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Falcons trying to get it
49ers trying to get it back
Falcons Football Heal
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws a pass during practice on Thursday, in Flowery Branch, Ga. The Falcons will host the San Francisco 49er's in the NFC Championship Sunday. - photo by Associated Press

San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
3 p.m., FOX
NFC Championship

When the 49ers (12-4-1) have the ball:
    A year ago, the idea was to stop RB Frank Gore (21) and force the 49ers to throw. While Atlanta still will key on Gore in the running game with OLBs Sean Weatherspoon (56) and Stephen Nicholas (54), the Falcons are extremely aware of San Francisco's other running threat: QB Colin Kaepernick (7).
    The second-year pro comes off a record-setting postseason debut in which he ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns. By the way, he also threw for 263 yards and two more TDs.
    The Niners will be varied and aggressive with the ball, although they want Gore to get 20 or so carries behind a line led on the left side by All-Pro guard Mike Iupati (77) and tackle Joe Staley (74). If the blockers can control the trenches against DTs Jonathan Babineaux (95), Peria Jerry (94) and Corey Peters (91), it will free up Gore, rookie LaMichael James (23) and Kaepernick to take off.
    Atlanta wants to keep Kaepernick in a box so he can't break anything like the sensational 56-yard sprint to the end zone he made against Green Bay. DE John Abraham (55) is the main sacks threat, but he's nursing a sprained left ankle. If he isn't effective, the Falcons could be in trouble; they'll need DE Kroy Biermann (71), Babineaux and DT Vance Walker (99) to be sharp and disciplined in their rushes.
    Where the Falcons believe they match up well is with their aggressive secondary against WRs Michael Crabtree (15) and Randy Moss (84) and tight ends Vernon Davis (85) and Delanie Walker (46). Crabtree has blossomed into a star, but Atlanta's cornerbacks, Asante Samuel (22), Dunta Robinson (23) and Robert McClain (27), practice against the likes of Roddy White and Julio Jones, so they won't be awestruck. And safeties Thomas DeCoud (28), William Moore (25) and Chris Hope (24) face Tony Gonzalez, only a Hall of Fame quality tight end.
    DeCoud had six picks this season and veteran Samuel, who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots, had five.
    Atlanta must improve its tackling, especially against the running game, and not let Gore, Crabtree, Davis and, especially, Kaepernick get lots of yards after being hit.

When the Falcons (14-3) have the ball
    White (84) and Jones (11) are as dynamic a pair of receivers as any in the NFL. Throw in the wily Gonzalez in likely the final season of a record-setting run and the Falcons can make all the plays in the passing game.
    That is, if QB Matt Ryan (2) gets enough time to find them against the NFL's third-ranked defense. DE-LB Aldon Smith (99) had 19½ sacks and must get extra attention in protection.
    Ryan released the demons of past playoff failures against Seattle, particularly with that scintillating last-minute drive to victory. He's precise, leading the league in completion percentage, and gutsy.
    He can't allow himself to get rattled — something Ryan should be beyond now — by Aldon Smith, Justin Smith (94), who is playing with an injured triceps, and the best group of linebackers in football: All-Pros Patrick Willis (52) and NaVorro Bowman (53), Ahmad Brooks (55) and some solid backups.
    Ryan will try to go deep to Jones and White, and have Gonzalez patrol the middle along with WR Harry Douglas (83), who made a huge late catch against Seattle. That might be the best matchup of the entire NFC title game: Atlanta's pass catchers versus San Francisco's secondary and LBs.
    As strong as the Falcons' secondary might be, the Niners probably are better with CBs Carlos Rogers (22), Terell Brown (25) and Chris Culliver (29), and safeties Dashon Goldson (38), an All-Pro, and Donte Whitner (31).
    For Ryan and the Falcons to win that encounter, the line must be stout. Center Todd McClure (62) leads a generally experienced unit on which RT Tyson Clabo (77) is the top blocker. Of special interest will be how RG Peter Konz (66), a rookie, matches up with SF's interior defensive line of Ray McDonald (91), Ike Sopoaga (90) and Ricky Jean Francois (95).
    The Niners are difficult to run against — Green Bay didn't really try — and Falcons RB Michael Turner (33) did not have an outstanding season. But Turner looked very good against the Seahawks with 98 yards on just 14 carries, and even broke away for a 33-yard gain.
    Jacquizz Rodgers (32) could be a key weapon for Atlanta out of the backfield. His speed and elusiveness might work well on screen passes and reverses. Rodgers gained 64 yards rushing to keep Seattle off-balance.

Special Teams
    After making a 49-yard field goal to lift the Falcons over Seattle, Matt Bryant (3) should be able to shrug at pressure. Bryant has good range and hit 33 of 38 field goals, including all four from 50 yards and beyond.
    Punter Matt Bosher (5) is solid, but wasn't used a lot, kicking only 60 times.
    Rodgers is the main kick returner and has breakaway capabilities.
    San Francisco PK David Akers (2) has gone from All-Pro in 2011 to slumping this season. But the Niners have stuck with him and he made his only try against Green Bay; it helps when you are kicking extra points, on which he was 6 for 6 last week.
    Andy Lee (4) is among the top punters in the NFL. James' kickoff runback late against New England turned that game back around after the Patriots staged a huge rally.

Two opposites man the sideline.
Jim Harbaugh, a former pro quarterback and high-profile college coach, can be acerbic and sarcastic, but boy can he coach. In both seasons with the 49ers, he's led them to the title game, revitalizing the offense, making the tough decisions such as keeping Kaepernick behind center.
His coordinators, Vic Fangio on defense and Greg Roman on offense, match Harbaugh's willingness to take risks, and it has worked.
Mike Smith learned the coaching trade on defense. He is well-spoken and patient with his explanations, and avoids controversy. The Falcons never had consecutive winning seasons before he arrived in 2008. They've not had a losing record under Smith.
He brought in Dirk Koetter to oversee the offense and Mike Nolan, a former 49ers head coach, to handle the defense this year. And now the Falcons might be Super Bowl material.

Now that the Falcons finally got that first playoff win — albeit in an excruciating way — much of the pressure of being postseason flops has dissipated. They believe they justified their top seed in the conference and will prove it even more Sunday.
San Francisco knows all about excruciating losses, particularly last year's overtime defeat to the Giants at this point of the postseason. You can bet it's a motivating factor.

    ATLANTA — The Falcons are well aware of just how desperate this city is for its first Super Bowl championship.
    Mike Peterson sees and hears it everywhere he goes.
    "The city is hungry," the Atlanta linebacker said. "You can feel it when you're in the grocery store. Everybody is saying, 'Go Falcons.' Everyone is wearing red and black. The city is painted red and black."
    The Falcons will be playing in the NFC championship game for only the third time when they host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, a matchup of teams that come into this game from very different historical perspectives.
    For the 49ers, this is a chance to rekindle the franchise's glorious legacy, to follow in the footsteps of those magnificent teams that captured five Super Bowls titles in the 1980s and '90s, led by giants of the game such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
    The Falcons? They've never won even a single Super Bowl. Heck, they've only gotten that far one time, during the 1998 season when a charismatic bunch known as the "Dirty Birds" shockingly made a run to the big game — and was promptly blown out by the Denver Broncos in John Elway's finale.
    "They're trying to recapture greatness," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We're trying to break the ceiling on it."
    While the Falcons (14-3) are the NFC's top seed and playing at home, they opened as a three-point underdog against the 49ers (12-4-1), who looked unstoppable in last week's rout of the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.
    The most dynamic player on that field was a quarterback who began the season as a backup. Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job when Alex Smith was injured, and coach Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision to keep it that way even when Smith healed. Never mind that the former starter had led San Francisco to the NFC title game a year ago and was one of the top-rated passers in the league this season.
    Harbaugh looked like a genius when Kaepernick ran all over the Packers in a 45-31 victory, turning in one of the great performances in playoff history.
    It wasn't so much that he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns. What really stood out was what he did when he kept the ball himself.
    Kaepernick scored two touchdowns — including a 56-yarder in which he looked more like Michael Johnson than a football player — and finished with 181 yards rushing, a postseason record for a quarterback. He also showed plenty of flare, celebrating his scores by flexing his right arm and kissing his biceps — a move that quickly became a social media sensation known as Kaepernicking.
    "He's super fast, athletic and he can throw the ball," 49ers running back LaMichael James said. "But once he takes off, he's faster than a lot of running backs and linebackers. He's an incredible athlete."
    While certainly aware of their team's proud background, most of these San Francisco players were molded by adversity. The 49ers went eight straight seasons without a winning record or trip to the playoffs under Harbaugh arrived in 2011 from nearby Stanford and immediately turned things around.
    The team went 13-3, won the NFC West and advanced to the conference championship, where a fumbled punt return in overtime led to a wrenching 20-17 loss to the New York Giants.
    San Francisco doesn't want another chance to get away.
    "This opportunity is rare," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It doesn't come that often even if we were here last year. The (eight) years before that we were at home and didn't make the playoffs. Just to have that opportunity again to be here is one of those things we don't take for granted. We know that window for chances like that are slim and we have to take advantage of the opportunity."

Defensive end Justin Smith noticed a divergent mind-set after the victory over the Packers, compared to what he felt a year earlier, when the 49ers pulled out a last-second win on the Saints in the divisional playoffs.

"We were so excited after winning the Saints game," Smith said. "This was, 'All right, we took care of business, find out who we play, it's Atlanta, let's go down there and take care of business and try to get to the big one.' It definitely had a different feeling than last year."

The Falcons are coming off their first playoff win since the 2004 season, erasing a major stumbling block with their 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn't nearly as easy as the 49ers' victory.

After squandering a 20-point lead in what would've been the greatest fourth-quarter collapse ever in the playoffs, Matt Ryan brought Atlanta back in the final 30 seconds. Living up his nickname "Matty Ice," the fifth-year quarterback completed two long passes to set up Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining.

After going one-and-done in his first three trips to the playoffs, Ryan is finally a postseason winner.

A burden has been lifted, for sure.

"It's a good thing to get that first win out of the way," he said. "I think that everyone did a great job of not letting it distract us, but it can be distracting."

Now, to get started on a playoff winning streak.

"I feel the same as I did last week," Ryan insisted. "When you walk in and you turn on the film on a Monday or a Tuesday and you're getting ready to play your next game, there's a whole new laundry list of problems that you need to address. That's more of where my focus has been, and I think that's where it needs to be."

While Kaepernick is just getting started on what looks to be a hugely promising career, Tony Gonzalez is winding things down.

The Atlanta tight end is already assured of a spot in Canton, having caught more passes than anyone in NFL history except Rice and revolutionized his often-obscure position. Despite a huge season in which he led the Falcons in catches, the 36-year-old has repeatedly said he's 95 percent sure this will be his final year.

Like Ryan, he erased the one big blotch on his record by winning his first playoff game last weekend, making the final catch to set up Bryant's winning kick.

But Gonzalez would really like to go out with a ring.

Two wins to go.

"That's the goal," he said. "Win a championship and get out of here."

Kaepernick's performance against the Packers was so impressive that San Francisco actually became a bigger favorite during the week, at least according to the oddsmakers, who said Atlanta was the biggest underdog of any top-seeded team playing at home since the playoffs expanded in 1978.

The Falcons are comfortable with that role. All season long, they've been criticized for failing to win games impressively, even at the Georgia Dome, struggling mightily to beat lightweights such as Oakland, Arizona and Carolina.

"We've had that chip on our shoulder from day one," Peterson said. "But I don't think me or anybody in this locker room has a problem with playing the underdog role, playing the team that everybody's doubting. We've been that every week."

While the 49ers are two wins away from joining the baseball Giants in giving San Francisco a pair of sports champions, the Falcons are eager to turn Atlanta's reputation in a different direction.

In the 1980s, the city was saddled with some truly awful teams and well-deserving of its moniker — Loserville. The baseball Braves turned things around in the '90s, going on an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles that included the city's only major championship, a 1995 World Series title. But even the Braves were known more for all their playoff flops than their lone title.

At least they captured one. The Falcons never even had back-to-back winning seasons before Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008. Since then, Atlanta has strung together five straight winning records, four playoff appearances and two division titles.

Now, all that's left is a championship.

The city is ready.

"If we could break that ceiling," DeCoud said, "it could usher in a great new era of professional sports in Atlanta."