ATLANTA – Defense doesn’t win championships anymore. As the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers demonstrated conclusively in the NFC championship game on Sunday, defense is now flat-out optional for championships.
This wasn’t a football game. This was practice-squad target practice, with two of the NFC’s best quarterbacks locating whichever receiver they wanted, and those receivers carving out enough space in the secondary to build homes, swimming pools included.
Although Atlanta started hot, it became clear that this was going to be a game of whoever blinks, loses. And in the end, it was the Falcons, not the 49ers, who frayed under the playoff pressure.
Atlanta took the opening drive 80 yards, culminating with a 46-yard pass from Matt Ryan to a wide-open Julio Jones. Another Jones touchdown and a field goal by last week’s hero Matt Bryant, and boom, Atlanta was up 17-0.
But this is Atlanta, only seven days removed from that near-catastrophic collapse to Seattle. The Falcons led 27-7 going into the fourth quarter of last week’s divisional playoff, and won only on a last-second field goal. So the only people who could have possibly believed that the Falcons were Super Bowl locks were babies born in the last week, and chances are none of them were watching anyway.
They missed a heck of a San Francisco comeback. The 49ers determined pretty quickly that Atlanta had no answer for tight end Vernon Davis, and the seldom-used player turned into a 49ers centerpiece. He caught all five passes where he was targeted, totaling 106 yards and a touchdown.
In the second half, matters turned ugly for both teams. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw an interception and fumbled, and a costly Falcons penalty gave the 49ers added life. Colin Kaepernick didn’t resemble the gazelle that had annihilated Green Bay, but he didn’t need to; he kept the ball moving down after down, and against an overmatched Atlanta defense, that was more than enough.
The 49ers were able to win this game on the ground; LaMichael James scored late in the first half, and Frank Gore added two touchdowns in the second half. The 49ers finally surged ahead for good with 8:23 remaining on a Gore run, and then it was left to Matt Ryan to engineer yet another Falcons comeback drive. The drive stalled in the red zone, and Atlanta’s season ended with a Ryan-to-Jones completion that stopped 30 yards short of the end zone.
San Francisco now goes on to meet the AFC champion. The Year of Colin Kaepernick rolls on.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-
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