January 20, 2013

NFC Championship: Two teams, each looking at history

San Francisco wants to live up to its past, and Atlanta wants to erase so much can't-win stigma.

By PAUL NEWBERRY The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Colin Kaepernick
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Colin Kaepernick was awarded the quarterback job for the San Francisco 49ers over Alex Smith, who led the team to the NFC final a year ago. It’s been a paying-off choice: Kaepernick has become a running as well as a passing threat.

The Associated Press

Matt Ryan
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Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback, had the burden of never winning a playoff game finally removed last week, but now he and his team have much loftier goals.

The Associated Press

Defensive end Justin Smith noticed a divergent mind-set after the victory over the Packers, compared to what he felt a year earlier when the 49ers pulled out a last-second win on the Saints in the divisional playoffs.

"We were so excited after winning the Saints game," Smith said. "This was, 'All right, we took care of business, find out who we play, it's Atlanta, let's go down there and take care of business and try to get to the big one.' It definitely had a different feeling than last year."

The Falcons are coming off their first playoff win since the 2004 season, erasing a major stumbling block with their 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn't nearly as easy as the 49ers' victory.

After squandering a 20-point lead in what would have been the greatest fourth-quarter collapse ever in the playoffs, Matt Ryan brought Atlanta back in the final 30 seconds. Living up his nickname "Matty Ice," the fifth-year quarterback completed two long passes to set up Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining.

After going one-and-done in his first three trips to the playoffs, Ryan is finally a postseason winner.

A burden has been lifted, for sure.

"It's a good thing to get that first win out of the way," he said. "I think that everyone did a great job of not letting it distract us, but it can be distracting."

Now, to get started on a playoff winning streak.

"I feel the same as I did last week," Ryan said. "When you walk in and you turn on the film on a Monday or a Tuesday and you're getting ready to play your next game, there's a whole new laundry list of problems that you need to address. That's more of where my focus has been, and I think that's where it needs to be."

While Kaepernick is just getting started on what looks to be a hugely promising career, Tony Gonzalez is winding down.

The Atlanta tight end is already assured of a spot in the Hall of Fame, having caught more passes than anyone in NFL history except Rice and revolutionized his often-obscure position. Despite a huge season in which he led the Falcons in catches, the 36-year-old has repeatedly said he's 95 percent sure this will be his final year.

Like Ryan, he erased the one big blotch on his record by winning his first playoff game last weekend, making the final catch to set up Bryant's winning kick.

But Gonzalez would really like to go out with a ring.

Two wins to go.

"That's the goal," he said. "Win a championship and get out of here."

Kaepernick's performance against the Packers was so impressive that San Francisco actually became a bigger favorite during the week, at least according to the oddsmakers, who said Atlanta was the biggest underdog of any top-seeded team playing at home since the playoffs expanded in 1978.

The Falcons are comfortable with that role. All season long, they've been criticized for failing to win games impressively, even at the Georgia Dome, struggling mightily to beat lightweights such as Oakland, Arizona and Carolina.

"We've had that chip on our shoulder from day one," Peterson said, "but I don't think me or anybody in this locker room has a problem with playing the underdog role, playing the team that everybody's doubting. We've been that every week."

While the 49ers are two wins away from joining the baseball Giants in giving San Francisco a pair of sports champions, the Falcons are eager to turn Atlanta's reputation in a different direction.

In the 1980s, the city was saddled with some truly awful teams and well-deserving of its moniker -- Loserville. The baseball Braves turned things around in the '90s, going on an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles that included the city's only major championship, a 1995 World Series title. But even the Braves were known more for all their playoff flops than their lone title.

At least they captured one. The Falcons never even had back-to-back winning seasons before Ryan, Coach Mike Smith and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008. Since then Atlanta has strung together five straight winning records, four playoff appearances and two division titles.

Now all that's left is a championship.

The city is ready.

"If we could break that ceiling," DeCoud said, "it could usher in a great new era of professional sports in Atlanta."


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