SUNDAY, 3 P.M. EST, GEORGIA DOME, ATLANTA
FIVE KEYS TO THE GAME
1 The big question: Can Atlanta slow the running game of Colin Kaepernick, who scrambled for an NFL-record 181 yards against the Packers last Saturday? It doesn't seem likely. The Falcons allowed the fifth-most rushing yards (274) to QBs during the regular season despite contending with the third-fewest attempts (36), allowing a pathetic 7.6 yards per carry. Seattle's Russell Wilson exceeded that on Sunday—60 yards on seven carries—and came within a few miscues of beating the top seed; now the Falcons are faced with containing Kaepernick, who'll operate behind an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranks as the league's best at run blocking.
2 When Kaepernick stays in the pocket he should have success throwing to a player who's been quiet of late: Vernon Davis. The tight end set a single-game playoff record for his position last year with 180 receiving yards against the Saints, but he has just seven catches over his last seven games. That should change on Sunday. Following a season in which they yielded the 10th-most receiving yards to tight ends (890), the Falcons allowed Seahawks tight end Zach Miller to run wild over the middle on Sunday, with eight catches for 142 yards. "There was a hole that we were not taking care of," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith—a hole that will be difficult to patch over in seven days' time. The 49ers, meanwhile, permitted a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, suggesting that Tony Gonzalez (above) is in for a far more difficult day than Davis.
3 Further aiding Kaepernick's cause will be the condition of John Abraham, who at age 34 led Atlanta with 10 sacks. (No other Falcon had more than four.) The right end departed from Sunday's game in the second quarter after reaggravating a left ankle injury; with Abraham on the sideline, a largely unchallenged Wilson completed his first 10 passes of the second half, for 185 yards and two TDs, and very nearly led the Seahawks to a shocking comeback from 20--0 down. Abraham has vowed to play on Sunday, but it's unlikely he'll be at 100%.
4 Smith's Falcons set an NFL record for the fewest penalties, 55, in a 16-game season. While 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is known as a disciplinarian, his team committed 109 infractions (more than all but six teams) and was penalized for more than twice as many yards as Atlanta, 960 to 415. San Francisco was particularly wayward in noisy domes, where the team averaged nine penalties for 75 yards in three games, two of them losses. The cacophonous Georgia Dome, where Atlanta is 34--8 under Smith, could be even more of an advantage than usual.
5 Falcons kicker Matt Bryant beat the Seahawks with a 49-yard field goal, continuing his yearlong effectiveness from long range: He was 14 of 17 on kicks of 40 yards or longer, including 4 of 4 from 50-plus. The 49ers' David Akers, meanwhile, was a ghastly 9 of 19 from 40 and beyond, and had to beat out free agent Billy Cundiff last week to keep his job. San Francisco, in other words, doesn't want a Super Bowl berth to come down to the kickers. But with Kaepernick running wild, it probably won't.
THE PICK: 49ers 31, Falcons 24