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NFC Conference Championship Preview: Atlanta Falcons vs. San Francisco 49ers

After leading the NFC with the best record throughout the season, the Atlanta Falcons are just one game away from reaching the Super Bowl. They’ve had their eye on the prize since Week 1 and now they could face their greatest challenge to date, playing the San Francisco 49ers.

For San Francisco, many picked them at the start of the season to go to the Super Bowl after last season’s close call but their season included a few challenges.

Will they meet their fate on Sunday? Bettors give the 49ers 9 to 5 odds to win the Super Bowl with the Falcons at 6 to 1 odds.

There’s numerous storylines for this matchup and two include 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Can Atlanta’s defense stop Kaepernick?

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

Last week against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick was unstoppable, running for a league-record 181 yards (averaging 13.1 yards per run), passing for 263 more yards and amassing four total touchdowns.

Will the Falcons defense be able to stop this player?

This season, they gave up 5.90 yards per play, leading them to a No. 29 ranking in the league.

Last week against the Seattle Seahawks, the defense allowed an average of 7.44 yards but it held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 46 yards from 16 carries.

But they have been challenged by versatile quarterbacks this season. In their two 2012 games, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had a combined 502 passing yards with four touchdowns, zero interceptions while also running for 202 yard with two scores.

Next up, Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. Last week, he threw for 385 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. On the ground, he ran for 60 yards on seven carries with one touchdown.

Factor in the 49ers running back Frank Gore, who ran for 119 yards last week and the Falcons defense will have their hands full while they have their fingers crossed that defensive end John Abraham will be able to play.

Playing for Tony Gonzalez

Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez

Just as the Baltimore Ravens are playing for linebacker Ray Lewis, the Falcons are playing for tight end Tony Gonzalez.

While Lewis is definitive on his retirement, Gonzalez has kept his open with a five percent window that he may return. For the league’s greatest tight end in history with his record of 14,268 yards receiving, will a Super Bowl visit and possible win cancel out the sparse percentage?

Just getting to this point in the playoffs is a first for Gonzalez; he entered last week’s game at 0-5 for playoff appearances. Thanks to his late effort against Seattle with his 19-yard catch to set up the winning field goal, that zero is now gone.

The respected player has said former New Giants defensive end Michael Strahan is a good example of knowing when to hang up your shoulder pads and go out on top. He ended his 15-year career with the 2009 Super Bowl championship even though he probably had a year or two left in him.

Gonzalez said earlier this week, “’That’s the way you want to do it. That’s every athlete’s dream. I don’t care what sport it is. You’d love to win a championship and leave. That’s where I’m at now.’’

But he added, “‘’There’s no doubt I could play this game another three years if I wanted to, and at a high level, too. ’But there comes a point in your career where you’ve gotten everything you ever wanted from this game.’’

Maybe history will favor Gonzalez this week. The 49ers are challenged on the road for playoffs, entering Sunday’s game with a five-game losing streak, dating back to Jan. 8, 1989 against the Chicago Bear for their last win.

The Falcons have won four straight games against the 49ers, with the most recent one in 2010. In their last playoff game matchup on Jan. 9, 1999, they won at home, 20-18.

This year could be different with the nod going to the 49ers (-4, 48.5 o/u).


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