco 49ers will be playing for the NFC Championship. We all remember what happened last year, but this year's 49ers team is different.
Colin Kaepernick has given a new tempo and new energy to Jim Harbaugh's offense. That much was evident in Saturday night's divisional-round victory over Green Bay. This week, the much tougher Atlanta Falcons will oppose them on the field.
The Niners will have to travel to the Georgia Dome for this one, and home-field advantage usually works in the Falcons' favor. But San Fran can still win this game despite the adversity it presents. Here is what the 49ers need to do in order to win this game:
On offense, these are three things San Francisco MUST do in order to have a chance of winning:
1. Stick to the run game
2. Protect Colin Kaepernick
3. Take advantage of the Falcons' lack of a pass rush.
Last week, the 49ers ran through the Packers for 323 yards. 181 of those yards came from Colin Kaepernick. Frank Gore pitched in with an additional 119 yards. If they can continue to pound the ball the way they did against Green Bay, the Niners can control the pace of the game.
Last week the Seattle Seahawks did a fairly decent job of protecting Russell Wilson. He was only sacked twice, he also gathered 60 yards rushing. Green Bay only managed one sack against the 49ers last week. If the San Francisco offensive line can keep Kaepernick upright, it will be a long day for the Falcons defense.
Making matters worse for the Atlanta pass rush, defensive end John Abraham injured his ankle last week. He missed the entire second half and his status for Sunday is unknown. If the 49ers take advantage of a weakened Falcons defensive line it will make things a lot easier for their offense.
Atlanta had the fifth-best offense in the NFC this season, but the 12th-ranked NFC defense also needs to pitch in here too. This is what the Niners defense must do:
1. Put pressure on Matt Ryan.
2. Contain Michael Turner
3. Stay disciplined in pass coverage.
The Seahawks didn't collect any sacks against Atlanta on Sunday. This allowed Matt Ryan to run his offense with the greatest of ease. The 49ers must disrupt Ryan's timing and make him feel uncomfortable. If they can get a few sacks, it would help their cause.
Michael Turner ran for 98 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry against Seattle in the divisional round. Patrick Willis and company need to control the line of scrimmage and keep Turner in check.
The biggest key to victory for the 49ers defense will be in pass coverage. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez have been the backbone of the Falcons offense this season. The Niners need to limit their catches and prevent the big pass play downfield.
It's always easier said than done, but if the 49ers can find a way to stick to these principles, they will be holding up the George Halas Trophy on Sunday.