49ers vs. Falcons: X-Factors Who Will Step Up in NFC Championship Game

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49ers vs. Falcons: X-Factors Who Will Step Up in NFC Championship Game
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Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones are going to be under the spotlight when the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons meet in the NFC Championship. But they are hardly the only ones that will determine the outcome of the game. 

In fact, in a game loaded with talent like this one, the odds of just the top stars controlling it are slim to none. 

No team can make it this far without having a few under-the-radar players step up along the way. The 49ers and Falcons will need that one more time if they hope to make it to New Orleans for the Super Bowl in two weeks. 

Here are the X-factors who will shine when the 49ers and Falcons lock horns in the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon. 

 

San Francisco 49ers

Running back LaMichael James

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The only reason that James is getting playing time right now is because Kendall Hunter went down with a torn Achilles in Week 12. Jim Harbaugh just doesn't like to play rookies (ask first-round pick A.J. Jenkins about that).

But in the short time that James has gotten on the field at the end of the regular season and last week against Green Bay he has made his presence felt. 

Gore and Kaepernick are always going to be the focal point of the running game, but James gives them a nice change of pace in the pistol formation. His speed is something that opposing teams can't defend. 

James is also a factor on special teams. He returned 14 kicks this season, averaging 29.8 yards per carry. If he had enough returns to qualify for the league lead, he would have ranked second in the league in that category. 

Even if he only gets a handful of touches in this game, look for James to break at least one big play to put the 49ers in scoring position. 

 

Defensive back Tarell Brown

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One of the biggest advantages the 49ers defense has that others don't is their ability to create pressure with their defensive line, allowing them to drop more players into coverage and prevent big plays. 

Brown has been the team's best cornerback this season, though he is susceptible to the big play because he tends to get interception happy. In this game he is likely to be paired with Roddy White, who was able to get behind the Seattle defense for a long touchdown last week. 

The easiest way for the Falcons to win this game is to exploit the 49ers' tendency to go for the interception and get behind the defense. Brown has gotten better in coverage this season, so this will be his moment to show the world just how good he really is. 

 

Atlanta Falcons

Running back Michael Turner

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This one is almost too obvious, as the Falcons had their best running game of the season last week against Seattle and dominated the game for three quarters. 

Turner has been missing in action most of this season, running for just 800 yards on 222 carries. His average of 3.6 yards per carry is nearly a full yard below his career mark of 4.5. The 98 yards he had last week were his most since Week 9 against Dallas. 

Previewing 49ers vs. Falcons

But if the Falcons are going to conquer this stout 49ers defense, they have to be two-dimensional. The teams that have given the 49ers problems (New York Giants and Seattle, specifically)  this year have been able to run the ball. 

Last week gave the Falcons hope that they could still have a running game. Now they have to prove they can keep it going against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. 

 

Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When the 49ers are at their best, they are pounding the ball right up the middle of an opposing defense. 

The Falcons don't create a lot of pressure with their defensive line, so they have to send linebackers and cornerbacks. This will leave single coverage on the outside, and we have seen how good Kaepernick can be when he has time to throw the ball. 

Babineaux has to play the best game of his career for the Falcons. He has to take up space in the middle so the 49ers aren't able to get to the second level when they run the ball. He also has to make it easier for the edge-rushers, like John Abraham, to get their hands on Kaepernick

In the game against the Seahawks, the Falcons got almost no pressure on Wilson in the second half and he torched that defense with more than 240 yards passing and both of his touchdown passes. 

That can't happen against Kaepernick, or else the Falcons will be asking themselves the same questions that Green Bay is right now. 

 

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