NFC Championship Predictions: Key Players Who Will Shape Game's Outcome

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2013

Losing John Abraham to an ankle injury nearly cost Atlanta a win last week.
Losing John Abraham to an ankle injury nearly cost Atlanta a win last week.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When the Atlanta Falcons fight with the San Francisco 49ers for a trip to New Orleans, they'll need these guys to step it up.

Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick will certainly play a role in determining the final result, but the quarterback can only do so much without help from his supporting cast.

After all, Ryan's a Matt Bryant missed field goal away from a whole week of pundits questioning why he can't win the big game.

Keep an eye on these players this Sunday, as their performances could speak volumes in deciding which squad earns a spot in the Super Bowl.

Peter Konz

Oh, to be a rookie staring down Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, who are all hungry for the opportunity to feast on Ryan.

Good luck, kid.

Peter Konz, a 23-year-old second-round pick, will line up at right guard with the task of protecting Ryan from a beating at the hands of San Francisco's tough front seven.

Aldon Smith approached Michael Strahan's single-season sacks record, falling a tad short with 19.5. Justin had an off year with just three, but don't count out a guy with 76 career sacks.

Konz and the rest of Atlanta's offensive line must follow up a commendable performance against Seattle by providing Ryan with a clean pocket again.  

Frank Gore

When Frank Gore is on his game, the 49ers are virtually unstoppable.

Kaepernick bothers defenders enough on his own with his legs, but how is the opposition supposed to contain the read option when both rushers can burn them?

After nine consecutive games without surpassing 100 yards, Gore picked up 119 against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round.

That helped Kaepernick set a playoff quarterback record with 181 rushing yards. 

The Falcons did a fine job containing Marshawn Lynch last weekend, allowing just 46 rushing yards. For them to stand a chance at limiting this high-powered attack, they need to tie down Gore as well.

John Abraham

Atlanta obviously must do more than Green Bay did to stop Kaepernick's reign of terror.

Its pass rush suffered dearly when John Abraham left the game during the second quarter with an ankle injury. Russell Wilson could have set up a picnic and filed his taxes before completing most of his passes.

Once Atlanta's leading sack producer left the picture, Wilson carved up Atlanta with baffling ease. So the team will need Abraham, who is expected to start this Sunday, at his best.

Abraham will have a tall order waiting upon his return, as he must pressure Kaepernick in the pocket while sealing off the edge to avoid the speedster breaking off another 56-yard touchdown run.

If Abraham is not healthy, the Falcons could be in grave danger. Trying to contain Kaepernick on a bum ankle will end poorly.