It's rare that a team makes a change at QB in he middle of the season and finds themselves in the conference championship game, but that's exactly what has happened in San Francisco when second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick took over for the injured Alex Smith in Week 10 and has started every game since, including last week's 45-31 defeat of the Green Bay Packers to earn the right to travel to Atlanta.
Against the Packers, Kaepernick made 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for making the move when he did. Kaepernick joined two other QBs in league history to have two-plus passing and rushing TDs and his 181 rushing yards are the most ever by a QB in any NFL game. In his eight starts, he's 6-2 with 12 TDs, four interceptions and four rushing touchdowns.
The fortunate thing for Atlanta is that the Falcons have seen similar QBs this season, including last week against Seattle. The largest difference between Wilson and Kaepernick is that Kaepernick at times seems to look for opportunities to make plays with his legs, while Wilson seems content to let running plays happen organically, but the two QBs are very similar and last week's Wilson test prepared the Falcons well for the Kaepernick show this week.
"I think Russell Wilson was the best example we can get for this week as far as Colin this week," safety William Moore said. "From last week, I think it prepared us a lot for this week. I think we'll be well prepared."
While Kaepernick is a rare talent, it's how he's changed the San Francisco offense that is the most impressive. Moving from a run-first identity, Kaepernick has infused the 49ers offense with big-play capability with his deep passing, a phase of the offense that works off of his threat to run and he still exercises that threat routinely. Falcons head coach Mike Smith said he compares favorably to Carolina's Cam Newton and when he's running in the open field, he's very dangerous.
"Colin's got some very good long speed," Smith said. "I think that was evident in the 57-yard run in the game on Saturday night. He's very impressive. He's long and picks up a lot of ground when he's running when he gets into the open."
The introduction of Kaepernick to the offense has coincided with the hot play of wideout Michael Crabtree. With a QB under center looking to go deep, Crabtree has emerged as a real threat in San Francisco's attack. In the past four games he's played he's averaging 115.8 receiving yards and has six touchdowns.
The Falcons will look at everything available to them when studying Kaepernick and the offense, going back beyond the QB change to understand what other players may do tendency wise.
"Each team has their own type of pass concepts that they want to do throughout a season," linebacker Akeem Dent said. "We go in and look at all the tape."
The key in defending Kaepernick is discipline, especially for the last seven guys in the defense. Linebackers and safeties need to ensure they hold their containment, which can sometimes be a tough challenge. Ignoring what they've been taught to do and run to the ball, they must be patient and wait for the play to develop, watching to see what Kaepernick does with the ball. If he breaks free, they must be prepared to defend the edges so the young QB can't find a seam. If he finds that seam, he can take it to the house with this athleticism and speed.
Although some of the skill sets are different with Kaepernick and Wilson, the idea of keeping them contained and making them beat you with their arm is the same from one QB to the other. Some of the other quarterbacks Atlanta has faced this season like Newton and Robert Griffin III offer those same lessons.
"(We'll be focused on) keeping the quarterback in the pocket," Moore said. "Those guys are good at extending plays and are good on their feet. I think they prepared us for keeping contain on Colin."
Although he's shined in his late-season rise and came through in the brightest of lights last week in the divisional round of the playoffs, Kaepernick is still a young player, doing much of what he's done for the first time. Confusion created by the defense can and should be a factor.
"We change the looks up on him," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "He's a great quarterback and he's doing a lot of great things for his team, but the common denominator is that he's still a young quarterback. He can't run from everything."
As has always been the case with the Falcons when they face a highly mobile QB, playing with a physical presence is central to keeping him in check. Against San Francisco, a team with a reputation for playing physical, that charge will remain in place, but no one expects anyone to roll over and give up.
"This is the championship," Moore said. "No guy is going to lie down after you smack him. He's going to come back and try to get you. You've got to be prepared for that type of game until it's over."