2 teams, different perspectives in NFC title game
ATLANTA — The Falcons are aware of how desperate this city is for its first Super Bowl championship.
Mike Peterson sees and hears it everywhere he goes.
“The city is hungry,” the Atlanta linebacker said. “You can feel it when you're in the grocery store. Everybody is saying, ‘Go Falcons.' Everyone is wearing red and black. The city is painted red and black.”
The Falcons will be playing in the NFC Championship Game for only the third time when they host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, a matchup of teams that come into this game from different historical perspectives.
For the 49ers, this is a chance to rekindle the franchise's glorious legacy, to follow in the footsteps of those magnificent teams that captured five Super Bowls titles in the 1980s and '90s, led by giants of the game such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
The Falcons? They've never won a Super Bowl. Heck, they've only gotten that far one time, during the 1998 season when a charismatic bunch known as the “Dirty Birds” shockingly made a run to the big game — and was promptly blown out by the Denver Broncos in John Elway's finale.
“They're trying to recapture greatness,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We're trying to break the ceiling on it.”
While the Falcons (14-3) are the NFC's top seed and playing at home, they opened as a three-point underdog against the 49ers (12-4-1), who looked unstoppable in last week's rout of the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.
The most dynamic player on that field was a quarterback who began the season as a backup. Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job when Alex Smith was injured, and coach Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision to keep it that way even when Smith healed. Never mind that the former starter had led San Francisco to the NFC title game a year ago and was one of the top-rated passers in the league this season.
Harbaugh looked like a genius when Kaepernick ran all over the Packers in a 45-31 victory, turning in one of the great performances in playoff history.
It wasn't so much that he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns. What really stood out was what he did when he kept the ball himself. Kaepernick scored two touchdowns — including a 56-yarder in which he looked more like sprinter Michael Johnson than a football player — and finished with 181 yards rushing, a postseason record for a quarterback.
While Kaepernick is just getting started on what looks to be a hugely promising career, Tony Gonzalez is winding things down.
The Atlanta tight end is already assured of a spot in Canton, having caught more passes than anyone in NFL history except Jerry Rice and revolutionized his often-obscure position. Despite a huge season in which he led the Falcons in catches, the 36-year-old has repeatedly said he's 95 percent sure this will be his final year.
Like quarterback Matt Ryan, he erased the one big blotch on his record by winning his first playoff game last weekend, making the final catch to set up Matt Bryant's winning kick.
But Gonzalez would really like to go out with a ring.
Two wins to go.
“That's the goal,” he said. “Win a championship and get out of here.”