SANTA CLARA — In a typical Sunday-to-Sunday cycle, Wednesday is when an NFL team begins to install that week's game plan in earnest. Before filing into meeting rooms to look at video cut-ups, though, the Atlanta Falcons make a habit of conducting other business.
"We go over penalties as an entire team every Wednesday when we walk in this building," Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said on a conference call Thursday. "So we know who has the most penalties on the team, we know who has the least amount of penalties on the team."
For the record, tackle Tyson Clabo and defensive end John Abraham shared the team lead with five penalties each in 2012. That's not a lot of flaggage — which is typical of these Falcons.
Coach Mike Smith's team very quietly established 16-game NFL records this season with all-time lows in penalties (55) and penalty yardage (415). For the sake of comparison, the 49ers were penalized 109 times for 960 yards. Think it might have been a fluke? The 2010 Falcons had the third-fewest penalties in NFL history, with 58.
So the 49ers might stifle Atlanta's running attack this Sunday. Colin Kaepernick might hypnotize the Falcons with his galloping runs as he did the Packers last weekend, and Aldon Smith may rediscover his sack mojo. But if the NFC championship game comes down to a momentum-swinging penalty, the Niners are likely to come out on the losing end.
Atlanta's ability to stay within the rules is especially telling when you break it down by type of infraction. According to the site nflpenalties.com, NFL teams averaged 7.84 defensive pass interference penalties this year; the Falcons had one. The league averages for false starts and offensive holding — two calls frequently directed at the offensive line — were 19.25 and 19.97, respectively; the Falcons had 11 false starts and nine offensive holds. They were hit for delay of game once; the average NFL team did it 4.03 times.
The 49ers players might not know all the numbers, but they can recognize a fundamentally sound team when they see one on film.
"I think you definitely notice stuff like that because it shows up in other places, too — not just penalties, but their alignments, their assignments," fullback Bruce Miller said. "It shows up all over the field. So definitely a disciplined team."
"It's very important to us because at the phase where we're at right now, penalties can cost you, you know?" Robinson said. "Because anything you get right now is gonna be tough. So we understand that penalties can cost you, and we take pride in being the least-penalized team in the NFL. I think it's helped us win a bunch of football games. We let the other teams make mistakes, and we just go out there and try to play penalty-free and play a confident game."
The subject is of particular importance to the 49ers because, despite all their success this season, they have sometimes struggled to keep penalties down. San Francisco had the fifth-most penalty yards in the NFL this season, and the seventh-most penalties.
In the locker room, opinion was split as to how much those figures matter.
"I think it's just guys playing hard," Miller said. "I think a lot of our penalties come off big hits. I just think guys are playing hard and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time."