To reach the Super Bowl this year, the 49ers will have to accomplish something they haven't done since Bill Walsh roamed the sideline and Joe Montana threw passes to Jerry Rice win a playoff game on an opponent's field.
The road to New Orleans will go through Atlanta and the Georgia Dome after the top-seeded Falcons held off Seattle 30-28 in their divisional-round game Sunday. The Falcons will host the 49ers at noon next Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.
It will be the first time the 49ers, who beat the Green Bay Packers 45-31 in the divisional round, under coach Jim Harbaugh have faced the Falcons. By beating the Packers on Saturday night, the 49ers moved within one win of the Super Bowl for the second season in a row.
"Now we know how it felt; we got there last year," running back Frank Gore said after the game. "Another year, we want to get it."
In their way is a Falcons team that won its first playoff game in its fourth chance under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, the highest-rated passer (99.1) from the regular season still standing in these playoffs.
The 49ers bounced the league's highest-rated passer in Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (108.0), improving to 5-1 this season against quarterbacks ranked in the top 10. The loss came against the Seattle Seahawks and rookie Russell Wilson in Week 16.
One of Sunday's more intriguing subplots, though, will be on display when the 49ers have the ball. The task of scheming for quarterback Colin Kaepernick this week, following his record-setting performance against Green Bay, goes to Falcons defensive coordinator and former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan.
Nolan's unit had its hands full Sunday with a mobile quarterback in Wilson, who threw for 385 yards and had seven carries for 60 yards.
Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 181 yards an NFL single-game playoff record for a quarterback and two scores to jolt the 49ers' offense against the Packers. The 49ers, who amassed 323 rushing yards, had particular success running the read option with Kaepernick and backs Gore and LaMichael James.
"The one thing that it kind of does is (it) makes you a little bit indecisive," Packers safety Charles Woodson said after the game of the read-option plays. "You want to shoot in there, but (Kaepernick) may hold the ball and take it outside. If you go outside, he might give it to the running back to take it up the middle. It is one of those things that makes you play flat-footed a little bit, and just that little bit, they get positive yards."
The Falcons saw some of that against Seattle and in twice facing Carolina and its big, mobile quarterback Cam Newton this season. Newton rushed 18 times in those two games, which the teams split, for a combined 202 yards.
In its first season under Nolan, who went 18-37 at the 49ers' helm from 2005 through 2008, the Falcons' defense ranked 24th during the regular season in total defense, including 21st against the run (123.2 yards per game) and 23rd against the pass (242.4).
It will be the second postseason meeting between the 49ers and Falcons, who won 20-18 in the divisional round on Jan. 9, 1999.
The 49ers' last playoff win as a road team came Jan. 8, 1989, against the Chicago Bears in the NFC title game when Kaepernick was 14 months old.
The 49ers have lost their past five postseason road games, though they have won twice in that span at neutral sites in the Super Bowl. Their last road playoff game was a 31-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Jan. 12, 2003.
The Falcons in recent years have made the Georgia Dome a tough place to play. In five seasons under Smith, Atlanta is 34-8 at home, including two playoff games.