When the 49ers have the ball
A year ago, the idea was to stop RB Frank Gore and force the 49ers (12-4-1) to throw. While Atlanta still will key on Gore in the running game with OLBs Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, the Falcons are extremely aware of San Francisco's other running threat: QB Colin Kaepernick.
The second-year pro comes off a record-setting postseason debut in which he ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns. By the way, he also threw for 263 yards and two more TDs.
The Niners will be varied and aggressive with the ball, although they want Gore to get 20 or so carries behind a line led on the left side by All-Pro guard Mike Iupati and tackle Joe Staley. If the blockers can control the trenches against DTs Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters, it will free up Gore, rookie LaMichael James and Kaepernick to take off.
Atlanta wants to keep Kaepernick in a box so he can't break anything like the sensational 56-yard sprint to the end zone he made against Green Bay. DE John Abraham is the main sacks threat, but he's nursing a sprained left ankle. If he isn't effective, the Falcons could be in trouble; they'll need DE Kroy Bierman, Babineaux and DT Vance Walker to be sharp and disciplined in their rushes.
Where the Falcons believe they match up well is with their aggressive secondary against WRs Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Crabtree has blossomed into a star, but Atlanta's cornerbacks, Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Robert McClain, practice against the likes of Roddy White and Julio Jones, so they won't be awestruck. And safeties Thomas Decoud, William Moore and Chris Hope face Tony Gonzalez, only a Hall of Fame quality tight end.
DeCoud had six picks this season and veteran Samuel, who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots, had five.
Atlanta must improve its tackling, especially against the running game, and not let Gore, Crabtree, Davis and, especially, Kaepernick get lots of yards after being hit.
When the Falcons have the ball
White and Jones are as dynamic a pair of receivers as any in the NFL. Throw in the wily Gonzalez in likely the final season of a record-setting run and the Falcons can make all the plays in the passing game.
That is, if QB Matt Ryan gets enough time to find them against the NFL's third-ranked defense. DE-LB Aldon Smith had 19½ sacks and must get extra attention in protection.
Ryan released the demons of past playoff failures against Seattle, particularly with that scintillating last-minute drive to victory. He's precise, leading the league in completion percentage, and gutsy.
He can't allow himself to get rattled – something Ryan should be beyond now – by Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, who is playing with an injured triceps, and the best group of linebackers in football: All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and some solid backups.
Ryan will try to go deep to Jones and White, and have Gonzalez patrol the middle along with WR Harry Douglas, who made a huge late catch against Seattle. That might be the best matchup of the entire NFC title game: Atlanta's pass catchers versus San Francisco's secondary and LBs.
As strong as the Falcons' secondary might be, the Niners probably are better with CBs Carlos Rogers, Terell Brown and Chris Culliver, and safeties Dashon Goldson, an All-Pro, and Donte Whitner.
For Ryan and the Falcons to win that encounter, the line must be stout. Center Todd McClure leads a generally experienced unit on which RT Tyson Clabo is the top blocker. Of special interest will be how RG Peter Konz, a rookie, matches up with SF's interior defensive line of Ray McDonald, Ike Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois.
The Niners are difficult to run against — Green Bay didn't really try — and Falcons RB Michael Turner did not have an outstanding season. But Turner looked very good against the Seahawks with 98 yards on just 14 carries, and even broke away for a 33-yard gain.
Jacquizz Rodgers could be a key weapon for Atlanta out of the backfield. His speed and elusiveness might work well on screen passes and reverses. Rodgers gained 64 yards rushing to keep Seattle off-balance.
After making a 49-yard field goal to lift the Falcons over Seattle, Matt Bryant should be able to shrug at pressure. Bryant has good range and hit 33 of 38 field goals, including all four from 50 yards and beyond.
Punter Matt Bosher is solid, but wasn't used a lot, kicking only 60 times.
Rodgers is the main kick returner and has breakaway capabilities.
San Francisco PK David Akers has gone from All-Pro in 2011 to slumping this season. But the Niners have stuck with him and he made his only try against Green Bay; it helps when you are kicking extra points, on which he was 6 for 6 last week.
Andy Lee is among the top punters in the NFL. James' kickoff runback late against New England turned that game back around after the Patriots staged a huge rally.
Two opposites man the sideline.
Jim Harbaugh, a former pro quarterback and high-profile college coach, can be acerbic and sarcastic, but boy can he coach. In both seasons with the 49ers, he's led them to the title game, revitalizing the offense, making the tough decisions such as keeping Kaepernick behind center.
His coordinators, Vic Fangio on defense and Greg Roman on offense, match Harbaugh's willingness to take risks, and it has worked.
Mike Smith learned the coaching trade on defense. He is well-spoken and patient with his explanations, and avoids controversy. The Falcons never had consecutive winning seasons before he arrived in 2008. They've not had a losing record under Smith.
He brought in Dirk Koetter to oversee the offense and Mike Nolan, a former 49ers head coach, to handle the defense this year. And now the Falcons might be Super Bowl material.
Now that the Falcons finally got that first playoff win – albeit in an excruciating way – much of the pressure of being postseason flops has dissipated. They believe they justified their top seed in the conference and will prove it even more Sunday.
San Francisco knows all about excruciating losses, particularly last year's overtime defeat to the Giants at this point of the postseason. You can bet it's a motivating factor.