As the season's penultimate game comes down to the wire, the Falcons will try to play the role of spoiler. There's still an outside chance that San Francisco will not make the postseason. Nothing would be sweeter for the Falcons and their fans to take San Francisco with them to the couch for January and February football. A win tonight would certainly hurt San Francisco's chances, but it would not fully eliminate them from playoff contention just yet.
The 49ers have the leg up on the Falcons in nearly every category, and also have emotion behind them because this is the final regular season game at historic Candlestick Park before the 49ers move to their new stadium next year.
It seems highly unlikely for the Falcons to pull off the upset given their sloppy play this year, but if there's one thing we've learned this year is that you can never truly predict what will happen in the NFL.
The Falcons will hope for a Christmas miracle to pull off the victory tonight.
Here are three keys to the game.
The Falcons will need a balanced offensive attack to keep San Francisco's brutal defense guessing. It might be hard considering that San Francisco ranks in the top 10 in both passing defense and running defense. San Francisco's linebackers might be the best in football as a collective unit, as we mentioned in our article yesterday.
The Falcons can't get too pass happy and need to lean on the run early to break San Francisco's defense down. Mixing in the vintage Dirk Koetter screen game will be important as well. Look for Harry Douglas to get a chance here to be the go to screen guy, along with Roddy White. These plays can function as running plays in many respects and could open things up against San Francisco's secondary. It will also hopefully take the trio of Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks out of their comfort zone.
The Falcons O-line will be facing arguably their toughest challenge. In the last two games against Green Bay and Washington, the Falcons have only given up two sacks. Their protection on Ryan has been better even though he's still taking a decent amount of hits. San Francisco's defense is far better than either one of those units combined. It'll be interesting to see how the O-line does tonight against one of the NFL's best.
STOP THE RUN
San Francisco has a two headed monster in the form of QB Colin Kaepernick (449 yards, 5.5 yards per carry) and Frank Gore (1017 yards, 4.2 yards per carry). The Falcons are still getting shredded constantly on the ground. They have given up at least 100 yards per game on the ground over their last eight games, including 200 yard efforts from Seattle and Arizona and a 195 yard effort from Buffalo.
That number could balloon in this game if San Francisco has their say; and with a dual threat quarterback and one of the league's best running backs in Frank Gore, expect the 49ers to pound the ball early and often into Atlanta's soft D-line and linebackers.
Paul Worrilow is having a great season and leads the team in tackles. He's come out of nowhere and is one of the gutsiest players on the team, and always seems to be around the ball carrier. But it seems like so many of his tackles occur well up field after the running back has gotten at least four or five yards. The Falcons need to start run blitzing more and really stack the line of scrimmage if they're going to stop Gore on the ground.
Kaepernick didn't really run against the Falcons in last year's NFC title game, because he didn't really need to against Atlanta's soft zone coverage. It'll be interesting to see whether or not he wants to run the ball more or throw the ball more. Kaepernick has really turned his season around after a slow start. He has six touchdowns to one interception in three December contests, and has been more efficient throwing the ball with a 95.7 passer rating.
COVER THE TIGHT END
Last year's NFC title game featured some atrocious coverage by the Falcons in guarding tight end Vernon Davis, who usually didn't have any Falcon player within 20 yards of him, making reception after reception without contest. The Falcons need to play more man against Kaepernick and guard the man who is one of his favorite targets in Davis very tightly.
If not, it'll feel like deja vu all over again. Davis had 5 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown against them last season. Shutting him down with man to man will be important. The Falcons cannot play as much zone as they did last year, or Davis and Kaepernick will eat them alive.
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