Highlighting the Biggest Mismatches of NFL Conference Championship Weekend

Nick Kostora@@nickkostoraContributor IIIJanuary 16, 2013

Highlighting the Biggest Mismatches of NFL Conference Championship Weekend

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    Parity is the name of the game in today's NFL, but the upcoming slate of conference championship games features a slew of potentially lethal mismatches.

    Each team has at least one matchup that features an overwhelming advantage.

    Can the Ravens secondary hope to contain Tom Brady? Is there any way to slow down the dual-threat capabilities of Colin Kaepernick?

    Let's break down the five biggest mismatches of conference championship weekend, starting with "Matty Ice."

5. Matt Ryan vs. 49ers Secondary

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    The proverbial monkey is off of Matt Ryan's back. Now, the Atlanta Falcons signal-caller is free to spread his wings and play a high-flying brand of football.

    The Falcons will again be tucked inside the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome, and that means a fast track to utilize against the San Francisco 49ers secondary.

    The 49ers secondary is not terrible, but there is a ton of talent in Atlanta's receiving corps. Julio Jones and Roddy White can spread out the 49ers vertically, using their speed advantage and opening up short to intermediate routes for tight end Tony Gonzalez.

    Last week, the Seahawks used tall cornerbacks in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman to try and match up physically with Atlanta's wideouts, but they largely failed. San Francisco will not have that same opportunity, but it does have a fearsome front four that can cause pressure.

    Which leads us perfectly into our next point...

4. San Francisco's Pass Rush vs. Atlanta's Offensive Line

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    Sam Baker is often criticized, but he may actually be the strongest part of an Atlanta Falcons offensive line that will have its hands full this weekend.

    Keeping Matt Ryan upright long enough to complete deep vertical passes will be essential. How exactly can the Falcons complete such a task when Aldon Smith and Justin Smith begin wreaking havoc off the edges?

    Yes, Justin Smith is somewhat hampered by injury, but he still managed five tackles against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round. The 49ers will look to force Atlanta into tough passing situations, keeping the Falcons off-balance by mixing up blitz packages and overloading to one side of the field.

    How successful San Francisco is in utilizing its advantage will go a long way towards deciding a victor.

3. Torrey Smith vs. Patriots Cornerbacks

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    The New England Patriots are favorites against the Baltimore Ravens.

    New England is stronger than Baltimore in many key areas (including one that will be highlighted), but Baltimore has one crystal clear mismatch. Torrey Smith can absolutely tear up New England's secondary.

    This is not just mindless rambling; it's a statement of fact based off of Smith's performance earlier in the season. Back in Week 3 against the Patriots, Smith had six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday Night Football.

    He has the type of speed that New England is not built to handle. Smith will likely be lined up for most of the day against Aqib Talib, a player he did not see in Week 3. Talib is strong and physical, but he is not on the level of Smith.

    Smith will stretch the Patriots secondary and open up lanes for All-Pro running back Ray Rice to work through.

2. Tom Brady vs. Ravens Secondary

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    Ah, yes, Tom Brady.

    Rarely is there a secondary over which Brady does not have the advantage, and that proves true again this weekend. The Patriots face a beaten and battered Ravens defense that no longer features the talents of Lardarius Webb as it did in Week 3.

    In that game, Brady completed 28 of his 41 passes for 335 yards and one touchdown. He has a plethora of weapons at his disposal that can outnumber the weakened Ravens secondary and thin them out laterally.

    Four- and five-wide offensive sets are a common occurrence for New England. Losing tight end Rob Gronkowski is a tough blow, but the offense did not falter last weekend against the Houston Texans after the injury occurred.

    Brady is adept at quick-strike, blitz-beating passes and is also one of the best drop-back quarterbacks the game has ever seen. If running back Stevan Ridley is again providing New England with a balanced attack, then this mismatch gets even worse.

1. 49ers Read-Option vs. Atlanta Front Seven

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    Atlanta just played a read-option offense last week in Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. That means extra film and preparation for an attack that they already beat once. Unfortunately, the Kaepernick-led attack is vastly different than the one in Seattle.

    Wilson found marginal success throughout the divisional round, but his read-option turned into simply handing the ball off to Marshawn Lynch on every play. There is nothing wrong with giving the ball to one of the best running backs in the game, but the 49ers are more diverse.

    Kaepernick is unafraid to rush around the edge of the offensive line, and he's also completely willing to hand the ball to Frank Gore. His deep-ball ability means that secondaries can ill afford to creep up towards the line of scrimmage, and yet Kaepernick can rarely be contained by a single spy or man coverage.

    The fact that Atlanta ranked in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards allowed this season only adds to the mismatch in play here.