As it turned out, a transition has started in the NFC, a conference that was once dominated by Brett Favre and eventually sprinkled in hot runs by Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. But the divisional round created a new order.
On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons finally got their first playoff win for Ryan and head coach Mike Smith. Although Atlanta blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead, Ryan staged a stunning 41-yard drive in the final 31 seconds to set up the winning field goal. That gave the Falcons a 30-28 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Teammate Asante Samuel gave Ryan a new nickname. "He's 'Matty Black Ice,'" Samuel said. "Slick, you don't see it coming."
In the end, the best regular-season teams in the NFC advanced to the championship game. The Falcons finally lived up to their No. 1 NFC billing with their comeback win. The San Francisco 49ers, the conference's No. 2 seed, looked like champions with a 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.
The Falcons host the 49ers at 3 p.m. ET Sunday with the winner going to the Super Bowl.
Divisional weekend was justification for both winning NFC franchises. Smith and Ryan ended the abuse of being 0-3 in the playoffs. Jim Harbaugh had critics wondering if he cost the 49ers a Super Bowl trip by going with Kaepernick over Alex Smith. That debate ended when Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against the Packers and looked like a quarterback beast.
Kaepernick's game made Harbaugh look like a genius. And the Falcons lifted the weight of the world off their shoulders.
Here are 10 questions worth asking about the NFC Championship Game matchup:
1. What kind of game can you expect? I expect a close, crazy game. The Georgia Dome has been a drama stage since Ryan and Smith came on the scene in 2008. Of the 42 home games featuring Ryan and Smith, 24 have been decided by eight points or fewer. The Falcons are 19-5 in those games. Sunday's victory over the Seahawks was one of the wildest. The Falcons blew a 27-7 lead through three quarters. Seattle took a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds to go, leaving Ryan two timeouts to move Atlanta from its 28-yard line into field goal range. "We've been here before and we know how to do it," Ryan told his offensive teammates in the huddle. Sunday was Ryan's 10th fourth-quarter win at home. The team expects to have close games in the Georgia Dome. This was his fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season. He does have ice in his veins, and the experience of these comebacks makes him calm in these situations. It's the playoff games that have given Ryan and the Falcons problems. "In the other playoff games, we weren't in them in the fourth quarter," halfback Michael Turner said. It's possible for the 49ers to come into Atlanta and dominate the Falcons like they did Green Bay and other teams. I expect a close game, which could give the edge to Matty Black Ice. Since 2008, the Falcons are 29-12 in games decided by eight points or fewer and 12-8 in games decided by a field goal.
2. Did Kaepernick's success officially signal a switch for offensive strategies? No doubt. After Kaepernick destroyed the Packers' defense with the pistol and the read option, more teams will be looking for mobile quarterbacks who can run and throw. "When the quarterback can run like that, it opens up the arsenal for the play calling," Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "Obviously, if you can't stop the run, which is football 101, then it is going to be tough to stop the play-action and the deep routes." There is a "buyer beware" on the read option, though. Teams can't do it too much. Ask Washington. The Redskins stayed in pistol and read-option formations even though Robert Griffin III had a knee injury. We all saw how that turned out. The 49ers' win over the Packers, though, justified the escalation of these mobile quarterbacks -- Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, RG III and others. It's going to force defensive coordinators into finding solutions during the offseason. Green Bay safety Charles Woodson suggested the Packers might need to find bigger and faster players to counter these running quarterback attacks. You can't stay in as much man defense against a running quarterback. Green Bay didn't adjust well, and Kaepernick burned the Packers with runs when they played man on the 49ers receivers.
3. How will the Falcons defend the read option and pistol? It won't be easy. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton exposed the Falcons' problem in stopping the read option and the pistol in two games this year. Newton rushed for 202 yards on 18 carries and passed for 502 yards against Atlanta, helping the Panthers score 58 points. Falcons defenders spent this week's practice working on containing the Seahawks' running game, particularly Wilson, who is dangerous on the read option. The prime assignment was containing Marshawn Lynch. Success. He had 46 yards on 16 carries. Still, Wilson was the elusive one with 60 yards rushing and a touchdown on seven carries. "We're big guys so when you have a guy who is that small running around, it's hard for us to get him," Atlanta defensive tackle Corey Peters said. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said the problem with the read option is gap integrity. Offenses have six running gaps, while a 4-3 defense has four defensive linemen to fill those gaps. Plus, there is an element of trickery. "The quarterback has that sleight of hand in which he can keep it or give it to a back or throw it quick to the outside," Peters said. Defenders can't be caught out of position. Packers defenders looked lost trying to stop Kaepernick. Their adjustments were slow. Players after the game complained about the coaches not having answers for what Kaepernick was doing. The week of preparing for Wilson should help the Falcons in finding ways of trying to contain Kaepernick. Though he may be just as fast as Wilson, at least Kaepernick is a tall target. Still, he will probably get his rushing yards.
4. What QB-WR sleeper combination might be the most dangerous? The Kaepernick-Michael Crabtree combination is becoming one of the best in football. Kaepernick started the final seven regular-season games and Saturday's playoff game. In that span, Crabtree's caught 50 passes for 714 yards. Spread that out over a 16-game season and he would be a 100-catch, 1,428-yard receiver. What makes that stat more remarkable is that Kaepernick averages only 27.9 pass attempts and 17.1 completions a game as a starter. At least six of those completions are going to Crabtree. Even Crabtree can't explain why they have clicked so fast. "I couldn't tell you, it's just something that happens," Crabtree said. "We are out there trying to make a play. We both have one goal -- to try and win." Kaepernick offered similar respect to Crabtree. "He is a key player in this team," the quarterback said. "He is someone that we want to get the ball into his hands and see what he can do."
5. How is the health of each team? Left tackle Joe Staley (arm) was banged up and in a lot of pain during the 49ers' victory over the Packers. Halfback Frank Gore needed an X-ray but is fine. Defensive end Justin Smith was incredible playing despite a partially torn triceps muscle. He was on the field for 53 of the 49ers' 58 defensive plays and had five tackles. "He looked good," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "From my eye it looked like he was stout against the run, and his legend grows. What a player." Falcons defensive end John Abraham was carted off the field with an ankle injury during the regular-season finale, but he started Sunday. Abraham reinjured the ankle in the second quarter and couldn't finish the game. He limped off the field and took a seat on a chair before going into the locker room at halftime. His will be the most talked about injury prior to the NFC Championship Game. Label him very questionable for Sunday. Falcons backup cornerback Chris Owens was scratched because of a hamstring injury.
6. What does history say about the top-seeded Falcons' chances? History supports the Falcons now that they have won their first playoff game in the Smith-Ryan era. The last time an NFC No. 1 seed lost a championship game on home turf was the Philadelphia Eagles, who did it in 2002 and 2003. Since then, the past four No. 1 seeds hosting the NFC title game were victorious: the 2004 Eagles, 2005 Seahawks, 2006 Chicago Bears and 2009 New Orleans Saints. Like the Falcons, each of those four teams had 13-3 records. In three of those four cases, those No. 1 seeds beat No. 2 seeds.
7. Is there a roster trend going for both teams? Absolutely. Both teams have stable rosters. The Falcons started the season with only 13 new players, bringing 40 back from last year's team that made the playoffs. The 49ers added only 11 new players to the team that went to last year's NFC title game. The key addition for the Falcons was cornerback Samuel, who came from Philadelphia in a trade. Samuel played an important role in the Falcons' secondary, particularly when the team lost Brent Grimes for the season with a knee injury. The only draft choice who had any playing time was offensive lineman Peter Konz, Atlanta's second-round choice. The only major changes for the 49ers were at wide receiver. Harbaugh signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, but Manningham blew out his knee late in the season. Until Manningham's injury, Moss got around 15-25 plays a game, but now he's getting in the 40s. No team in football consolidates its playing time on defense better than the 49ers. Ten starters averaged better than 90 percent of the snaps on defense Saturday night. Only four other defenders came onto the field for a combined 36 plays.
8. What is the recent history of these teams? Atlanta was a member of the NFC West until the 2002 realignment, when the Falcons joined the NFC South. Since then, the Falcons have been 4-0 against the 49ers. These two teams haven't met since 2010, when the Falcons won, 16-14, in the Georgia Dome. In 2009, the Falcons went to San Francisco and won, 45-10. In 2007, the host Falcons beat the 49ers, 20-16. In 2004, the Falcons won in San Francisco, 21-19. The NFL has taken care of one of the problems for the 49ers. West Coast teams usually struggle in early games on the East Coast. In Sunday's 30-28 loss to the Falcons, the Seahawks extended the streak to six for West Coast teams losing 1 p.m. ET starts in the playoffs. Since 2001, West Coast teams are 1-6 in the playoffs in the 1 p.m. time slot. West Coast body clocks are adjusted to 10 a.m. The Seahawks, in fact, are 0-4 in those situations since 2001. What makes it easier for the 49ers is that the game starts at 3 p.m., which is an easier noon West Coast body clock adjustment.
9. How do the receivers and corners match up? Cornerback Carlos Rogers had another Pro Bowl season for the 49ers. He was beaten for 55 completions on 90 attempts for 575 yards and three touchdowns. Tarell Brown started on the other side and gave up 53 completions on 96 passes for 722 yards and only one touchdown. The third corner is Chris Culliver, who surrendered 39 completions on 75 attempts for 490 yards and four touchdowns while playing 64 percent of the snaps during the regular season. Ryan might go after Culliver. The Falcons attack with Pro Bowl-caliber receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Falcons cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Samuel only gave up a combined five touchdowns, but they were vulnerable to yardage. Samuel was beaten for 39 completions on 74 passes for 606 yards, while Robinson gave up 47 completions on 85 attempts for 738 yards. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't care much for stats -- his fantasy football is winning games. Crabtree is his main receiver, with 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. Randy Moss was a role player, with 28 catches for 434 yards. Vernon Davis is one of the most talented tight ends in football, but his numbers were down -- he had 41 catches for 548 yards and five touchdowns.
10. Who will advance to Super Bowl? In a game that might require yet another fourth-quarter comeback, I'll go with the Falcons now that they have won a playoff game. The 49ers come in with the better overall talent, with nine Pro Bowl selections compared to three for the Falcons. The difference is Matty Ice, or Matty Black Ice as Samuel calls him.