All season long an echo has followed the Atlanta Falcons. Win after ugly win has been followed by a murmur from beneath. A voice with a consistent message followed the team right up until last week’s near collapse against Seattle. The sounds which had been present in the team's locker room the entire year is now silent. Quieting the 49ers this week, and earning the right to play in the Super Bowl, is an equally large challenge.
The utterance was a distant memory when the Falcons led 20-0 Sunday. It was nowhere to be heard with a 27-7 edge at the start of the fourth quarter. When the Seahawks took a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left it seemed as though the voice might grab the public address system microphone and scream. After Matt Bryant kicked the game winning 49 yard field goal with eight seconds left, and Julio Jones intercepted Russel Wilson's hail mary pass to seal the win, the cry was finally muted.
A 13-3 regular season record and a quarterback who ranked among the leagues top five in touchdown passes, yards through the air, completion percentage, and QB Rating were not enough to silence the constant whisper. “Winning in the regular season is not new, but you have failed in the playoffs two straight years and have not won a postseason game since 2004.” Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez have now won a playoff game. The voice has been hushed. Winning a second postseason contest will not come easily.
The last time Atlanta won two playoff games in the same year was 1998. This year the Falcons won in the regular season thanks to playing the weakest schedule in the NFL, and the second softest in five years. There is nothing soft about the 49ers.
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San Francisco has won this year with a traditional QB, and a modern day multi-threat signal caller. They have limited opponents to the second fewest points in the league, and piled on points against playoff quality teams to the tune of 45 last week against Green Bay, and 41 at New England in week 15. If 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh qualified, he would have the third highest winning percentage in league history. Harbaugh's rate of winning slots right between John Madden and Vince Lombardi.
In beating Seattle last week the Falcons did something they have rarely accomplished. Atlanta rushed for 167 yards to go along with Ryan's 250 yards passing yards. The Falcons rushing attack ranked 29th in the league this season. If San Francisco's defense can stop the run without dedicating extra players to the effort it makes passing difficult. If Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers make the defense respect them, Ryan, Gonzalez, Julio Jones, and Roddy White will have a much greater chance to succeed in the passing game. Turner put together his best game in more than two months last week rushing for 98 yards on 14 carries. Rodgers ended the regular season strong with 78 yards on 13 touches against Tampa Bay, and added 72 yards on 10 carries and two receptions against Seattle.
The win against Seattle was the first for the Falcons against a playoff team since week five. The last time Atlanta beat playoff teams in back-to-back weeks was in 2008 when they knocked off Carolina and San Diego in late November. The echo is gone, the mountain to climb is still tall.