NFC Championship Game: 5 Injuries to Watch
The 49ers and Falcons head into Sunday's game in Atlanta with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Will injuries to key players like John Abraham or Justin Smith keep either team from punching its ticket to New Orleans?
At this point in the season, no team is fully healthy, but it's clear that some players and teams are healthier than others.
Here are five injuries that may force backups into the spotlight and coaching staffs to adjust their game plans.
Injury statuses courtesy of CBS Sports' John Breech
John Abraham, DE, Falcons (Questionable)
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Before John Abraham went down in the first half last week, the Falcons defense had Russell Wilson under control and the game in hand.
When he re-injured his sprained ankle and left, Wilson and the Seahawks nearly came back to steal the victory. It was more than just Abraham's absence, but allowing Wilson to run free (literally) was a big part.
The task doesn't get easier this week with Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers will test Abraham's ankle early with read-options that force him to make quick lateral movements and send Frank Gore directly at him. They'll also roll Kaepernick out and bootleg him to force Abraham to test the ankle again and again, hoping that they'll force him to the sidelines.
Jonathan Babineaux, DT, Falcons (Questionable)
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Having John Abraham hobbled is bad enough, but just inside on the Falcons' defensive line, Jonathan Babineaux is having issues with his neck. The Falcons have offered no detail on the condition, but the injury had been previously described as a shoulder issue.
This is not uncommon for an injury that is low on the neck; Peyton Manning's injury in 2006 was initially described as a shoulder problem.
Babineaux did not practice fully this week, but is expected to play. He was a regular on the injury report this season, but did not miss time due to a series of ailments. The most serious was a groin strain that lingered.
The Niners are likely to run traps and blocking stunts that force Babineaux to put his "head on a swivel" and test the neck.
Justin Smith, DE, 49ers (Probable)
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Ray Lewis isn't the only footballer playing through an arm injury. Justin Smith did not wear the no-contact jersey at practice this week despite a torn triceps. He wore a bulky brace to protect the arm, but showed no real issues with it.
Smith's arm injury should cause problems with the push motion, keeping blockers from getting in on his big body. That wasn't in evidence last week. Expect Smith to play normally this week. The Falcons will have to keep him away from Matt Ryan to win.
Joe Staley, 49ers (Probable)
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Joe Staley appeared to play with one arm at times last week. The injury wasn't serious, however. Staley had a bruise, according to multiple reports. How does a bruise drop one of Staley's big arms into near uselessness? The bruise essentially shocked the nerve, and for much of the game, Staley could not feel or move the arm.
Staley showed no issues with the arm once the medical staff was able to work on him. A couple days of rest didn't hurt either. He didn't even appear on the team's final injury report ahead of Sunday's game.
Expect Staley to protect Kaepernick in the pocket with his typical aplomb and be able to block downfield as well when released.
Tarrell Brown, 49ers (Probable)
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Covering Roddy White and Julio Jones is hard enough, but the Niners have to hope that Tarrell Brown can once again do it while playing through injury. Brown was unable to practice this week due to his ongoing shoulder injury, but he is expected to play Sunday.
Brown only had one tackle, a reflection of his reluctance to test the shoulder on physical plays, but his coverage was solid. Brown had a key interception and return to set up a 49ers score.
Jim Harbaugh is hoping he can do that again, since backup CB Chris Culliver and deep safety Dashon Goldson are banged up as well.