After two rounds of postseason play, four teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. On Championship Sunday, two teams will punch a ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. NFL.com has prepared a comprehensive scouting report for each of the surviving squads.
Since it's always natural to bring up the 49ers' illustrious Super Bowl history, we suppose it's also pertinent (even if slightly pessimistic) to point out a historical shortcoming. Not since 1989 have the Niners won a postseason game on the road (ironically, they beat a Chicago Bears team with Jim Harbaugh on the roster), a scary bit of context as San Francisco travels cross-country to a hostile, noisy environment. But let's forget long-term history. After all, the short-term perspective provides a similar reason to think the 49ers need to be extremely cognizant of potential road distractions. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been considerably more effective -- from yardage to interceptions -- when at home. So get your rest, 49ers. And prepare your ears. To make up for last season's NFC Championship Game loss, you'll need every advantage you can get.
Player to watch
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Frank Gore, RB: While Kaepernick has been the stunning spark in San Francisco's running game, Gore has provided the continued stability. The 49ers were one of three teams this season to run on more than 50 percent of their downs -- a testament to their trust in Gore to get it done. Coming off a 100-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers, Gore will need another big game Sunday to keep some of the pressure off his young quarterback in a tough environment.
Vernon Davis, TE: Until Davis came down with a key 44-yard catch to set up a touchdown in last week's game, the star weapon had been almost invisible since Kaepernick became the starting quarterback in Week 11. (Going back to Kaepernick's first start, Davis had caught just six passes before that big grab Sunday.) Davis originally pinned the issue on a lack of chemistry with Kaepernick, but it also might be a matter of the constant bracket coverage he's been facing. Still, Davis is one of the 49ers' most important players; the team must continue to break through these issues -- whether with more designed plays or more gambles -- to get the ball in his hands. He's too good not to be a key component in the passing game.
Matchup to watch
John Abraham vs. Colin Kaepernick: As Abraham continues to get treatment on an aggravated ankle injury that sidelined him for much of the second half against the Seattle Seahawks, all indications suggest he'll still be on the field against the 49ers. But how healthy will he be? Abraham is the team's best pass rusher (by far), proven by the Falcons' inability to contain Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter of a near-meltdown with Abraham out of action. Kaepernick is another mobile threat, and San Francisco would be wise to test Abraham early. If the Niners can wear him down with the option, they can exploit the Falcons' defense late.
Did you know?
Sunday's contest will mark the 14th time the 49ers have appeared in a conference championship game, tying them with the Dallas Cowboys for the second-most appearances of any team since 1970. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 15 appearances, have more. ... The Niners have won five Super Bowls, yet they are 2-9 in postseason games on the road, losing their last five such affairs. ... The 49ers are the eighth team to make back-to-back conference championship games with different starting quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Kaepernick) since 1970. ... Last week against the Packers, Kaepernick became the sixth quarterback to lead all players in both passing and rushing yards in a playoff game since 1970. San Francisco's Steve Young did so three times, while Joe Montana did so once. John Elway is the only non-Niner to accomplish this feat.
How the 49ers will win...
The 49ers have the best defense of any remaining playoff team -- in fact, they are the only team left with a unit that ranked in the top 10 in the regular season. That's going to be a major point of focus, considering the number of weapons the Falcons possess in the passing game. Yes, San Francisco is stacked. But so is Atlanta. The 49ers must play exceptionally well in pass coverage to make it to the Super Bowl, doing whatever they can to slow down the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
How the 49ers will lose...
While the success of the 49ers' defense is worthy of attention, it's also important to focus on the unit's deficiencies as it prepares for the Falcons. This has not been a very solid group in terms of stopping teams in the red zone, and the 49ers have given up far too many points in three of the past four games. Perhaps most notable? Aldon Smith doesn't have a single sack in that span. It's time for the 49ers to tighten up. It's time for them to rediscover their early-season dominance. It's time for Smith to get his pass rush back on. Otherwise, the 49ers are in serious jeopardy of losing on Sunday.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.