NFC Championship Game Preview: San Francisco-Atlanta

NFL’s Championship Sunday begins with the NFC Championship Game, as San Francisco visits Atlanta (3 PM ET, Fox), in a battle of the conference’s two top seeds. TheSportsNotebook previews the game following the same format of the previous two weeks—we’ll look at the matchup itself, some historical context, what the betting markets are saying and then make a pick.

THE MATCHUP: Colin Kaepernick is the man on everyone’s mind, after San Francisco’s second-year quarterback torched Green Bay with his legs and played well throwing the ball. Let’s keep this in mind though—the Packers were blitz-oriented team that relied on pressure from the linebackers, which in turn entails playing man coverage. The latter leaves a defense vulnerable to a running quarterback. You can criticize Green Bay for not adjusting after it became apparent Kaepernick was running wild, but you can’t fault the Packers for being true to their identity at the outset. But there’s a different dynamic at work this week.

Atlanta gets its pressure mostly from the front four, with defensive end John Abraham and they can also pressure up the middle with tackle Justin Babineaux.There’s no need to turn the linebackers loose and no reason to go into man coverage. Kaepernick is going to see a lot of zone potentially resulting in a much more conservative scheme. If he makes good decisions with the ball and San Francisco establishes a running game, it won’t matter. San Francisco will just churn out 10-play, 80-yard drives and win the game that way. But even if you concede that the 49ers will run the ball effectively with Frank Gore—and I do concede that fact–it can’t be assumed that Kaepernick will imitate last week’s game against a different style defense. Furthermore, he’ll be in a road environment and the prospect of a rookie mistake (or second-year quarterback mistake) forcing the ball into coverage is heightened.

The Falcons were able to run the ball against Seattle last week, with Michael Turner enjoying a little bit of a renaissance. He’s not going to run the ball against San Francisco, but it’s imperative that Atlanta try and do so, if nothing else, to keep the Niner front seven from teeing off to comfortably on Matt Ryan. The Atlanta quarterback can make big plays down the field to Roddy White and Julio Jones, but he’s going to need time to make that happen. No one’s going to effectively block San Francisco’s pass rush if they know what’s coming, so I want to see if Atlanta commits to run-pass balance, even if Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers become non-factors.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: These teams have only played each other once in the playoffs, with the Falcons nipping the ‘Niners in a divisional playoff game in 1998.  In general, they have completely opposite histories, with San Francisco having won all five Super Bowls they’ve reached—albeit none since 1994—and Atlanta having lost its only appearance, back in 1998.

If we look beyond football and to the rivalry between the two cities, there’s a little more there. The Braves beat out the Giants in 1993, when both teams were in the old NL West. It was the last great pennant race before the institution of the wild-card, as the teams won 104 and 103 games respectively. Atlanta also won a close race in 1982 where both teams were mixed up in a three-way fight with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since realignment and playoff expansion, the city of San Francisco got its revenge, with playoff wins en route to an NL pennant in 2002 and a World Series title in 2010, the latter ending Braves’ Bobby Cox’s managerial career.

So the sports battle between Atlanta and San Francisco is basically even with Sunday’s NFC Championship Game determining who gets the edge. Although I’m going to guess that won’t make it into Jim Harbaugh or Mike Smith’s pregame motivational talk.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: The gamblers are all over San Francisco. They opened as a three-point favorite, the first time a #1 seed like Atlanta has been a championship game underdog since 1997—San Francisco was also involved in that one, on the wrong side, losing at home to Brett Favre’s Packers. There have been other instances of road teams favored in championship games, but none against a #1 seed.

Furthermore, San Francisco not only opened as the favorite, but the money has come in on them, moving to (-4), which is the line we’ll use for our purposes here, and nudging to (-4.5). For a line to come off a key number like (-3) a lot of money is required and clearly the sportsbooks are begging for someone to come in and bet Atlanta. A high-scoring game is anticipated, with a total of 49.5.

PREDICTION: If the bookmakers want someone to come in on Atlanta, I’ll oblige. I do acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that this game is in San Francisco’s hands—by that I mean, that if both teams play their best game, it’s the Niners who will win. But I feel like there are enough reasons that Kaepernick won’t play another great game, as discussed in the matchup section. I think the Falcons are going to get three turnovers, hold an edge in this area and win the game. San Francisco’s defense will play well—they always do—but playing indoors, Ryan makes enough plays down the field. It’s not just a pointspread cover for Atlanta, it’s a victory. I’m calling this one 27-20, as the total nudges just Under.

Outright Winners: 6-1
Pointspread Winners: 5-1-1
Totals Line: 5-2
*Did not pick Seattle-Washington, citing fan bias for the ‘Skins as the excuse.