49ers back in same place, different settings

By From page B7 | January 18, 2013

They’ve already been here.

That’s pretty much the attitude that the San Francisco 49ers must have heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship game, but there’s subtle changes heading into this year’s matchup.

Alex Smith is pretty much done as the 49ers quarterback. Colin Kaepernick cemented his status as San Francisco’s long-term quarterback solution with a record-setting performance in their divisional round blowout victory over the Packers. The 49ers are playing at Atlanta, no home crowd this time to cheer them on, but no outdoor elements with the protection of the Georgia Dome’s roof.

So it should be a little easier to win the NFC title this year as compared to the last.

Though the 49ers are favored by Vegas oddsmakers to beat the Falcons, the road to New Orleans isn’t that easy. They’ll have to stop Atlanta’s passing attack, featuring Matt Ryan, along with receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. They’ll need Justin Smith and Aldon Smith to pour on the pressure to hurry throws from Ryan. Stopping the Falcons passing attack will be the key thing for the 49ers defense, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t want to center on that.

“You talk about defending the receivers you have to know how does that affect Gonzalez, how does that affect the running game,” Fangio said. “So you got to have a good plan in place to stop this offense. It’s not just a receiver driven offense although they are two of the best receivers in the league. They have good weapons all over the place and obviously a really good quarterback in Ryan.”

The 49ers now have a quarterback who Harbaugh actually trusts. That trust will be put back on the spotlight again to see if Kaepernick can repeat last week’s performance on a bigger stage. Kaepernick said he hasn’t rushed for as many yards in a game of similar significance at any level of his playing career after Saturday’s victory.

The question this Sunday is whether Kaepernick can put points on the board rather than yards against a Falcons defense that ranked fifth in points allowed per game in the regular season, but 24th in yards allowed. He certainly didn’t have a problem with that against the Packers.

In re-reading some of my older columns, I used to come down hard on Harbaugh for being too conservative, but that seems to have disappeared with Kaepernick under center. The question now is whether a second-year quarterback is poised enough to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his first real season? He’s already shown he can win a playoff game. He’s shown how dynamic Harbaugh’s offense can be with a quarterback that can run wild and throw the ball decently. Can he now get the 49ers over the hump Super Bowl XLVII?

“I don’t think there’s any hump we have to get over, but it’s a must-win game,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.

There’s a sign right outside the door to the 49ers locker room. It says, “You are either getting better or getting worse. You never stay the same.”

If the 49ers lose Sunday, what will it mean?

Reach Peter Fournier at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/p_fournier.

Peter Fournier


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