1. OLD SCHOOL MEETS NEW SCHOOL
Today's NFC Championship Game is a contrast in styles at quarterback. Atlanta's Matt Ryan is 27, in his fifth season, a poised pocket passer who spreads the ball around to big, athletic pass catchers. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick is the new kid on the NFL block, a strong-armed athlete who moves like a gazelle. An influx of young, mobile quarterbacks into the league this year and offenses designed to exploit their running ability has some wondering if the quarterback position is evolving from the stationary surveyor of downfield targets toward a more dynamic player who also can gain big yards and deliver throws on the run. It makes for lively debate and if Kaepernick follows up his historic game from last week with another inspiring performance, it will no doubt energize those who claim change is afoot.
2. JUSTIN SMITH RIDES AGAIN
Smith, the 49ers' All-Pro defensive lineman, has gained near-legendary status for his strength and durability. He's known as "Cowboy" and the 49ers' "Iron Man." In last year's playoffs, he sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees by driving an offensive lineman backward into Brees and dragging Brees down with one hand. Smith, in his 12th NFL season, had played in one postseason game before last season, and he has been vocal about the 49ers seizing windows of opportunity before they close. Embodying that idea, Smith will play today with a partially torn left triceps, which requires him to wear a bulky brace on his left arm. Smith realizes that anything half-torn is susceptible to tearing the rest of the way. At the same time, his presence makes the 49ers' defense better, and he's not satisfied with last year's NFC title game loss.
3. LAST HURRAH FOR TONY GONZALEZ?
The Canton-bound tight end has said he's "95 percent" sure that this season, his 16th in the NFL, will be his last. Few careers have been more prolific. Gonzalez, a 13-time Pro Bowl selection, is second all-time in career receptions (1,242) behind Jerry Rice and seventh in receiving yards (14,268). A two-sport star at Cal, Gonzalez was a precursor to the league's current wave of athletic, playmaking tight ends some of whom, like Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, have basketball backgrounds. Gonzalez enjoyed his first playoff victory last weekend and is aiming to play in his first Super Bowl. With each step the Falcons take toward the big game, the chances of Gonzalez hanging up his cleats figure to increase.
4. GHOSTS OF PLAYOFFS PAST
The 49ers have won the Super Bowl five times, but they haven't reached the big game since the 1994 season. The Falcons lost their lone Super Bowl appearance after the 1998 season, but they have made the playoffs each of the past three years. Atlanta is coming off its first playoff win with coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan after going 0-3 in the playoffs. The 49ers came within one win of the Super Bowl last year and are all business this time around, saying they won't be satisfied without a trip to New Orleans. The 49ers last won a playoff game on the road on Jan. 8, 1989, at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears. The Bears' backup quarterback at the time? Jim Harbaugh, who last week shared his memories of that game: "Jerry Rice catching a ball down the Niners' sideline. Cold as heck. We got whipped."
5. A HAR-BOWL IS STILL IN PLAY Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, the parents of 49ers coach Jim and Ravens coach John, were quoted last week as saying they plan to agonize over the conference championship games from the solitary comfort of their own home. Both brothers have guided their teams to the NFL's final four for the second year in a row. Last year, the weekend wasn't a happy one for the family as the 49ers and Ravens both lost close games within hours of each other. If both win today John's Ravens are in a rematch of last year's title game with the Patriots the Harbaughs would become the first head-coaching brothers to meet in the Super Bowl. John still owns the advantage from their only regular-season meeting, a 16-6 win by the Ravens on Thanksgiving in 2011.