Los Angeles, CA
We're down to the final four in the NFL. For a brief moment last weekend, NFC Championship looked like it was going to be a battle of the NFC West with Seattle taking on San Francisco. But... big but... Atlanta spoiled one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history and beat Seattle in the last minute (yet failed to cover by a half a point). Atlanta takes on San Francisco in a rare instance in which they are a home dog as a #1 seed.
San Francisco (12-4) at Atlanta (14-3)
Time: 20th January at 3:00 pm ET
Opening Lines: -3.5 and 48 o/u
Current Lines: -4 and 49
San Francisco (10-7 ATS) wants to exorcise demons from last year and avenge a loss in the NFC Championship to the New York Giants. Only Atlanta (9-7-1 ATS) stands in their way from advancing to the Super Bowl.
Over the past few seasons, Atlanta has been the team that can’t win the big game. They are one victory away from getting a shot at erasing that reputation. But do they have enough defense to contain Colin Kaepernick? And can Matty “Ice” Ryan and the offense figure out how to score on San Francisco’s menacing defense?
Last weekend, San Francisco beat Green Bay at home by keeping QB Aaron Rodgers in double-check. The Niners are coming into the NFC Championship as the team to beat. Meanwhile, no one has confidence in Atlanta, after their defense imploded and blew a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter against Seattle last week. Although Atlanta and Matty Ice managed to come back to win the game with 30 seconds left, the pundits, bookies, and bettors all agreed that San Francisco is the better team on paper. Since 1978, Atlanta (at +3.5) is the biggest home dog of any #1 seed, especially in a conference championship game.
Matty Ice is 34-5 straight up at home (8-1 this season), but he’s 0-5 ATS in the playoffs. Matty Ice is the primary weapon in Atlanta’s offensive arsenal and he has a trio of receivers (Julio Jones, Roddy White, and TE Tony Gonzalez) who can go deep on any play. Their run game was bad all season long, yet sprang to life last week against Seattle. Michael Turner looked like his old self with 98 yards on only 14 carries (including one explosive run for 30+ yards), and backup Jaquizz Rodgers was also highly effective with 64 yards on 10 carries. Turner/Rodgers combined for 162 yards, or almost double than their 87.3 yards/game average during the regular season.
Atlanta’s weak defense (ranked #24 overall in the regular season) has some experience against mobile quarterbacks. They played Carolina and Cam Newton twice this season and they also defeated RG3 (Washington) and Russell Wilson (Seattle) in the playoffs. Atlanta’s D is crappy, but they will not be totally caught off guard like Green Bay who failed to counteract Colin Kaepernick’s pistol offense. It comes down to this… will Atlanta's defense be able to stop Kaepernick and force him into creating turnovers? Can Atlanta get a couple of stops in the Red Zone or force San Francisco and their back-up kicker to convert field goals into points?
RB Frank Gore’s 119 yards on the ground against Green Bay went overlooked because everyone sprained their necks watching Kaepernick obliterate Green Bay for 181 yards on the ground. It didn’t matter if it was Gore or Kaepernick… no one on the Packers could stop the rushing attack. Even Clay Matthews look befuddled like a rube tourists in Times Square getting hustled ay Three Card Monte. Atlanta is going to have their hands full on defense, which is why it will be up to Matty Ice on the offensive side to outgun San Francisco if they want a ticket to the Super Bowl.
If San Francisco is going to win… their cornerbacks have to smother Jones/White and make Atlanta’s inconsistent rushers beat them on the ground. The Niners always lose games when they allow 140 yards or more on the ground, so thwarting any running attack is major objective. San Francisco’s interior linebackers, Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, will be waiting to stuff Turner and/or Rodgers. Justin Smith’s health (torn tricep) was a big question mark last weekend, but he played most of the game. However, it will be up to Aldon Smith to get to Matty Ice as much as possible. On offense, Kaepernick must keep his cool and not turn the ball over. RB Frank Gore is a reliable beast and will help them ground and pound the ball and eat up tons of yardage against Atlanta’s weak middle. If Kaepernick continues to do what he’s been doing by accurately reading opposing defenses, then he’ll give Atlanta’s defense headaches all game long. Kaepernick must also stretch out Atlanta’s defense by getting the ball to Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss as much as possible.
If Atlanta is going to win… they have to win the battle of the trenches on offense and keep Aldon Smith as far away from Matty Ice as possible. Atlanta also has to establish the run even though they were one of the worst running teams all season long. Atlanta got two stellar performances from Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers in last week's win over Seattle, and hope they can replicate those big numbers. But who knows if Turner has any gas left in his aging tank? On defense, Atlanta’s pass rush and John Abraham have to hone in on Kaepernick, keep him in the pocket, and make him beat them in the air. They'll also have to limit Frank Gore's contributions and not let him run right over them.
Pauly's Projection: San Francisco 27, Atlanta 23