When the Atlanta Falcons played in the NFC West, there was one team they rarely enjoyed playing.
The San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers repeatedly beat up on the Falcons each and every year.
Things have changed, obviously. The Falcons are now in the NFC South, as the league finally realized geography matters. And now the two franchises are a bit more even than in the past.
But there are bad memories. Jerry Rice running past Charles Dimry must pop up in the minds of Falcons fans from time to time. And whether it was Joe Montana or Steve Young, San Franciscos quarterback always had an easy time against Atlantas usually porous defense.
In a span of 10 seasons, starting in 1981 when the 49ers won their first Super Bowl, Atlanta was only 4-14-1 against San Francisco. The Falcons went four seasons (1984-1987) without winning a game against the 49ers.
The 1990s were a tad better, but not much. Atlanta finally swept both games with the 49ers in 1991, the season the Falcons went to the playoffs under Jerry Glanville. But overall, Atlanta was only 6-14 against San Francisco for that decade.
Whats the most ironic stat? Atlantas final season in the NFC West was 2001, and the Falcons went 0-2 against the 49ers that season. But since the teams have been in different divisions, the Falcons are 4-0 against San Francisco.
Its bizarre that the first time the Falcons host a NFC championship game will be against a franchise that has historically been a thorn in Atlantas side.
Heres the best part about this Sunday: Montana and Rice arent running through that tunnel. Those guys are gone. That page has been turned, and neither Bill Walsh nor George Seifert will lead San Francisco from the sidelines this weekend, either.
Instead, the Falcons are going to have to make their own history that will hopefully leave 49ers fans wishing they had played someone else.
Its also ironic that weve come full circle in another way for the Falcons. Not only do they have to play a former rival from the NFC West to make it to the Super Bowl, but they also have to do two things that head coach Mike Smith promised the team would do when he got the job.
Run the football effectively and stop the run.
Thats what he promised the Falcons would do, and, in setting that game plan, the Falcons indeed became a consistent winner. They got away from it a bit this season but yet still won. Sundays win over Seattle proved they can still do it if they have to.
Seeing Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combine for 162 yards was huge. It set the tone for the entire game and allowed Matt Ryan to do damage with his receivers. Seattle had the 10th-best rush defense in the regular season. San Francisco was fourth-best. So the Falcons will have to do it again if they want to go to the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks had Marshawn Lynch, the third-leading rusher in the NFL. Atlanta held him to only 46 yards Sunday. Now theyll face San Franciscos Frank Gore, the leagues 10th-leading rusher. So theyll have to stop another very good running back.
It wasnt so much that Atlanta stopped Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, but the Falcons limited his damage for most of the game. The test will be even greater this week with Colin Kaepernick, who is bigger and maybe even faster than Wilson.
So for Atlanta to win, the Falcons will have to do exactly what Smith said theyd need to do to win a championship when he took the job.
And theyll have to do it against a uniform that has created a lot of scars for fans through the years. Thankfully, guys like Ryan, Turner and the great receivers dont remember that bad history.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.