Newyorkjets.com is profiling each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the NFC Championship Game to be played Sunday afternoon:
(2) SAN FRANCISCO (12-4-1) at (1) ATLANTA (14-3), 3 p.m. ET, FOX
After Colin Kaepernick's record-breaking performance against Green Bay in the divisional round, the 49ers have reached their second straight NFC Championship Game. The second-year signalcaller torched the Packers defense for 263 yards in the air and 181 yards on the ground — the most rushing yards by a QB in any game, playoff or regular-season — in leading the 45-31 win.
"We're one step closer to where we want to be," Kaepernick said following the victory. "I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team."
The 49ers' next mission: figuring out a way to defeat the top-seeded Falcons. Atlanta advanced to this game by squeaking out the 30-28 win over resilient Seattle. The Falcons led by 20 points to start the fourth quarter, then fell behind by 1 — the largest blown fourth-quarter lead in NFL playoff history — before Matt Bryant hit the 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left to put Atlanta back on top.
"Nobody flinched," Falcons fifth-year QB Matt Ryan said. "We just kept battling, kept doing what we do. That's been the makeup of our team all season."
The win was gratifying. Prior to defeating Seattle, they hadn't won a postseason game in nine years. Although the playoff monkey is off their back, they realize they still have work to do.
"Our goal is not to win one playoff game," Ryan said. "Our goals are still in front of us. We still have two more games to go. That's the mindset I have. That's the mindset this team has."
When QB Alex Smith suffered a concussion versus St. Louis back on Nov. 11, some San Francisco fans became worried.
Yet Kaepernick instantly proved he was ready and capable of rising to the occasion. In his first NFL start, No. 7 completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns leading the Niners to an impressive 32-7 win over Chicago. After the game, reigning NFL Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh was asked if Kap's performance had earned him the title of permanent starter. Harbaugh didn't answer but did state that he usually tends "to go with the guy who has the hot hand."
Kaepernick remained hot, producing a 5-2 record in the Niners' final seven regular-season games.
''It's been amazing and I couldn't ask for anything more,'' he said.
Sunday's game will be interesting for Falcons DC Mike Nolan, who was the 49ers' HC from 2005-08 and coached several players that still remain on their roster today.
"Mike Nolan has been an integral part of the building of that San Francisco team," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "If you look at the guys that are playing well for him, Mike was the head coach and acting as a general manager as well when those guys were drafted. Mike is very familiar with them and I think that will give some more insight in terms of what these guys are all about."
Most of the attention in this matchup falls on San Francisco's defense, third in yards allowed and second in points given up, vs. Atlanta's offense (sixth in yards, seventh in points). The 49ers' D is led by a pair of standout LBs in Aldon Smith (franchise-record 19.5 sacks) and Patrick Willis (five-time All Pro first-teamer).
The Falcons offense begins with Ryan, but WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones are also key components. White hauled in a 47-yard TD versus Seattle, while Jones (team-high 10 TDs in the regular season) flipped to defense to intercept Russell Wilson's Hail Mary heave on the final play of Sunday's game.
Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez said "with 95 percent certainty" that this will be his final season. The 16-year veteran and 13-time Pro Bowler experienced the first playoff victory of his career in the divisional round, making a 1-yard TD grab in the first quarter and the 19-yard catch that set up Bryant's game-winning kick.
These teams have met once only previously in the playoffs (Atlanta's 20-18 win in the 1998 NFC Divisional Round). The Falcons reached their lone Super Bowl (XXXIII) that year, falling to John Elway, Terrell Davis and the Broncos. The Falcons are 7-11 in the playoffs.
The 49ers lead the all-time series between the teams, 44-30-1. Their last win, however, was back in 2001, as Atlanta has won the four most recent meetings. San Francisco has won five Super Bowls (XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV and XXIX) and carries a 28-19 all-time postseason record into the game.
"They had a great season, top seed," Harbaugh said of the Falcons. "They're coming off of a game that gives them a lot of momentum."
Smith echoed the opposing coach's sentiments, praising the Niners in all areas.
"This San Francisco team won a big ballgame on Saturday night against a team that's got a Super Bowl trophy," Smith said. "I've been very impressed by what they're capable of doing on both the offensive and defensive sides."
Atlanta DE John Abraham was the Jets' first-round selection in 2000. He played five seasons with the Green & White and earned two Pro Bowl trips (2001, 2002). The 34-year-old tied the franchise record held by Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau with four sacks against the Saints on Nov. 4, 2001.
Abraham tweaked an ankle injury in the second quarter vs. Seattle and did not return to that game. On Monday, Smith said he expects his veteran DE to return to practice by the end of the week and Abraham told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, "Oh, yeah, you know me, you can't keep me out of that game."
Nolan was the Jets' DC in 2000. D-line coach Ray Hamilton had two stints with the Green & White, in 1995-96 and again in 2000 as a member of Nolan's defensive staff.
San Francisco C Jonathan Goodwin, the Jets' fifth-round draft pick in 2002 and four-year backup O-lineman, has had a fine career in the NFC since leaving the Green & White after the '05 season. He started for three seasons, including all 19 games in his Super Bowl and Pro Bowl season with the Saints in '09, and for the last two seasons he's started every game in the pivot for the 49ers.
As for coaches, two on Harbaugh's staff have ties to Pete Carroll's 1994 staff with the Jets — Brad Seely, the 49ers' special teams coordinator/assistant head coach, who guided the Jets' special teams in '94, and secondary coach Ed Donatell, who made his NFL coaching debut as the Jets' DBs coach from 1990-94 and returned to the Green & White in '07 as a special assistant.