49ers begin studying up for Falcons

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 - 7:35 pm

SANTA CLARA – Coach Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers is referring to his team's preparation for the NFC Championship Game this week as "studying for the test."

The material – the Atlanta Falcons – is somewhat new, as the 49ers haven't played their upcoming opponent since 2010, when the Falcons had different coordinators on offense and defense. But the format, unlike a year ago, is familiar.

When the 49ers reached last year's NFC title game, long snapper Brian Jennings was the lone player holdover from the franchise's then-most recent playoff appearance in 2002.

This time, the 49ers' locker room is populated by players who have experienced the stakes of being one win away from the Super Bowl and the off-the-field obligations that arise in the week leading up to the game.

Harbaugh predictably was reluctant to say Monday whether that makes the 49ers better prepared for this year's NFC title game.

"We'll find that out on Sunday. We are just going to plow ahead with our focus on studying for the test and then go out and compete like maniacs," he said.

Offensive tackle Joe Staley, though, said on 95.7 The Game on Monday there was a noticeable difference in the 49ers' demeanor during their 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round Saturday from a year ago.

"There wasn't the ebb and flow of high emotions during the game," Staley said. "I felt like everybody was just very confident going in, very focused. It wasn't like, holy cow, we made it to the playoffs, all jacked up. It was just, we came in with the mindset to get the 'W.' That's going to serve us well going forward to this next game."

Staley said the players have a better idea this year of how to deal with the "distractions" of the week, such as increased media attention and ticket requests.

One major difference with this year's test is the classroom, as the 49ers have to travel to the Georgia Dome to face a Falcons team that Harbaugh described as "solid in every regard."

The Falcons ranked 29th in rushing (87.3 yards per game) in the regular season but ran for 167 yards against Seattle on Sunday. Quarterback Matt Ryan has two 1,000-yard receivers in Julio Jones and Roddy White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez had a team-high 93 receptions.

Atlanta ranked 24th in total defense but gave up the fifth-fewest points per game in the NFL (18.7), partly because of its opportunism. The Falcons had 35 takeaways in the regular season and forced two more against the Seahawks.

"They do an excellent job," Harbaugh said. "Getting to know them, that's where our focus is. We haven't played them in the two years that we've been here, so it's a task and challenge to understand what they're doing schematically."

For Harbaugh, the eighth NFL head coach to reach the conference or league championship in each of his first two seasons, the symmetry with last year doesn't end there. The Baltimore Ravens – coached by his brother, John – also are playing in the AFC title game for the second year in a row.

The Ravens beat the Denver Broncos on Saturday before the 49ers defeated the Packers. Earlier in the day, the Indiana men's basketball team, coached by the Harbaughs' brother-in-law, Tom Crean, beat Minnesota in a top-10 matchup. It made for a whirlwind day of sports watching for the Harbaughs' father, Jack, and mother, Jackie.

"My parents are in their 70s – that's a lot of excitement," Jim Harbaugh said.

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