Playoffs  

 

Colin Kaepernick presents unique challenge for Atlanta Falcons

When I worked for the Dallas Cowboys, I participated in a number of championship games, and I remember every one of them. I especially remember how difficult it was to come up against a team in the playoffs that we hadn't seen all season.

Championship Sunday

Four teams are still alive in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. On Championship Sunday, that number will be cut to two. Check out NFL.com's comprehensive scouting reports on the surviving squads:

» Darlington: Niners on road to ruin?
» Kinkhabwala: Falcons face another test
» Jones: Ravens riding emotion
» Breer: Patriots savvy and spry

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This is what awaits the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game; they haven't played the San Francisco 49ers since Oct. 3, 2010. Making things even trickier, they've never gotten an up-close look at Colin Kaepernick, the Niners' young dual-threat quarterback.

Kaepernick absolutely shredded the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, racking up 444 total yards (263 through the air and 181 on the ground -- a rushing record for an NFL quarterback) and four total touchdowns in a blowout victory for San Francisco. He figures to be a challenge for the Falcons, as well, but it's not impossible to beat him. Here are four ways they can limit Kaepernick's impact and give themselves a chance to advance to Super Bowl XLVII.

1) Study up

The Falcons must review game tape of Kaepernick to figure out what kinds of runs he likes. Does he tend to go to the right? To the left? Up the middle? What happens when he pulls the ball down and runs?

Someone with the Falcons, most likely a quality control person, has already done a good bit of homework on Kaepernick and the 49ers. Usually, long before you even reach the playoffs, you try to guess who you'll be facing and do some research on them.

The Falcons should look at tape of the Niners' games against the Chicago Bears in Week 11 and the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 -- when Kaepernick was limited to 10 and 5 yards rushing, respectively -- to see how those defenses were able to succeed against him. They should also check tape of the Niners' two games against the St. Louis Rams, in Week 10 and Week 13; though Kaepernick ran well in both contests, he wasn't able to secure a victory. Tape of him playing for Nevada in college -- such as his game against Cal in 2010, when he rushed for 148 yards and three scores and threw for 181 yards and two touchdowns -- would also be useful.

2) Play keep away

The less time Kaepernick spends with the football in his hands, the less of a threat he'll be.

In the regular season, the Falcons averaged just under 31 minutes in time of possession. Getting that up to around 33 minutes -- and continuing to convert on 45 percent of third-down situations -- would help them against Kaepernick.

3) Make 'em throw it

The 49ers like to run. In the regular season, they ran 56 times more than they passed. The Falcons need to stop Frank Gore and Kaepernick -- holding the latter to less than 50 yards total and 4 yards per carry -- and force San Francisco into unfavorable down-and-distance situations. If they can do that -- and if they can take an early lead -- then the Niners will have to pass, and the Falcons will have a chance to utilize their pass rush.

The bottom line is, the Falcons need to keep Kaepernick in the pocket and make him beat them through the air. Though it'll be tough against San Francisco's talented, well-coached offensive line, Atlanta must get good push up the middle. In addition to controlling Kaepernick's running, the Falcons should take away his first read and force him to be a true pocket passer. If he's like most young guys, he'll have a bit of trouble reading the defense.

It seems like the 49ers want to limit Kaepernick's passing attempts to around 25 per game. If the Falcons push that up to around 40 or so, they could throw off San Francisco's game plan.

4) Remember how fast he is

One of the issues the Packers had last Saturday was that they seemed to be taking bad angles against Kaepernick while trying to tackle him. It looked like they forgot how fast Kaepernick is; as a result, he was able to run right past them.

As a team, Atlanta does not tackle well, so this will be a challenge. The Falcons really need to do everything they can to bring down Kaepernick -- and all the Niners, for that matter -- if they want to win.

GAME PREDICTIONS

» Atlanta Falcons 33, San Francisco 49ers 30

This is going to be a close one. Like I said, I worry about the Falcons' tackling. In addition to stopping Kaepernick, the Falcons need to be able to run the ball.

» New England Patriots 27, Baltimore Ravens 23

Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib needs to play well and help limit Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. The only way Baltimore has a chance is if quarterback Joe Flacco has a great game and Tom Brady has an awful one.

CHAMPIONSHIP MEMORIES

There's nothing quite like a championship game, and I'll never forget my memories of the ones I was lucky enough to take part in.

One of the most famous, of course, is probably the 1967 NFL Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers -- better known as the "Ice Bowl." In sub-zero temperatures, we lost to the Packers on a last-second touchdown by Bart Starr, and they went on to play in Super Bowl II. I think people will still be talking about that game as one of the greatest ever 100 years from now.

The thing about that game is we got beat on a play long before that Starr score. As part of the Packers' final drive, running back Chuck Mercein caught a crucial pass. The ironic thing about that is that I tried to sign Mercein during the season, but he chose to go to Green Bay instead because he thought they had a better chance to go to the Super Bowl.

I have another particularly funny memory about that game. The league used to have these parties before the championship matches. Before the Ice Bowl, about 35 people from each team went to the Oneida Country Club in Green Bay. We exchanged pleasantries and all that, all the while knowing that we were going to try to beat each other's brains out the next day.

The worst thing about losing in the championship game is that, of course, your world comes to an end for the year. It's especially rough on the road, when you have that long plane ride home. At least when you lose in your hometown, you can go back to your house, sit down with family and friends and kind of cry.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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