The San Francisco 49ers are one win away from the Super Bowl for the second straight season and, in their emphatic 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers last Saturday night, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick sent a message to the rest of the NFL: There's a new sheriff in town and he ain't messing around.
It was considered a controversial decision when San Francisco head coach Jim Harbuagh made the mid-season decision in Week 11 to stick with Kaepernick over Alex Smith, who was having a solid season in his own right before suffering a concussion and who guided the 49ers to within an overtime loss to the New York Giants of Super Bowl XLVI last year.
Now, with Kaepernick running the read-option offense with brutal efficiency, while breaking NFL records ensures that controversy can safely be put to rest.
I don't think that anyone, at this point, questions the wisdom of Harbaugh's decision to go with Kaepernick.
The only question left now is, how do you stop him?
That's a difficult question to answer. Just ask Atlanta defensive coordinator and former-San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan, who just watched his defense get gashed by Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks (60 rushing yards as Seattle's leading rusher in the Divisional Round) and now is put with the task of reversing that trend.
The problem is that Kaepernick can beat you in so many ways.
First and foremost, there are the legs that propelled him to 181 yards on the ground against the Packers, an NFL record for a quarterback.
Then there is the nature of the read-option offense.
Quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin of the Washington Redskins and Wilson have been giving NFL defenses fits all season long with variations of the option and right now Kaepernick, who has extensive experience with it from his time in the "pistol" at Nevada, is running it as well as anyone in the league.
The misdirection and confusion that the offense wreaks on defenses has been driving coordinators up a tree all season long.
Follow the quarterback and the tailback rips you up the gut, as Frank Gore did to the tune of 119 rushing yards on the ground.
Bite on the fake up the middle to that running back, however, as the Packers did on Kaepernick's 56-yard scoring scamper and an impossibly fast signal-caller is just...gone.
It's not just in the option where Kaepernick is deadly though. Pass rushers trying to sack the young scrambler not only have to get after him, but also have to be sure to maintain their rushing lanes and set the edge.
Fail to do either of those things and the speedster will get around that edge almost every time, as Kaepernick did on his first touchdown run of the Divisional Round game.
Needless to say, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy was not exactly pleased with his team's defensive effort against effort against Kaepernick according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
"I was concerned at halftime frankly, what the time of possession was that the 49ers had over us, because of obviously their ability to run the football. We obviously didn't handle the read option very good, and we didn't handle the quarterback runs from out of the pocket."
With that said, even if a team does everything right, defends the option well, and keeps Kaepernick in the pocket that doesn't mean they're out of the woods.
Far from it, as there's the small matter of Kaepernick's arm.
Kaepernick also completed 17 of 31 passes for over 263 yards and two more touchdowns against the Packers, and it's that dual-threat ability that insures Mike Nolan won't be sleeping much this week.
Let Kaepernick stand in the pocket and survey the field and he's more than capable of finding the open man, as he did on a pair of scoring strikes to wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who has become his favorite target in the passing game.
Flush him out of the pocket, and the coverage starts to break down, as the defense is having a panic attack because he's taking off. Kaepernick then has the presence of mind to keep his eyes downfield, which sets up big plays like this 44-yard catch and run by running back Frank Gore.
It's basically like a condemned man being allowed to select his own manner of execution. Yes you have a choice, but either way you're dead.
This is the matchup nightmare that Nolan and the Atlanta Falcons have to face. If they have one thing in their favor it's that they'll be playing at home and the one game this year where Kaepernick struggled most was on the road against the Seahawks in front of a loud crowd.
Nolan had better hope that the Falcons can generate both some crowd noise and a much better pass rush than they did against Seattle.
The sheriff is coming to town and he's fixing to become the most dangerous man in New Orleans on February 3.
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