Programming note: Tune into 49ers Central tonight at 7pm for the latest on the 49ers leading up to Sunday’s NFC Championship in Atlanta, only on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
This is the second part in a series that spotlights five 49ers-Falcons matchups to watch Sunday, noon, at the Georgia Dome in the NFC Championship Game.
49ers LB Patrick Willis vs. Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez
Tale of the tape
Willis (52): 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, sixth season, Mississippi
Gonzalez (88): 6-foot-5, 247 pounds, 16th season, Cal
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, in his words, is "95-percent sure" he is going to retire after this, his 16th NFL season, comes to an end.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are 100-percent sure if they don't do a good job of defending the No. 2 pass-catcher in NFL history that Sunday's NFC Championship Game will not be his finale.
Gonzalez, 36, played a huge part in his first career playoff victory after all these years. The Falcons squandered a 20-point lead against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday and trailed by one point with 19 seconds to play when Gonzalez caught a 19-yard pass from Matt Ryan to the Seattle 31.
Kicker Matt Bryant booted a 49-yard field goal with :08 remaining to provide the Falcons with an improbable 30-28 victory to set up the showdown against the 49ers for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
"I've never, ever cried like that," Gonzalez told Mike Silver of Yahoo!Sports afterward. "I was down on the ground, crying. I was literally shivering. It's 16 years of frustration coming out, so much relief and so much happiness. That's the most emotional I've ever been."
If Gonzalez does decide to step away from professional football after this season, it will not be because he is no longer an effective player. On a team that also features wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, Gonzalez led Atlanta with 93 receptions. His 1,242 career catches ranks behind only Jerry Rice (1,549) in NFL history.
Not only has Gonzalez made the NFC Pro Bowl team in each of the past three seasons, but he was chosen first-team All-Pro last week. He has made 13 Pro Bowls and selected All-Pro six times in his illustrious career.
So, yes, the 49ers will have the difficult task of trying to defend all three of the Falcons' receiving threats.
All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis will often be asked to defend Gonzalez one-on-one, so the 49ers can devote safety help on the outside receivers. After all, White and Jones are capable of making huge plays. White had 1,351 yards receiving and Jones added 1,198 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdown catches.
The 49ers have generally done a solid job against tight ends this season after an opening three games that saw Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew and Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph combine for four touchdown catches. Late in the season, New England's Aaron Hernandez, whose style is more like a wide receiver, caught 10 passes for 92 yards against the 49ers.
Willis' tremendous speed and agility will be tested against Gonzalez. Willis emerged over the past two seasons as perhaps the league's best inside linebacker in coverage. Willis had nine pass breakups on the season, ranking behind only cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver (14 apiece), and safety Dashon Goldson (11) for most on the 49ers.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio turned Willis loose on three blitzes in the 49ers' NFC semifinal victory over the Green Bay Packers, and he recorded one sack on Aaron Rodgers and pressured him into two throwaways. But, it would seem, most of Willis' attention Sunday will be on Gonzalez.
This will be a star-studded matchup featuring two potential Hall of Fame players. Gonzalez appears to have already punched his ticket to Canton, Ohio, while Willis is well on his way with six Pro Bowl honors in his first six seasons.