2012 NFC Championship Preview: San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

The George Halas Trophy that is awarded to the NFC Champion.

Well we only have a few days left to see who will punch their ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco comes in riding the emotional high of having vanquished the Green Bay Packers, behind Colin Kaepernick’s record-setting performance. Where the Falcons are starting to understand who they are in winning their first playoff game under the current coaching regime. This is the most intriguing match-up of the conference finals weekend.

In the divisional round we learned what Atlanta has grown accustomed to do, will carry over into the playoffs. Including last week, they had gone 8-2 in games decided by 7 points or less. That lass loss was a meaningless game to conclude the regular season. If you go back to the 4th game of the season, it matched what took place in last week’s game with Seattle. They were behind 28-27 with less than 1:00 to go when Matt Ryan led them to a last second field goal and a 30-28 come from behind victory.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

The banter and hard hitting between Seattle and Atlanta could spawn a bitter playoff rivalry.

Sure the first victory came against the Carolina Panthers but now the Falcons performed the encore in  the playoffs. Many fans didn’t care what they did until they made it to the playoffs. Many were  sure they were going to lose their first game before the playoffs even began.  The Taylor Blitz Times believed in the Atlanta Falcons yet felt the Seahawks were playing better heading into last week’s game. However this was the game where “Matty Ice” and Coach Mike Smith came of age and won their first playoff game. Will they go into this conference championship brimming with the confidence of the team that left the field, or the tentative nervous bunch that watched a 20 point lead vanish in the fourth quarter??

One thing about the NFL playoffs, when the national media focuses on one aspect of a football team they normally overlook another. This is happening as we speak with all attention on Kaepernick, no one is covering the fact the 49ers are allowing 30 points per game on average in their last 4 games. In fact if you take out the win against the hapless Arizona Cardinals, that average jumps to 35.6!! What is happening to the great San Francisco defense??

Colin's 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Colin’s 181 yard rushing performance was a transcendent performance.

Remember the style of offense the Niners were running that kept their defense rested at the beginning of the season?? That isn’t the case any longer. For a team that finished 4th overall allowing 294.4 yards per game, it’s now allowing 406 to go with the 35.6 points given up in those 3!! Are you paying attention?? They are wearing out their own defense and now they have to go on the road for the NFC Championship Game. If you take out the 3 games we’re talking about, the 49ers gave up an average of just 256.6 yards per game in the other 14.

Now while everyone is giddy over the record-setting performance of the quarterback, let’s remember that happened at home. How did he fare in his last road game?? He was chased out of Seattle. Do we get that Kaepernick, or the one that torched the Patriots on Sunday night football?? Sandwiched between those two performances was a very forgettable road loss that is being ignored largely.

We said in our NFC South Preview https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/08/27/2012-nfc-south-previews-predictions/ this was the time for Coach Smith’s 4 year plan to mature. Michael Turner is about to turn 30 and one of history’s finest tight ends in Tony Gonzalez is set to retire after the season. Now with the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers as the change of pace back that can spell Michael Turner, the Falcons have more explosiveness on the field than with RB Jason Snelling. One of the unsung acquisitions that should pay off in this football game is CB Asante Samuel. He stepped in when Brent Grimes went down on IR and has been a key contributor. Do you realize that Samuel is the leading interceptor and yardage leader in NFL playoff history?? One lazy sideline pass can be disastrous against this group. They were the 5th most larcenist defense in the NFL with 20 interceptions and the Georgia Dome will be loud this Sunday.

Samuel is the NFL's all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

Samuel is the NFL’s all time post season interceptor, yardage, and touchdown leader.

What was interesting was how slow the Packers were in adjusting in last week’s divisional playoff. This is the NFL and we have seen this type of quarterback before. Whether we’re talking 2002 Michael Vick, 1987 Steve Young, a 1987 John Elway, or a 1989 Randall Cunningham. The number one way to get after them were to clog their escape routes sending 5 to 6 rushers after them. After all, this defense has to chase Cam Newton twice a year so they’r equipped to do it. In Randall Cunningham’s case, the Los Angeles Rams confused him with everyone up on the line of scrimmage. By the time he knew who was rushing and who was dropping, his team fell behind and the game was out of reach.

The one thing going for the 49ers last week was the fact that it was quiet and Packer pass rushers couldn’t get the jump on their offensive tackles. Expect more delayed blitzes and zone blitzes this week to accompany John Abraham off the corner with all the Georgia Dome crowd noise. Instead of defenders with their backs to Kaepernick in man to man, they will be facing him and should keep scrambles at a minimum gain. The Falcons will look to get Colin to look down at running lanes and his vision off the downfield receivers. That is a big no-no in the NFL.

One other axiom of the NFL as Nick Buoniconti once said about the NFL playoffs circa 1987 “What happens the week before, doesn’t necessarily happen the next week.” Eric Dickerson ran for a playoff record 248 yards in a divisional playoff in 1985, then lost in the NFC Championship Game. Anthony Carter caught a playoff record 227 yards passing in a divisional playoff in 1987, only to lose in the NFC Championship Game. Peyton Manning threw for a record 457 yards (most ever in a regulation playoff game) in 2004 only to fall  in the divisional round against New England. You have the 1995 Buffalo Bills who rushed for a modern playoff record (post modern 1950 NFL) 341 yards in a Wild Card win over Miami, only to collapse in the AFC Divisional in Three Rivers. Then finally the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars who scored the most points (post modern 1950 NFL) with 62 in the AFC Dvisional playoff only to lose in the AFC Championship Game.

The 49ers are going to depend on that type of performance by Kaepernick again and won’t get it early as they fall behind. Just like the other teams that had record setting performances in year’s past. The Falcons have two unheralded linebackers in Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas that can flat out run. Not only will the Atlanta Falcons get the early lead after forcing a few 3 and outs early….they should win the game 30-21. Atlanta will be making the trip to New Orleans.

By the way….look at what arrived in Atlanta today…

This year's George Halas NFC Championship Trophy  just arrived today in Atlanta.

This year’s George Halas NFC Championship Trophy just arrived today in Atlanta.

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2012 NFC South Previews & Predictions

Second year wideout Julio Jones skies over a Ravens defensive back for a touchdown in last week’s preseason opener.

As the 2012 regular season beckons, many pundits and fans are looking for the Carolina Panthers to light up this division. There will be several young stars that will come to the fore in the toughest division in football, yet there will be one second year player who should take the league by storm. Oh you thought we meant Cam Newton?? He’ll do well but the player who is about to break out is WR Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. His play so far in the preseason along with the maturation he showed toward the end of last year. Look out his star is on the rise.

No division in football has been as competitive from top to bottom as the NFC South. Since its inception in 2002, there hasn’t been a repeat division winner and again its the only division to have every team play for the conference championship during that time. Each team can run at you physically, Atlanta with Michael Turner (1,340 yards in 2011), thunderous LeGarrette Blount (1,007 yards in 2010), former Heisman winner in Mark Ingram, and former twin thousand yard rushers DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart in Carolina. Yet with last year’s emergence of Cam Newton and 2010’s Josh Freeman (25TDs to only 6 ints), each team fields better than average quarterbacks. This is before we get to record setting Super Bowl champion Drew Brees and 3 time playoff participant QB Matt Ryan. This division is stacked on offense…

However there are several questions moving into 2012. How will the Saints fare with the suspension of Head Coach Sean Peyton?? Will their game day adjustments suffer or will the overall gameplan be inferior?? Have the Panthers made enough moves to allow Cam Newton to star again or will he have a sophomore slump?? Which team was the real Tampa Bay Buccaneers?? Was it the 10-6 2010 team that was coming on at the end of that season or last year’s 4-11 debacle that got Head Coach Raheem Morris fired??

We’ll answer a few of those later in the article….as for our predictions

2012 NFC South Predictions

Atlanta Falcons 11-5 *

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7

New Orleans Saints 9-7

Carolina Panthers 6-10

Now that the Saints signed Drew Brees to a long term deal: How will he fare this season without Sean Payton?? Payton and Brees have been lethal these last several years with game plans but they will suffer with game-day adjustments. There should be a drop off this season as Interim Coach Joe Vitt can’t put his stamp on the team. In a single season lame duck situation?? Not going to be good. More important, without their spiritual leader on defense with the suspension of Jonathon Vilma, this defense will give up points by the bushel and will behind in the race to win the south. As evidenced in Saturday night’s preseason game against Houston, this defense struggled in a 34-27 shootout. The Texans marched to two easy touchdowns while the starters were out there. Don’t forget the Saints were at home. How do you think they will fare when they are on the road this year?? http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2012082554/2012/PRE3/texans@saints#tab=recap&menu=highlights

They have a murderous schedule and will lose tie breaker advantages during the weeks of 12-15 where they face San Francisco, who beat them in last year’s playoffs. Then they face a stronger Atlanta Falcons team on the road, then travel to play the World Champion Giants in the cold, then come home to face a resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. Even though Tampa had a down year in 2011, they only lost 27-16 in New Orleans and defeated the Saints in the Superdome in 2010. At full strength with Coach Peyton, Jonathon Vilma on defense, the Saints would be in good shape against these ball clubs but with a coaching staff trying to keep the ship steady?? These are four losses waiting to happen and all to NFC teams. This is after they would have played the Packers at Lambeau in week 4, and the Philadelphia Eagle in week 9.  Too many in conference losses will doom the Saints this year.

Super Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Has there been a more electrifying rookie quarterback in NFL history than Cam Newton?? The Chancellor can only think of one and that was Dan Marino’s 1983 season. Yet a closer look and Newton broke the rookie record in week 1 with 422 yards against the Cardinals, rushed for 706 yards and 14 TDs (another record), while completing 60% of his passes for 4,021 yards (another record) and 21TDs. All as a rookie?? Yikes! That dwarfs Marino’s 20TD passes and didn’t start for Shula’s Dolphins until week 6 and was no threat with only 45 yards rushing. What is he going to do for an encore??

Once upon a time Tim Tebow was given the nod over Newton at the University of Florida. My how the tables have turned as the Panthers defeated Tebow and the Jets 17-12 last night in pre-season action.

The question is did they do enough to move up in the competitive NFC South?? They still have the “Cash & Carry” backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart, who just signed an extension last week. Ageless Steve Smith revitalized his career with Newton’s emergence and may have a running partner in WR Louis Murphy who scored in last night’s game.  On offense the answer is yes, but on defense they haven’t done enough. They did get LB Thomas Davis back but they have to keep their fingers crossed he doesn’t injure his knee for a fourth time. They need all the help they can get on a defense that was 28th last year and finished 25th against the run. In this division that last stat will be what they need to improve and the draft only brought one lineman in 4th rounder Frank Alexander. New leaders have to emerge for the Panthers to make a  move up… that can happen in 2013. The problem is it’s still 2012 so they’ll improve just a few wins on offense as a team.

Former Boise St running back Doug Martin should rush for 1,200 yards for Tampa this season.

Now a team that will be the surprise winner in this division is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year this team dropped to 30th in the NFL in rushing and brought unnecessary heat on QB Josh Freeman. Team brass addressed that with 1st round selection RB Doug Martin out of Boise St. With the rushing attack under performing it also kept the Buccaneers defense from resting. In 2011 this was a run first, pass second team that went 10-6. Josh Freeman had the second lowest touchdown to interception ratio, 25TDs to just 6 interceptions, to a record setting Tom Brady. With the acquisition of WR Vincent Jackson from the San Diego Chargers to go along with TE Kellen Winslow Jr, WR Mike Williams and WR Arrelios Benn, this team has some big targets.

Speaking of Tom Brady, the Buccaneer defense made his life miserable in pre-season action Friday night. The Bucs pass rush harassed him all night and made him throw a pick six in a 30-28 win. Brady played into the 3rd quarter (unheard of in pre-season) and New England needed 2 4th quarter touchdowns to make the score close. One of the differences was the efficient play of Freeman and Doug Martin, who rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries and sat out more than half the game. This talent who has been a Taylor Blitz Time favorite https://taylorblitztimes.com/2011/08/02/2011-heisman-campaign-doug-martin-of-boise-st/ will tilt the balance of power for them from a tactical standpoint all year. They should return to form and match the 10-6 record of 2010. They’ll be ready to make a serious move in 2013.

However 2012 will belong to the Atlanta Falcons. They have built for this season for the last four and this is the year for the payoff. TE Tony Gonzalez can’t go forever and RB Michael Turner is about to turn 30. When the Falcons lost in last year’s wildcard to the New York Giants, it marked the second season in a row their season ended at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champions. As a matter of fact, if you include the 2009 NFC Divisional playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, 3 of the last 4 seasons has ended at the hands of the eventual NFC Champion. Its time for their maturation and ascend to a Super Bowl themselves. Head Coach Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have to prove they can win a playoff game. They are primed as a team talent wise to make a move.

Next up: NFC North

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