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49ers-Falcons NFC Championship Game Preview and Picks

Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE

The NFC postseason has narrowed its batch of top teams down to two — the No. 2 San Francisco 49ers and the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons — both of which will clash at the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon for a ticket to the Super Bowl.

The Niners will roll into Sunday as the favorites (-4 via Vegas Insider), which may be surprising considering the Falcons have won two more regular season games and are coming off a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Seattle Seahawks — a team that dominated San Francisco in late December.

But the Niners could just as well be a whole new team with quarterback Colin Kaepernick hitting his stride under head coach Jim Harbaugh. The former backup to Alex Smith is now smack dab in the spotlight after tallying a playoff-record 183 yards on the ground in their 45-31 drubbing of the Green Bay Packers in the division round of the playoffs.

The key matchup in this game is whether the Falcons can handle the Niners’ efficient spread offense, one that averages 7 yards per carry when Kaepernick tucks it under his arm. And Atlanta has not faired well against running quarterbacks. Earlier this season, they had problems containing Robert Griffin III on Oct. 7 in a 24-17 win and then again with Cam Newton in a 30-20 loss on Dec. 9. And let us not forget Russell Wilson manhandling them in last week’s barnburner.

Kaepernick can not only run all over a team, but he also has a handle on the deep ball with new favorite target Michael Crabtree gaining all the credit. So the Falcons will undoubtedly have their hands full in every defensive facet.

The one positive to take away from the Falcons defense is that they run a zone scheme, which could hamper Kaerpenick’s ability to rattle off big runs. For one, their defensive scheme doesn’t turn their back to the ball like a man defense does (as seen in the Green Bay game). They also stay in their zone (duh), and are less duped by trickery. If that’s the case, the Niners rushing attack (insert Frank Gore) will be on display.

The Falcons big threat is in their receiving core. Julio Jones and Roddy White are elite wide outs that can spread the field in a hurry. Atlanta’s big chance to make up for their defensive shortcomings is to double-down on long passes to the outside and hope their downfield targets can reel in big-time catches.

With that said, it’s hard to see the Falcons contain both Kaepernick and the Niners’ ground and pound running attack.

Prediction: 38-27

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