49ers vs. Falcons: X-Factors for Both Sides in NFC Championship
We've reached the final weekend of the NFL playoffs until Super Bowl Sunday, and the No. 1 and 2 seed from the NFC are going to square off to decide who heads to New Orleans and who heads to the golf course to fix the old slice.
The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons were the two best teams in the NFC during the regular season, so it makes sense that the duo would collide for NFC supremacy this weekend.
Jim Harbaugh is looking to make the Super Bowl after missing out against the New York Giants in 2012, while Mike Smith finds himself in territory he hasn't breached during his first few seasons as Falcons coach—he won a playoff game and has a chance to keep moving past the first weekend.
With so many weapons on both sides of the ball for these two teams, it's going to be rough to divide every position up and determine which phase of the game is going to have the most impact on the outcome.
We're going to try anyway, so here's a look at the biggest x-factors from this weekend's championship round for both the Falcons and the 49ers.
QB Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
We'll get the obvious out of the way first.
So far this season, when Kaepernick plays well, the Niners win. When he struggles or turns the ball over, the team usually suffers a different fate. It's no coincidence—while Kaep has the ability to take over a game, he's also a second-year pro that is susceptible to giving up the big play to the other team.
Lucky for him and the 49ers, the Falcons have one of the league's worst rushing defenses against QBs. As noted by ESPN's Stats and Information, the Falcons are going to be seeing visions of Cam Newton all week as they prepare for San Francisco's read-option attack:
The Falcons defense has faced 6 option rushes by a QB this season. Those netted opposing QBs 124 yards (20.7 per carry)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2013
As noted by ESPN's Pat Yasinskas, the Falcons could be in for a long day due to San Francisco's complement of players around the starting QB with wheels:
But I think San Francisco could present even more of a challenge due to Gore. Atlanta's defense had issues with the read-option. But the Falcons weren't all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons use a lot of nickel packages, and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run.
Atlanta fared well against Marshawn Lynch, allowing the Beast to only 46 yards on 16 carries. But it was Russell Wilson that averaged over eight yards per carry on the day, a sign a bad things to come if Kaepernick is making the same types of decisions he did against Green Bay in the divisional round.
RB Michael Turner, Falcons
Turner looked like the Turner of old on Sunday, picking up 98 yards with a 7.0 yards per carry average against a particularly stout defense.
Yet again, he'll face one of the better defenses in the league, and will be tasked with getting the Falcons into more favorable positions to throw the ball with his first and second-down carries.
The Falcons also have Jacquizz Rodgers to help lighten the load to the tune of a 6.4 yards per carry against the Seahawks, but Turner is the man that gets things going up front for the Falcons. If he isn't productive, the offense gets into passing situations quicker than expected.
He had a playoff career-high in rushing, and threw his 3.6 yards per carry average from the regular season out the window. Against a tougher defense and a linebacking corp that doesn't hold back anything against the run, we'll see if the footwork that was there on Sunday continues to emerge for Turner's running game. The Falcons' playoff hopes may depend on it.
LB Patrick Willis, 49ers vs. TE Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
These two x-factors are grouped together because the winner of this matchup will have a huge advantage both in the red zone and when the Falcons get into third-down situations.
Not only does Gonzalez have the playoff monkey off his back, he also has another touchdown under his belt and the trust of QB Matt Ryan in nearly all passing situations—no matter what's at stake for Atlanta at the time.
As noted by CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco, Willis is going to have his hands full if the 49ers decide to blitz or play man coverage with safety help against Atlanta's talented receiving corp of Roddy White and Julio Jones:
Willis' tremendous speed and agility will be tested against Gonzalez. Willis emerged over the past two seasons as perhaps the league's best inside linebacker in coverage. Willis had nine pass breakups on the season, ranking behind only cornerbacks and Chris Culliver (14 apiece), and safety (11) for most on the 49ers.
Gonzalez is a terror in the red zone, catching passes like an NBA power forward going up for the rebound and using his supreme route-running skills to find holes in the defense. Not only did Gonzalez catch a touchdown pass last Sunday—he also converted the game's final pass from Ryan to move the Falcons into field goal position for Matt Bryant.
These two will be going at it all afternoon.
CB Dunta Robinson, Falcons
Can the Falcons contain Michael Crabtree with a somewhat depleted secondary in full man coverage?
Michael Crabtree is finally playing like a first-round draft pick. Now that he's emerged, someone's going to have to cover him.
Asante Samuel might be tasked with this assignment as well, but I bet Robinson draws at least some of the assignment as his experience will have to override his struggles in pass coverage this season.
Robinson will not only have to contend with Crabtree as a blocker for Kaepernick, but he'll have to play loads of man coverage as the Falcons will stack the box to contain the run. History shows that teams want Kaepernick to beat them with his arm, and that's music to Crabtree's ears.
If the 49ers add a lethal passing game to their arsenal, they will be nearly impossible to beat. Man coverage against an emerging receiver is a tough task, but someone has to do it. If it's done well, the Falcons have squashed a true threat and can continue to blitz and disguise coverages as the game wears on.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for B/R's Breaking News Team.
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