NFL Playoffs 2013: Biggest X-Factors for Each Conference Championship Team
Four teams are left standing after one of the most memorable NFL playoff weekends in recent memory. With the conference championship games on tap, several players in particular will prove to be big X-factors in determining the participants in Super Bowl XLVII.
These epic clashes are sure to be of the no-holds-barred variety at this critical juncture, with the reality of grasping the Lombardi Trophy ever more imminent.
Big performances by these game-breaking players will likely afford their franchises a shot at glory in New Orleans next month. Here is a breakdown of one player from each team who will be critical to Sunday's outcomes.
San Francisco 49ers: TE Vernon Davis
Ever since Colin Kaepernick has taken over under center, the Niners offense has been more explosive. However, it hasn't really utilized its most explosive weapon in the passing game: Vernon Davis.
Since Kaepernick's debut in which Davis caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown, the tight end hasn't notched more than two receptions in any game.
Against the Green Bay Packers, though, the two hooked up for an electric 44-yard gain with Davis matched up on LB A.J. Hawk down the seam.
Considering how much trouble Atlanta had defending Seattle Seahawks tight end Zach Miller (eight receptions, 142 yards, one touchdown), it's reasonable to expect that Davis could be much more of a factor in the Georgia Dome on Sunday than he has been in recent weeks.
With Davis' speed and Kaepernick's rocket arm, opportunities should definitely open up for big plays off play action. The Falcons will likely focus on slowing down Kaepernick on the ground after his thrilling 181-yard showing last week.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Michael Turner
The bye week certainly freshened up the powerful Turner, who sliced his way through the Seahawks in the divisional round for 98 yards on just 14 carries.
As a former fifth-round pick on a Falcons team that has fallen short in the playoffs under head coach Mike Smith, Turner ran like a man possessed against the stout Seattle defense.
After a career-low 3.6 yards per carry in the regular season, the old Pro Bowl form Turner showed suggests that he may not be hitting the age-30 wall that has befallen several running backs in recent years.
Such an absence of production from Atlanta's 29th-ranked rushing attack made Turner's performance in the divisional playoffs especially surprising and also indicative of how well the Falcons can do with better balance, even against such a strong defensive unit.
It's going to be a physical matchup with the 49ers, another NFC West foe with an outstanding slew of defenders. It's absolutely crucial that the Falcons keep the San Francisco offense off the field as much as possible.
If Turner can be such a prominent factor once again, the No. 1-seeded Falcons have a great chance of holding court at home.
Baltimore Ravens: CB Chykie Brown
It remains to be seen just how the New England Patriots will attack Baltimore's defense, but Brown will be pivotal in the game's outcome regardless. As the nickel corner, he is likely to see matchups with running backs, versatile TE Aaron Hernandez and lightning-quick WR Wes Welker.
New England will be without Rob Gronkowski after a season-ending arm injury, which means quarterback Tom Brady will be relying heavily on both Hernandez and Welker as security blankets over the middle.
Brown will be responsible for man-to-man coverage on two of the Pats' most dangerous playmakers, and he must do his best to limit yards after the catch and stay on his assignments. The Patriots will be operating frequently out of the no-huddle offense, and Brown must be ready to rise to the occasion.
The second-year corner has improved his technique after being thrust into a big role in the secondary due to injuries to Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith. He is also becoming better at diagnosing route concepts.
That was on display against the Denver Broncos. Brown undercut Peyton Manning's pass to Eric Decker, and teammate Corey Graham took it 39 yards to the house in what proved to be a critical play in the Ravens' victory in the divisional round.
Against a high-octane Patriots team that doesn't make many mistakes, it will largely fall on Brown to slow down Brady and Co.
New England Patriots: RB Shane Vereen
Stevan Ridley grabbed hold as the team's featured back this season, and Danny Woodhead became the go-to man for catching passes out of the backfield.
That is, until last week.
Vereen snagged five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns in the Pats' 41-28 win over the Houston Texans after Woodhead left the game with a thumb injury.
According to ESPN, Woodhead has been limited in practice and is listed as questionable, which suggests that Vereen should be given even more reps on Sunday in Foxboro.
Also noteworthy from the Houston game were Vereen's seven carries for 41 yards and another score. He appears to be justifying his status as a second-round pick in the 2011 draft at just the right time for New England.
That sort of production as both a runner and receiver could result in yet another added element to the Patriots' offensive juggernaut. The Ravens linebackers aren't all that speedy, and if Vereen can get some one-on-one matchups in the open field, he has proved that he can make big plays.
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