By Jim McBride Globe staff 49ers on offense: Colin Kaepernick presents a unique challenge. The 49ers quarterback with the howitzer arm and the legs of a gazelle had his NFL coming-out party against the Packers last Saturday, throwing for 263 yards and rushing for 181 — including a 56-yard TD run. Kaepernick, who shrugged off an early pick-6, is extremely competitive. He is a great athlete and can demoralize a defense with his ability to improvise — just when you think he’s in your grasp, he’s escaped the pocket and moved the chains. He will make some poor decisions and poor throws, but he has talented receivers in Michael Crabtree (he has good speed and strong hands), Randy Moss (you know all about him), and tight end Vernon Davis (he’s a beast after the catch). Frank Gore is one of the toughest runners in the NFL. He runs low, with his shoulders square, and always finishes by delivering a blow. LaMichael James has excellent quickness and breakaway speed.
Falcons on defense: Atlanta has a talented trio of linebackers in Akeem Dent (a great name for a defender?), Sean Weatherspoon, and Stephen Nicholas. The secondary is loaded with ballhawks, including Asante Samuel and Thomas DeCoud.
Falcons on offense: Matty “Ice’’ Ryan lived up to his nickname last week, driving Atlanta to a winning field goal in the waning moments for his first career playoff victory. Ryan has good size (6-5, 225 pounds) and an excellent arm. He throws a beautiful deep ball, can zip it across the middle, and has a nice touch on screens. Ryan is well-prepared, smart, and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He has deceptively quick feet, allowing him to buy extra time in the pocket. Ryan has a top-notch receiving duo in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Jones is an explosive player who uses speed and strength to gain separation. He has great acceleration and an impressive stiff-arm. White is a fluid route runner with strong hands and tracking skills. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has long been a big target with strong hands. He’s a monster in the red zone. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are short, muscular backs with quick feet and good vision.
49ers on defense: San Francisco has the best quartet of linebackers in the league with Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith manning the outside and Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman patrolling the inside. Safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are big hitters.
Special teams: The 49ers have talented return men in James and Ted Ginn Jr. Both return kickoffs, while Ginn handles punt returns. James averaged nearly 30 yards on 14 kickoff returns and Ginn averaged 23 on 11. Ginn averaged 10.2 yards on 32 punt returns. David Akers had a terrible season, hitting just 2 of 6 six attempts from 50-plus yards, but he did hit a 63-yarder. He gets to kick inside Sunday, which always helps. Punter Andy Lee averaged 48.1 yards on 67 punts. For the Falcons, Rodgers returned 23 kickoffs for an average of 25.7 yards, including a 77-yarder. Dominique Franks had a 7.8-yard average on 21 punt returns. Matt Bryant hit 33 of 38 field goals with a long of 55 yards in the regular season. His 49-yarder last Sunday beat the Seahawks. Matt Bosher averaged 47.1 on punts.
Miscellany: This is the second time the franchises have met in the postseason. The Falcons beat the 49ers in the divisional round in 1998 . . . 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is 2-1 in the playoffs . . . Falcons coach Mike Smith is 1-3 . . . San Fran’s Davis has 11 catches for 336 yards and 4 TDs in three career postseason games.