NFC Championship 2013: Defenders Who Will Decide Epic Clash
The stage is set for the NFC Championship.
The No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons will host the No. 2 seed San Francisco 49ers with a trip to Super Bowl XLVII on the line. Colin Kaepernick is the talk of the NFL after his performance in the Divisional Round, but he'll have his work cut out for him trying to outscore Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
But both quarterbacks will face tough defenses on Sunday afternoon.
Kaepernick will be tested by perhaps the best front seven in the NFL, while Ryan will be tested by the 49ers' solid linebacking corps and a talented secondary.
Let's take a look at three defenders who will decide this marquee matchup.
1. Sean Weatherspoon, LB Falcons
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick put on a show for the ages against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round.
And now, Kaepernick will travel to Atlanta to try and punch the 49ers' ticket to New Orleans. Sean Weatherspoon and the Falcons' front seven will be hugely tested this week by the 49ers' ground game.
Weatherspoon is one of the better sideline-to-sideline linebackers in football. He's aggressive against the run and covers tight ends better than most NFL linebackers.
If the Falcons are going to stop Kaepernick, Frank Gore and the read-option, Weatherspoon will be a big reason why.
2. Dashon Goldson, FS 49ers
The Atlanta Falcons like to push the ball down the field.
With the crafty veteran Roddy White on one side and athletic freak Julio Jones on the other, the Falcons can strike quickly and put up points by the bunch. But against Dashon Goldson and the 49ers, Matt Ryan should think twice before throwing the ball downfield.
Goldson is a hard-hitting "center fielder" in the middle of San Francisco's defense.
Jones and White may have an advantage over the 49ers' cornerbacks, but the presence of Goldson in the secondary makes a huge difference. It will be interesting to see where Goldson lines up on Sunday, whether he covers tight end Tony Gonzalez or provides safety help over the top of Jones.
3. Aldon Smith, OLB 49ers
A consistent pass rush can be the single-most disruptive aspect of football to an offense.
49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith recorded 19.5 sacks this season and will surely test Atlanta's offensive line this week. Despite having the best season of his career, Smith hasn't sacked the quarterback since Dec. 9 against the Miami Dolphins.
Smith lines up next to block-eating defensive end Justin Smith in the 49ers' 3-4 alignment. When Justin was forced to miss the better part of three games with a partially torn triceps, Aldon was largely ineffective. But with Justin in the lineup, Aldon has been perhaps the best pass-rusher in football.
If the Falcons silence the Smith Bros. on Sunday afternoon, they have a good chance at moving the ball and ultimately winning the game. But if not, it's going to be a long afternoon for the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.