The 2012 NFL Playoffs kick off this weekend with the wild card round presenting a variety of intriguing matchups. There are plenty of story lines to keep us all interested, but the most important part of the weekend is getting an opponent for the divisional championship round the following weekend.
If the New Orleans Saints win, they will travel to San Francisco. If the Saints lose on Saturday, the 49ers will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons-New York Giants contest on Sunday. The NFL does not technically re-seed, but the highest remaining seed faces the two seed, so the Lions will not be coming to San Francisco in the second round.
Yesterday, Dylan put together a quick look at the three potential 49ers opponents. The New Orleans Saints are the odds-on favorite to advance and Coach Harbaugh admitted on a radio interview that more of the 49ers preparations this week are with the Saints in mind, simply because of the percentages. However, much like the 49ers are still involved in some Giants and Falcons preparation, I thought I'd take a stab at breaking down all three possible 49ers opponents. Today we start with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Atlanta Falcons finished the 2011 season 10-6 and claimed the high wild card thanks to the Detroit Lions blowing there opportunity to lock it up against Matt Flynn and the Green Bay Packers. The Falcons made quick work of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday and claimed the five seed.
The Falcons head into the Meadowlands as a three point underdog against the Giants. The home game is huge for the Giants, but the Falcons are a team that I think could be a dark horse in the playoffs. They showed some inconsistency throughout the season that is not completely reflected in a solid enough record. At the same time, I think they have enough of the tools on their team to make a run in these playoffs.
On offense, the Falcons boast a potentially explosive passing attack and a grinding rushing attack. Michael Turner is their workhorse back and he sort of typifies some of the inconsistencies of the team. He finished third in the NFL with 1,340 rushing yards, but if you look at his game log, his weekly rushing totals are all over the play. There are times the Falcons have fallen behind and abandoned the run, but there are also times where they went in another direction as Turner struggled to get much going.
Given the 49ers strong rushing defense, the passing attack is the major threat. Matt Ryan finished the season with very solid numbers thanks in part to having a solid tight end in Tony Gonzalez and a pair of monster weapons in wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Those two can stretch the field like nobody's business and that is an area where the 49ers can sometimes struggle. The 49ers gave up twelve pass plays of 40+ yards, which tied for fifth worst in the NFL. In 65 quarters of action (one OT period in the Cowboys loss), that amounts to one 40+ play every 5.4 quarters. Maybe the 49ers don't give up such a play against the Falcons, but Atlanta's deep threats would be a huge challenge to the 49ers secondary.
On defense, the Falcons are sort of a mixed bag. Football Outsiders ranked them third against the rush and tenth against the pass. The Falcons finished sixth in the league in total rushing yards allowed, but 15th in yards per carry allowed. Against the pass, they finished 20th in total yards allowed, 18th in opponent completion percentage and 17th in yards per attempt.
Their pass rush ranked in the bottom quarter of the league but it is worth noting that they are number one in red zone defense. The 49ers have found red zone success the last three weeks, but this would present a fairly stiff challenge to that success.
I still think the 49ers end up playing the New Orleans Saints given their first round matchup with the Detroit Lions. However, I also think Atlanta beats the slightly favored Giants to set up a rematch with the Green Bay Packers. The Packers beat the Falcons 25-14 in early October but actually trailed 14-0 at one point in the second quarter. Three months will have passed since that game and a lot has changed, but that previous result will likely be on some minds heading into the game.
But, if the Saints do get upset by the Lions, I think the Falcons could be coming to Candlestick next week.