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NFC Title Game: 2 Teams, Different Perspectives

January 18, 2013
By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

ATLANTA - The Falcons are well aware of just how desperate this city is for its first Super Bowl championship.

Mike Peterson sees and hears it everywhere he goes.

"The city is hungry," the Atlanta linebacker said. "You can feel it when you're in the grocery store. Everybody is saying, 'Go Falcons.' Everyone is wearing red and black. The city is painted red and black."

The Falcons will be playing in the NFC championship game for only the third time when they host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, a matchup of teams that come into this game from very different historical perspectives.

For the 49ers, this is a chance to rekindle the franchise's glorious legacy, to follow in the footsteps of those magnificent teams that captured five Super Bowls titles in the 1980s and '90s, led by giants of the game such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young.

The Falcons? They've never won even a single Super Bowl. Heck, they've only gotten that far one time, during the 1998 season when a charismatic bunch known as the "Dirty Birds" shockingly made a run to the big game - and was promptly blown out by the Denver Broncos in John Elway's finale.

"They're trying to recapture greatness," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We're trying to break the ceiling on it."

While the Falcons (14-3) are the NFC's top seed and playing at home, they opened as a three-point underdog against the 49ers (12-4-1), who looked unstoppable in last week's rout of the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.

The most dynamic player on that field was a quarterback who began the season as a backup. Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job when Alex Smith was injured, and coach Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision to keep it that way even when Smith healed. Never mind that the former starter had led San Francisco to the NFC title game a year ago and was one of the top-rated passers in the league this season.

Harbaugh looked like a genius when Kaepernick ran all over the Packers in a 45-31 victory, turning in one of the great performances in playoff history.

While certainly aware of their team's proud background, most of the San Francisco players were molded by adversity. The 49ers went eight straight seasons without a winning record or trip to the playoffs under Harbaugh arrived in 2011 from nearby Stanford and immediately turned things around.

"This opportunity is rare," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It doesn't come that often even if we were here last year. The (eight) years before that, we were at home and didn't make the playoffs. Just to have that opportunity again to be here is one of those things we don't take for granted."

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

The Atlanta tight end is already assured of a spot in Canton, 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.

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.

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.

 
 

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