ATLANTA -- Get better each day. That's been coach Jim Harbaugh's credo for his 49ers.

Sunday, inside the Atlanta Falcons' Georgia Dome, we will learn whether one year of improvement can result in San Francisco's first Super Bowl berth in 18 years.

Twelve months removed from last season's NFC Championship game near-miss against the New York Giants, 20-17 in overtime, the 49ers indeed appear to be improved.

Defensive tackle Justin Smith said the 49ers are maintaining a humble mindset after last Saturday's 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers and have a better sense of the moment one year later.

"As a whole, we're better prepared to handle it and know what's in front of us," Smith said.

San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick speaks at the 49ers press conference at the 49ers practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif. on Friday,
San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick speaks at the 49ers press conference at the 49ers practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif. on Friday, January 18, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Staff) ( LiPo Ching )

And that includes triple-checking their list of things that went wrong. Here are six reasons the 49ers are sure to have a better NFC Championship game:

1. Better on third down

One of the most galling statistics in last season's NFC final was the 49ers' third-down efficiency: one first down on 13 third-down plays.

In last weekend's return to the playoffs, they also had 13 third-down snaps, and they converted eight into first downs. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick keyed most of those conversions, including a 45-yard completion and a 20-yard touchdown run on their second series.

Only three receivers in the NFL had more third-down receptions than Michael Crabtree's 30, on which he scored five of his nine touchdowns in the regular season.


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After converting just 29.4 percent on third downs in 2011, this season's team improved to 35.1 percent. That still isn't great, ranking 25th in the league. But guess which defense ranked 25th in third-down efficiency? The Falcons.

2. Ginn back, ready

Ted Ginn Jr.'s value never seemed larger than after last season's NFC final, which he missed because of a knee injury. His replacement, Kyle Williams, botched two late punt returns to spark the Giants' comeback win.

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore speaks at a press conference at the team’s training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., on Thursday, Jan.
San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore speaks at a press conference at the team's training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Karl Mondon/Staff) ( Karl Mondon )

The roles are reversed a year later. Ginn is ready to go as the 49ers' punt returner while Williams is out with a knee injury.

Ginn has lost only one fumble in his three-year tenure with the 49ers, and that came on a muffed return Nov. 25 at New Orleans. He ranked 10th in the league with an average of 10.2 yards per return, just off his 11.8 average with the 49ers.

Ginn's season has been steady instead of spectacular. That could change with one speedy return on the Georgia Dome's fast track. FYI: Ginn's untested backup is LaMichael James, another speedster.

3. Kaepernicking trumps nitpicking

The most obvious change to the 49ers has been Kaepernick's replacement of Alex Smith since Nov. 11. The offense seems alive and daring.

If his gutsy passes aren't zipping through a stunned secondary, then Kaepernick's legs might be darting through a crease and into the open field. His 181 rushing yards last weekend were the most ever in an NFL game by a quarterback, and it'll surely give the Falcons pause in their defensive planning.

Yes, Smith delivered a 28-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run in last season's playoff opener, and he had six carries for 42 yards in the NFC final loss. But Kaepernick's running ability is a far greater weapon.

If the Falcons devote a defender to spy on Kaepernick's every move, that will create one-on-one matchups elsewhere, perhaps even with Vernon Davis, who has a history of timely playoff catches.

4. Crabtree's emergence

Potential off-field issues notwithstanding (a sexual assault investigation involving Crabtree is being conducted by the SFPD), Crabtree has finally become the impact playmaker the 49ers hoped he would be.

Only one of Smith's 12 completions (on 26 passes) in last season's NFC final went to a wide receiver: Crabtree. That one catch summed up the 49ers' offensive ineptitude.

With the 49ers facing third-and-5 from the Giants' 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, Crabtree mustered a 3-yard reception, and the 49ers settled for a field goal, forging a 17-17 tie that carried into overtime.

Former 49ers star Jerry Rice, a few weeks later, criticized Crabtree's separation and burst, noting: "They feel there's potential there, but it'll be up to him to say, 'I want to be the best receiver I have to be, and I'm going to have to sacrifice some things.' "

Crabtree responded with a career-high 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. After the regular-season finale, Crabtree vowed to make amends for last season's playoff struggles. He had two touchdowns last Saturday.

5. Defensive familiarity

Their defense didn't cost the 49ers a shot at last season's Super Bowl, not when the Giants' winning field goal was set up by a fumble recovery at the 24-yard line.

So the 49ers gladly welcomed back all their 2011 unit for this season's run, and although linebacker Parys Haralson was lost to a triceps injury in August, Vic Fangio's defense is a finely tuned machine.

Their ability to communicate so well -- verbally and nonverbally -- helped six players earn Pro Bowl recognition. Their formula is the same as last season's NFC final: Stop the run, pressure the quarterback and don't allow deep passes.

6. No Eli Manning

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has as many interceptions as touchdown passes in his playoff career. One thing he doesn't have: a Super Bowl ring, which the Giants' Manning owned en route to a second one last season.

Ryan and coach Mike Smith finally celebrated a playoff victory last weekend after three failed attempts. The Falcons could exhale, just like the 49ers did a year ago after winning their first playoff game since the 2003 season.

The Falcons might come out content simply to be hosting the franchise's first NFC Championship game.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.