If you were to write down all of the top quarterbacks the 49ers have defeated this season, you might also have a list of future Hall of Famers.
Aaron Rodgers (twice), Tom Brady, Drew Brees – they’ve all fallen victim to the stingy San Francisco defense since September.
But now the calendar reads January and a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. If the 49ers want to reach their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history, they’ll have to slow down Matt Ryan and the potent Atlanta offense.
Not that anyone on the 49ers defense is flinching.
“We’ve played against the who’s who of quarterbacks in the National Football League,” Pro Bowl safety
After completing an NFC-best 68.6 percent of his passes for 4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, Ryan was named to the second Pro Bowl of his career this season. But the fifth-year veteran was still without a postseason victory until last Sunday, when he showed why some like to call him “Matty Ice.”
Ryan was cool under pressure despite his team falling behind 28-27 with just 31 seconds left against the Seattle Seahawks. Facing the 1-point deficit at his own 28-yard line, Ryan connected with receiver Harry Douglas and tight end Tony Gonzalez on two quick passes to bring the Falcons to the Seattle 31 with 13 seconds left.
Moments later, Matt Bryant booted through the game-winning field goal which set up San Francisco with a trip to Atlanta for the NFC title game.
Ryan might not have the career-long credentials of the aforementioned quarterbacks, but he has two teammates those other don’t: Roddy White and Julio Jones. The two talented wideouts established themselves as arguably the top tandem in the league in 2012, as White hauled in 92 catches for a team-high 1,351 yards and seven touchdowns while Jones had 79 receptions for 1,198 yards and 10 scores.
“Those guys do a good job of creating matchups,” two-time Pro Bowler
As Goldson mentioned, White (6-foot, 212 pounds) and Jones (6-foot-3, 220) boast a rare blend of size and speed that make them threats in all routes in the passing game. Across the middle, intermediate routes or big plays down the field – White and Jones can do it all.
“He’s very confident in his guys,” Goldson said of Ryan. “He’s a comeback kid. He does a lot with his arm; lot of arm strength and he’s pretty smart with the football. Disguising will be our challenge this week.”
But just as they’ve faced elite quarterbacks this year, the 49ers have squared off against some of the game’s top big-bodied receivers as well. In four contests against Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald (twice) and Brandon Marshall, the 49ers gave up a combined 17 catches for 180 yards and one touchdown. Averaged out, that’s about 4 catches and 45 yards per game.
Both Whitner and Goldson said it will be paramount to wrap up White and Jones, who have made defenders miss at the second level on the way to long touchdowns this season.
“I think they’re unique in the two guys that they have,” Whitner said. “They have two special talents at wide receiver and that’s a why they’ve been having the success that they have.”
Not to mention the Falcons also feature the ageless wonder Gonzalez, who grabbed a team-high 93 catches for 930 yards and eight touchdowns this season en route to being named to his 13th Pro Bowl, the most for any tight end in NFL history.
But what makes Ryan so dangerous isn’t just his arm, but his smarts. Known as one of the most cerebral signal-callers in the league, Ryan is often playing mind games with opposing defenses as they set up at the line of scrimmage. As such, disguising coverages and schemes is always a key for slowing him down.
“If you have a bunch of guys that are conscious of that, you can disguise and play with the quarterbacks and don’t give them what they want,” Whitner said. “They have to take a couple seconds longer than what they want, and by that time the pass rush is there.”
Along with his partner-in-crime
“He can run,” McDonald said. “If we give him those, open up our rush lanes, he can take off and run. He can move a little bit. People think that he can’t run, but he can.”
The hoopla and hype is steadily growing as the 49ers move closer to the Super Bowl, but this isn’t uncharted territory anymore. San Francisco is working hard to move past last year’s 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game.
It might be Tuesday, but McDonald and the 49ers are already eager to get to Atlanta.
“You’re already amped up for the game, but guys get a little more amped up for championship games,” McDonald said. “When you’re growing up, these are the kind of games you want to be in. You put a little extra oomph in every hit.”