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49ers Advance to NFC Title Game

Posted Jan 14, 2013

Watch out National Football League – there’s more plowing on the way for the San Francisco 49ers.

A franchise-best 323 postseason rushing yards turned in against the Green Bay Packers won’t do, not when San Francisco longs for a sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The 49ers will embark on the next step in their quest for a sixth Super Bowl title on Sunday when the franchise plays in its 14th conference championship game against the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons.

It also happens to be the second consecutive appearance the 49ers have made under second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, who guided his team to a 45-31 win over the Packers in the NFC Divisional Playoff round.

Although Harbaugh is pleased to see the franchise advance to the NFC title game, by no means is the 49ers head coach satisfied.

“I think mainly we’re going to plow ahead,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “We’re going to continue our humility and work ethic and those will be the cornerstones of our preparation.”

A humble approach remains constant in San Francisco’s locker room.

Even after amassing the most single-game yards in franchise playoff history against the Packers (579 total yards of offense, 323 rushing and 256 passing), the team is not satisfied with merely getting back to the conference title game.

No, in Harbaugh’s mind, there’s more plowing to be done.

The preparation starts with a heavy dose of Falcons film study. Already, Harbaugh sees a tough matchup on the horizon from the NFC’s No. 1 seed, a team that finished the regular season 13-3 with a 7-1 home record.

“They had a great season, top seed,” Harbaugh said of Atlanta, who narrowly defeated the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 for the franchise’s first postseason victory under fifth-year head coach Mike Smith. “They’re coming off of a game that gives them a lot of momentum.”

Simply put by Harbaugh, the Falcons are, “solid in every regard.”

Led by Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan who threw for 4,719 yards to go along with 32 touchdown passes, there’s plenty of talent surrounding the Pro Bowl passer.

At wide receiver, Atlanta features two of the game’s elite pass-catchers in Roddy White and Julio Jones. The tandem combined for 17 touchdowns and 35 receptions that went for 20-plus yards in the regular season. Against Seattle, both turned in key plays: White caught a 44-yard touchdown, Jones intercepted Seattle’s Hail Mary attempt on the game’s final down.

“It’s a big task, a big challenge,” Harbaugh said of Ryan’s cast of weapons, a group that includes 15-year veteran Tony Gonzalez at tight end.

“You can’t pay attention too much to one guy because several can hurt you,” Harbaugh went on to say.

Perimeter weapons aside, it wasn’t just Atlanta’s offense responsible for a dominant regular season. A rushing attack led by hard-running veteran Michael Turner, coupled with strong defensive and special teams units contributed heavily to the Falcons success.

Atlanta’s defense is also coached by a familiar name in San Francisco’s locker room, former 49ers coach Mike Nolan. The Falcons defense, which held Seattle scoreless in the first half of the Divisional Playoff win, impressed Harbaugh with its versatile looks. Besides good defensive schemes in the eyes of the 49ers coach, Atlanta’s special teams are solid as well.

“The big task will be the Atlanta Falcons and preparing for them,” Harbaugh said. “They do an excellent job. Getting to know them, that’s where our focus is… It’s a task, a challenge to understand what they’re doing.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Atlanta will have plenty of film study to do this week. With the 49ers racking up 579 yards of offense against Green Bay, the team unleashed several playmakers in postseason play.

In fact, San Francisco became the first NFL team to ever have two, 100-yard rushers and one, 100-yard receiver in a postseason game.

Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, the most in single-game postseason history for the 49ers and for all quarterbacks in league history. Not to be forgotten, Frank Gore posted a 119-yard rushing performance and Michael Crabtree added 119 receiving yards, good for their first, single-game 100-yard postseason performances.

Kaepernick’s performance was most unique. The youngest quarterback to start in 49ers postseason history (25 years, 2 months, 9 days) was more than ready for the big stage. The 6-foot-4 signal-caller used his long legs to dash away from Green Bay’s defense. Kaepernick set the NFL single-game quarterback record for 181 rushing yards to go along with two rushing scores.

In Kaepernick’s case, speed very much killed Green Bay’s chances of winning.

“It’s an asset that he has, a talent,” Harbaugh explained. “He’s been able to use that in a number of ways.”

But it wasn’t just running the football that made Kaepernick a matchup nightmare. In addition to his pair of rushing scores, Kaepernick tossed two touchdown passes to Crabtree, finishing the night 17 of 31 with 263 passing yards and one interception.

“There were some throws that were piercing,” Harbaugh said of Kaepernick.

Though the 49ers dropped a few of Kaepernick’s rocket-like passes, Harbaugh felt it was understandable, sharing that he had dropped a few passes in warm-ups much to his chagrin.

“I know Scott Tolzien’s over there counting,” Harbaugh joked.

More importantly than Harbaugh improving his hands, the 49ers coach believes his players have worked hard to snag the fastballs thrown by Kaepernick.

“I definitely see the guys adjusting to Colin’s throws,” Harbaugh said.

The group is improving at it, but Crabtree seems to have it mastered. The fourth-year wideout has six touchdown catches in his past four games.

“Name a guy who catches the ball better,” Harbaugh said of his leading wideout. “Tremendous game by him, once again.”

The 49ers coach extended his praise towards the offensive line, a unit that allowed one sack to the Packers all game. Harbaugh praised Joe Staley’s toughness for playing hurt for most of the game and added that Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati graded out better than any game this season.

“To rush the ball for over 300 yards is about as good as you can do,” Harbaugh said. “Those guys up front deserve the credit… Toughness is a talent our offensive line has shown that they have.”

Furthermore, both sides of the ball were commended for tough play.

Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith returned to action after missing the final two regular season games. Harbaugh was more than pleased with what he saw from the defensive co-captain.

“Played well, came out of the game as clean as possible,” Harbaugh said.  “He was out there a good amount.”

Harbaugh applauded his defense holding Rodgers and Green Bay’s offense out of the end zone for most of the game.  The 49ers coach also raved about special teams play and turnovers forced by C.J. Spillman on a muffed punt and a deep interception turned in by cornerback Tarell Brown.

Both first-half turnovers led to Crabtree’s touchdown receptions.

So while the 49ers gear up for another big-time postseason game, there’s comfort from being back in the same spot as last season’s team.

That, in essence, also means that San Francisco’s focus is as sharp as ever with the ultimate goal of reaching the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl now in sight.

“We are just going to plow ahead with our focus on studying for the test and then go out and compete like maniacs,” Harbaugh said.

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