Fourteen years after these teams met in the NFC semifinals and nearly two decades after these clubs were division rivals in the NFC West, Atlanta and San Francisco will square off again Sunday in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
There’s plenty of history in this rivalry, although most of it has been enjoyed by the 49ers, who lead the all-time series 44-30-1. There was the day at the old Fulton-County Stadium when Jerry Rice torched Tim McKyer for five touchdown catches. And there were plenty of blowouts at Candlestick Park with Joe Montana and Steve Young sticking it to Atlanta.
But the Falcons have had their moments, too. In fact, they have won four in a row against San Francisco dating back to 2001. There was the game in January of 1999 that we’ll discuss below because of its crazy finish for our purposes.
There was the ‘Big Ben’ play in 1983 when Steve Bartkowski hit Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson for a touchdown on a Hail Mary pass as time expired. There was also the time, Nov. 3 of 1991 to be exact, when Billy Joe Tolliver gave the Falcons an improbable victory on a Hail Mary pass to Michael Haynes with no time left.
Of course, none of those things will matter Sunday. Ronnie Lott, who still insists Johnson was down before getting into the end zone, won’t be in uniform. Montana, Young, Rice and Dwight Clark won’t dress out, either. Instead, the cast of characters will include names like Kaepernick, Crabtree, Gore, Willis, Ryan, Jones, White and Rodgers.
As of early Friday morning, most books were listing San Francisco (12-4-1 straight up, 10-7 against the spread) as a four-point favorite with a total of 49. Gamblers can take the Falcons on the money line for a plus-170 payout (risk $100 to win $170).
Atlanta (14-3 SU, 9-7-1 ATS) advanced to the NFC Championship Game for only the third time in franchise history by beating Seattle 30-28 thanks to Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining. However, the Falcons made fourth-quarter mistakes galore to cost their backers as 2 ½-point favorites after leading 27-7 going into the final stanza.
Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson orchestrated a brilliant comeback by directing four touchdown drives in the second half. Wilson threw for a career-high 385 yards, rallying his team from a 20-0 halftime deficit.
Matt Ryan completed 24-of-35 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns, but he was intercepted twice. The second pick was costly, helping the Seahawks turn a 27-14 deficit into a one-possession game quickly.
Four plays after Ryan’s second interception, Wilson found Zach Miller for a three-yard scoring strike to make it 27-21. Both teams would trade punts before the Seahawks took over at their own 39 with three minutes left.
With Seattle facing a third-and-five situation at the Atlanta 27 with 44 ticks remaining, the Falcons came with the blitz and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon appeared to have Wilson dead to rights. But Wilson somehow avoided the sack and rolled to his left before finding Marshawn Lynch for a first down and more.
Lynch took the pass and went 23 yards to give Seattle a first and goal at the four yard line. Following an offsides infraction against Atlanta, Lynch plunged into the end zone from two yards out with 34 seconds left.
Trailing 28-27 at its own 28 with two timeouts left and 25 ticks on the clock, Atlanta took the field in hopes of getting into field-goal range. It wouldn’t take long.
Ryan found Harry Douglas for a 22-yard gainer to midfield. Next, the Boston College product connected with tight end Tony Gonzalez for 19 yards and just like that, the Falcons were in field-goal range. Bryant took care of things from there.
Jim Harbaugh’s team is back in the NFC title game for a second straight year after sending Green Bay into vacation last Saturday night with a 45-31 win as a 2 ½-point home favorite. Harbaugh’s decision to go to second-year signal caller Colin Kaepernick has proven to be a stroke of genius and we saw why against the Packers.
Kaepernick threw a pick-six on the opening possession but spent the rest of the night making amends. The University of Nevada product rushed 16 times for 181 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 56-yard scamper to put his team ahead for good midway through the third quarter. Kapernick connected on 17-of-31 passes for 263 yards and two more scores.
Frank Gore rushed for 119 yards and one TD on 23 carries while also making two catches for 48 yards. Michael Crabtree had a team-high nine receptions for 119 yards and two TDs.
Kaepernick will be making his ninth career start on Sunday. In eight starts since taking over for Alex Smith, he has 12/4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. For the season, Kaepernick has rushed for 596 yards and seven TDs on 79 attempts.
San Francisco has been a road favorite five times this year, going 3-2 ATS. On Harbaugh’s watch the last two seasons, the 49ers are 5-4 as road ‘chalk.’
During Mike Smith’s five-year tenure, Atlanta has gone 4-2 ATS with three outright victories in six games as a home underdog.
The ‘under’ is 11-6 overall for the Falcons, 7-2 in their home games. Meanwhile, the 49ers have watched the ‘over’ go 10-6-1 overall, 4-4 in their eight road assignments. The ‘over’ has been a winner in four consecutive San Francisco games and seven of its last eight.
Kickoff is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. Eastern on FOX.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
I was at the Ga. Dome 14 years ago when the building hosted its first playoff game. Atlanta raced out to a 20-0 lead in the first half and almost had more when Chuck Smith picked up a fumble for a scoop and score. However, Smith’s TD was called back due to a penalty and Steve Young rallied the 49ers in the second half. In the final minute, San Francisco scored to make it 20-16 as a three-point underdog. Bettors appeared to be looking at a push until there was a bad snap on the extra-point attempt. Young, the holder, rolled to his left after gathering the snap and threw for a two-point conversion and an unfathomable cover in a 20-18 loss. The Falcons lost to the Broncos in John Elway’s last career game two weeks later
--Matt Ryan is 36-4 in 40 career home starts.
--The ‘under’ is 5-2 in the last seven head-to-head meetings between the Falcons and 49ers dating back to 2000.
--Updated NFL futures via 5Dimes: Patriots +100 (even money), 49ers +185, Falcons +610 and Ravens +880.
--Lines for potential Super Bowl matchups per 5Dimes (30-cent line, -115 both ways): 49ers -3.5 vs. Ravens, Patriots -2 vs. 49ers, Falcons -1.5 vs. Ravens, Pats -6 vs. Falcons.
--I’m not sure we can possibly overstate what an incredible football game we saw last Saturday night in the Mile High City. There were four guaranteed Hall of Famers on the field and three of them played poorly. Champ Bailey got abused all day and Ed Reed was way off of his game, missing a critical tackle at crunch time. Peyton Manning made plenty of good throws but there’s no way to look past his three turnovers, including a pick-six and an unfathomable interception that set the Ravens up for the winning score in an epic double-overtime classic. Ray Lewis, the other given Hall of Famer, played masterfully and inspired his team to victory in his ‘Last Ride.’ And what about Joe Flacco? The dude takes so much grief despite producing in January every season.
--Stat of the Week: Flacco has seven career postseason wins, while Peyton Manning has a 9-11 straight-up record during his career in the playoffs.