(Reuters) - The Atlanta Falcons are one game from finally turning their Super Bowl potential into reality but while their presence in the NFC Championship game is no shock, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is certainly a surprise element.
Sunday’s game in the Georgia Dome will arguably come down to whether Atlanta’s defense, which has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season, will be able to cope with the fast read-option plays of the thrillingly unpredictable Kaepernick.
Atlanta have everything else in place.
They have a reliable and accomplished orthodox quarterback in Matt Ryan who is well protected by a strong offensive line.
The Falcons have a powerhouse running back in Michael Turner, two of the league’s top receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones and one of the finest tight ends in the league’s history in 16-year performer Tony Gonzalez, who is looking for a first Super Bowl in what is likely his final season.
On the other side of the ball, Mike Smith’s team had the sixth ranked defense in the NFC against both the pass and the rush.
But the playoffs are all about the moment, about peaking and about individuals finding that little extra when it really matters and no-one in the NFL is doing that more than Kaepernick.
The 49ers are back, one win from the Super Bowl again, after last year’s agonizing defeat to eventual winners, the New York Giants, at the same stage of the season.
Even more than the Falcons, San Francisco has a team that has quality on both sides of the ball with the third ranked overall defense and the fourth best rushing offense in the league.
But while the 49ers know exactly what to expect from the dependable Ryan, their own offense has had the Falcons studying hard this week.
The 25-year-old Kaepernick started his season as back-up to Alex Smith, used only in wildcat plays, but when the Smith was injured in week 10 against the St. Louis Rams, the former University of Nevada quarterback was given his chance.
Last week he ripped apart the Green Bay Packers with a thrilling example of the dual-threat quarterback collecting 263 yards through the air and two touchdown passes combined with 181 yards rushing and two running touchdowns.
Atlanta’s coach knows to expect the unexpected.
“It is a challenge and I think we’ll find out early in the ball game what the formations are going to be. I think we’re going to see things that we haven’t seen, in terms of what they’re going to do with their formations,” Smith said.
The Falcons have not done well this season against quarterbacks similar to Kaepernick such as Carolina’s Cam Newton and they will need to be alert to San Francisco’s heavy use of fake plays, particularly the fake hand-off which they excel at in the read-option.
“Everybody understands how critical that is to the play. It is a key component to the play,” says 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
“I felt like Colin, because of his extensive use of that type of offense in college, came in here to the NFL with a real good understanding of that,” Roman said.
Adding to the concern for the Falcons’ defense is that Kaepernick has such good options available. He can hand off to such a fine running back as Frank Gore or throw to proven wide receivers Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree or tight end Vernon Davis and of course he has the speed and strength to run into the end zone himself.
There is pressure on both teams to get to the Super Bowl this season after both reached the playoffs last season.
The 49ers are looking for a sixth Super Bowl win, which would equal the record held by the Pittsburgh Steelers but which would be their first since the 1994 season.
The Falcons have made just one appearance in the ultimate game - in the 1998 season when they lost 34-19 to John Elway and the Denver Broncos
The Falcons have made the postseason in three of the past four seasons but went out after a game on each occasion.
“We’re right there now, we are right at the door,” said Gonzalez.
“We just have to push it open a little bit more.”
Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami, editing by Gene Cherry