Shanks: Home field will make difference for Falcons

sports@macon.comJanuary 19, 2013 

Sunday’s NFC championship game in Atlanta is arguably the second-most important game in the history of sports in the state of Georgia.

I would count Game Six of the 1995 World Series, when the Braves had the chance to beat Cleveland for Atlanta’s first professional title, as No. 1 on the list. It counts more since the Braves got the job done that night to finally win a championship.

But Sunday we’ll experience something that has never happened: a home conference title game for the Falcons. This is so unlike what happened in 1999 when they beat Minnesota or in 2005 when they lost to Philadelphia.

This game is in Atlanta.

The Falcons had their rehearsal last week against Seattle. This week is the real deal. We might call the next game the same thing if they make it, but when you’re in a position to go to the Super Bowl and you’re at home, you put all the cards on the table and go for it.

Atlanta will benefit from last week’s close win over the Seahawks in so many ways. First, the black cloud that hung over this team for not winning a playoff game in this era is now gone. They’ve gotten that out of the way. The pressure should be off, and they’d probably tell you one by one that the pressure of getting that first postseason win under the belt might be more than what they’ll face Sunday.

Second, the preparation for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson will only help in getting ready for San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can take what his unit did right against Wilson and what it did wrong to formulate a strategy against a similar player.

Atlanta’s defense did so well last week in stopping Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. If that defense can do the same thing against 49ers running back Frank Gore, then the pressure will be squarely on the shoulders of Kaepernick. If he gets it done as easily as he did against Green Bay last week, then San Francisco will probably win the game.

John Abraham has to be healthy for Atlanta, and the Falcons must have solid play from the secondary. It’ll help that safety William Moore, who missed the final four games of the regular season with a hamstring injury, shook off the rust last week against Seattle.

While the Falcons have to contend with San Francisco’s offensive weapons, the 49ers have probably had nightmares about what Atlanta will throw at them Sunday.

Not many teams have been able to contain Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Quarterback Matt Ryan has tremendous targets, and, as long as he’s standing upright for most of the game, as he did last week, he should be able to hit them.

The 49ers have a better pass rush than the Seahawks showed Ryan, and that will matter. That puts the pressure on Ryan’s offensive line once again, and we all know that teams win titles when they can win the line of scrimmage. That’ll be the key for Atlanta.

It’ll be fun to see what Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will do early on with the offense. Will he do like last week and try to establish the run game? Or will he try to wear down the San Francisco defense by going to the no-huddle?

Either way, the Falcons must get a similar performance from running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. They combined for 162 yards last week against the Seahawks, and, if that number is cut in half or lower, chances are the Falcons will watch the Super Bowl from their living rooms instead of traveling to New Orleans.

That’s the other unbelievable thing about Sunday’s game. If Atlanta wins, the Falcons will play the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Heck, that should be enough motivation right there. How perfect would that be for this team to play on that field to try and win it all?

They’ll get that chance. It’s just hard to pick against Atlanta now. This team just finds a way to win, and the Falcons will do it again Sunday. They’re playing a great team, but the home field advantage has been a key for this team and it will matter when they beat San Francisco 30-20.

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.

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