The 49ers and Ravens Will Win on Sunday, and These 12 Players Are the Reason Why
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Championship Sunday is almost at hand, and I can't wait for the two games that will decide the participants in Super Bowl XLVII.
There are 12 players, eight on the 49ers and four on the Ravens, who I believe will decide each championship game and lead their teams to victory.
The 49ers Offensive Line
The best offensive line in football.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
The Georgia Dome will be rocking on Sunday. Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will have his unit feeling confident and ready to stop second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
It'll be up to five men on the offensive line to keep Kaepernick upright and create running lanes for the 49ers' devastating rushing attack: tackles Anthony Davis and Joe Staley, guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, and center Jonathan Goodwin.
Those five are one of the biggest reasons why San Francisco will be playing for a berth in the Super Bowl. Out of the four teams left, they're the best O-line remaining.
The Falcons have had issues generating a pass rush all year, managing only 29 sacks. With the San Francisco offensive line being rock solid, that's a recipe for disaster for Atlanta.
While Davis, Staley, Iupati, Boone and Goodwin might not be household names, their performance on Sunday will be critical to the 49ers' chances of victory.
One of the most underrated players of this generation.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Frank Gore is one of the most underrated players of this generation. He's the leading rusher in 49ers history and performs consistently every year.
He was superb last Saturday night against the Packers, rushing for 119 yards and a touchdown. As usual, he ran with tremendous toughness, setting a physical tone in what turned out to be a dominating San Francisco victory.
In last year's NFC title game, Gore rushed for 74 yards on 16 carries. With the Niners playing on the road on Sunday, I expect them to lean on their workhorse running back even more.
Gore has been productive for too long for him not to be successful against the Falcons. He will answer the bell and help lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl.
Aldon Smith: pass-rusher extraordinaire.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Aldon Smith had a quiet game against the Packers, with only two tackles and no sacks. I don't expect that to be the case again on Sunday in Atlanta.
Smith had a regular season for the ages, racking up 19.5 sacks. If the 49ers are to beat the Falcons, they'll need Smith to be his disruptive best. I see no way that he's held off the stat sheet again.
No matter how good the 49ers are in the back seven—and they're excellent—it won't make a difference if they can't generate a pass rush. I believe they will get pressure on Matt Ryan, and it'll be Smith leading the charge.
What a playoff debut for Colin Kaepernick.
Harry How/Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick's performance last Saturday night in his first playoff start was nothing short of breathtaking. He threw the ball with velocity and surgical precision, running through the Packers defense like a hot knife through butter.
His 181 yards on the ground were an NFL single-game record for a quarterback. Simply put: He was unstoppable.
That being said, this Sunday will present a stiffer challenge. He won't be playing in front of the home crowd, so he'll have to deal with the incredible noise that Falcons fans will surely create in the Georgia Dome.
Plus, all the pressure is on the 49ers, who are favored to win despite playing on the road.
Even so, I believe Kaepernick will play well. He's already defeated the Patriots in New England in a Sunday night game in Week 15.
His arm is too strong, and he's too fast. He'll get the job done Sunday for San Francisco.
Paul Kruger could be an X-factor.
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
This offseason, prepare to hear a lot of talk about where Paul Kruger will play in 2013; the free agent-to-be had a tremendous season, leading the Ravens with nine sacks.
Kruger was a one-man wrecking crew in Baltimore's wild-card victory over Indianapolis, finishing with two-and-a-half sacks and a critical forced fumble.
While Ray Lewis and Ed Reed get all of the attention, it's Kruger who's been having a special postseason. Remember, it was Kruger who pressured Peyton Manning last Sunday into throwing the critical interception in overtime, allowing the Ravens to drive for the winning field goal.
Kruger played well in last year's AFC title game, sacking Brady and recording another tackle for loss in the Ravens' heartbreaking 23-20 loss. I expect him to make at least one game-changing play as Baltimore claims the AFC title.
Corey Graham has been a beast for the Ravens.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
When Lardarius Webb, the Ravens' best cornerback, was lost for the season in Baltimore's Week 6 win over the Cowboys, I thought it'd be a catastrophic blow to the team's secondary.
But thanks to the efforts of players like Corey Graham (along with Cary Williams), the Ravens secondary has risen to the challenge.
Graham had the game of a lifetime last Saturday in Denver, intercepting Peyton Manning twice, once for an early pick-six and the other coming in overtime, leading to the game-winning field goal. This Sunday, Graham is expected to primarily cover Patriots receiver Wes Welker, which will be one of the game's critical matchups.
With New England tight end Rob Gronkowski lost for the remainder of the postseason, Welker will get a ton of targets (13 last week). It'll be up to Graham, once primarily a special teams player, to make sure Welker doesn't sink Baltimore's playoff hopes.
Given his recent play, I believe Graham will answer the bell and help lead the Ravens to victory.
Torrey Smith took Champ Bailey behind the woodshed.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the NFL's next great receiver: Torrey Smith.
What he was able to accomplish last week in Denver was incredible. He made Champ Bailey, a future Hall of Famer and 12-time Pro Bowler, look like an undrafted rookie, torching him for 98 yards and two huge touchdowns.
In two career games against the Patriots, including last year's AFC title game, Smith has scored three touchdowns and had more than 200 receiving yards. New England won't be able to contain him. With Joe Flacco's monster arm and Smith's game-breaking speed, I'm not sure any team can contain him.
There is no doubt in my mind that Smith will have another monster effort on Sunday. Big players show up in big games, and Smith is a big-time player.
When the 2013 season rolls around and people discuss the best wide receivers in the NFL, Smith will join the likes of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. He's that good. He'll prove it again on Sunday.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
I don't understand how some people still hate on Joe Flacco. Did you watch what he did last Saturday in Denver? He went toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning and won with his rifle arm and clutch play.
Flacco has won a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. This is his third appearance in an AFC championship game. His five road playoff wins tie him with Eli Manning for the most in league history. In this year's tournament, Flacco's quarterback rating is 120, as he's thrown five touchdown passes and no interceptions.
But people still question him. People don't think he can get the job done. I say that's rubbish.
If Lee Evans had caught Flacco's pass in the AFC title game last year, or if Billy Cundiff hadn't horribly shanked the potential game-tying field goal, the Ravens could (would) have gone to the Super Bowl, and our perception of Flacco would be radically different.
That doesn't matter now. What matters is this: On Sunday, Flacco will get it done. He will lead the Ravens to victory in Foxborough and outplay Tom Brady once again.
In fact, once the dust settles on Super Bowl XLVII, we'll be using everyone's favorite quarterback buzzword to describe Flacco: Elite.