San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns… (Monica Davey / EPA )
ATLANTA — Twenty years ago, Jerry Glanville, then the goofball coach of the Atlanta Falcons, concocted a way to get under the skin of the San Francisco 49ers.
Seeing as his team the year before had swept the 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, along with beating the L.A. Raiders and San Diego, Glanville lugged an enormous trophy on the Falcons sideline at Candlestick Park for a 1992 regular-season game. He called the hardware the California State Championship Trophy.
"It drove me crazy," former 49ers tight end Brent Jones told the San Francisco Chronicle this week, recalling the trophy and the 56-17 thrashing his team put on the Falcons that day. "I was so angry at the time. Here comes this clown pulling this stunt. It was really annoying."
The 49ers and Falcons will meet Sunday at the Georgia Dome, both pursuing a far more prestigious trophy. They will square off in the NFC championship game, one win away from the Super Bowl.
About 1,000 miles north, the New England Patriots will play host to the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC crown, a rematch of last season's conference title game.
"When you're growing up, these are the kinds of games you want to be in," 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald said.
For San Francisco, the feeling should be familiar. The 49ers played host to the NFC championship game a year ago, when they lost in overtime to the New York Giants, the eventual Super Bowl winners. In that 20-17 loss, San Francisco's offense ran out of steam, and in particular its passing game. There was one completion to a wide receiver — a three-yard gain by Michael Crabtree.
The 49ers tried to address that in the off-season, signing veteran receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, and using their first-round pick on Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins. But Manningham suffered a season-ending knee injury in December, and Jenkins has been a nonfactor, active for just three games and going his entire rookie season without a catch.
Crabtree was the team's leading receiver this season with 85 catches and nine touchdowns, not counting his two scoring catches in last weekend's divisional victory over Green Bay. The news about Crabtree late Friday was that police have questioned him about an alleged sexual assault in a San Francisco hotel after the win over Green Bay. He was neither arrested nor has been charged, and police say he's cooperating with them, but the situation could be a distraction. He is expected to play Sunday.
The biggest change on San Francisco's offense was the midseason switch to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick from Alex Smith. Kaepernick is a more explosive playmaker and last Sunday ran for a record 181 yards and two touchdowns, as well as throwing the pair of touchdowns to Crabtree.
The Falcons have had their hands full with mobile quarterbacks this season, surrendering a combined 202 yards rushing and 502 passing to Carolina's Cam Newton in two games this season, and struggling to slow Seattle's Russell Wilson in a last-second, 30-28 win over the Seahawks last Sunday.
Mike Nolan, Atlanta's defensive coordinator and former head coach of the 49ers, called Kaepernick "a game-wrecker" for a defense.
"He's got great open-field speed," Nolan said of the 6-foot-4 quarterback. "He's probably as fast as any of those guys [Newton or Wilson] in the open field."
The Falcons have an array of offensive weapons too, among them quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"He's a genetic freak," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said of Gonzalez, 36, who's said to be strongly considering retirement after this season. "He's a guy who can stretch you deep. He can still catch the intermediate. Last week, he had one of the best catches by a tight end in the National Football League in the back of the end zone.
"He can still make all the plays. You got to believe if he's 95% saying he's going to retire, he really wants to get this game and get a Super Bowl. We have to understand that."
Last Sunday's victory was a breakthrough moment for the Falcons, who were 0-3 in postseason games under Coach Mike Smith. That said, Atlanta players have no plans to exhale.
"Our goal is not to win one playoff game," Ryan said. "Our goals are still in front of us."
A real trophy awaits.