As Colin Kaepernick, proved in the San Francisco 49ers' drubbing of the Green Bay Packers last weekend, sometimes an individual ascent is enough to send a team galloping on to the next round of the playoffs.
With a matchup against the Atlanta Falcons standing in his way of a Super Bowl appearance, it's unquestionable that Kaepernick will once again try to will his team to victory. On the other side of the field stands an Atlanta team that dispatched of the in vogue Super Bowl pick Seattle Seahawks last week.
The Falcons also have their scintillating set of stars, all of which have to be elated after getting their first playoff victory together against Seattle. Who are the individual stars that stand out as most important? Here is a complete breakdown of the biggest x-factors in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
Colin Kaepernick (Quarterback, 49ers)
How do you follow one of the greatest individual performances in NFL playoff history? That's a question that will undoubtedly face Kaepernick, whose star has gone through the roof since last weekend's divisional championship.
The second-year quarterback combined for 444 total yards and 4 touchdowns against an over-matched Packers front-seven; all after starting the game with a pick-six. The breadth of Kaepernick's dominance was so astounding—he set an all-time record for rushing yards by a quarterback—that it would be impossible for him to live up to expectations.
Nevertheless, underlying stats point toward Kaepernick having another solid game.
It's particularly Atlanta's glaring struggles against the shotgun formation that stick out most. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons give up an average of 6.8 yards per play when opponents use the shotgun formation, which is fourth-worst in the NFL. Their defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) in shotgun situations was a little better at No. 20, but Atlanta's deficiencies become even more apparent when compared to its excellence against non-shotgun formations.
When teams run plays in other formations, the Falcons' DVOA ranks third, and they allow only 4.9 yards per play.
Meanwhile, San Francisco showed very little variance in offensive efficiency, but its full deployment of the pistol formation makes this worth watching.
Though not exactly a carbon copy of the shotgun, the pistol works similarly in passing situations, and Kaepernick's ability to take off adds a completely different element to the attack.
Those stats obviously aren't an end-all-be-all that says Kaepernick will dominate out of the pistol and shotgun formations on Sunday, but he'll definitely have the opportunity. Based on what was seen last week, it's hard doubting Kaepernick's ability to come through with a strong performance.
Matt Ryan (Quarterback, Atlanta Falcons)
With the ridiculous "can't win a playoff game" monkey finally off his back, Ryan has earned the prize of trying to navigate his second elite defense in as many weeks.
Unfortunately for the Falcons' signal-caller, it seems unlikely his running game will be all that helpful against the 49ers.
Though that was the case throughout much of the regular season, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers continually moved the chains for Atlanta last week. The duo combined for 162 yards on only 24 carries against a Seahawks defense that looked like it was fantastic on paper.
Seattle rampaged its way into the postseason on the back of the league's best scoring defense, a unit that ranked inside the top-10 against both the run and pass. However, advanced metrics tell a different story of the Seahawks' supposed dominance against the run.
Over the second half of the season, Seattle ranked 26th in run defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. That was a steep drop from being sixth through the first eight games of the season, and the Falcons' running game continually took advantage of Chris Clemons' absence as well.
Turner and Rodgers won't have the same luxuries this week. The 49ers showed very little variance and were stout throughout the regular season, finishing fourth in total yards allowed and second in DVOA against the run.
That means Atlanta's hopes—like they were throughout the regular season—will rest on Ryan's shoulders. San Francisco doesn't exactly have many weaknesses in coverage, but has a worse secondary than the Seahawks, who Ryan torched despite a woeful down-field interception.
As is the case in just about every NFL game, this contest will come down mostly to whichever team's quarterback navigates his surroundings better. Ryan did it last week with help from his running game. Can he do the same without it? That will be the latest "question" Ryan will have to answer.
Justin Smith (Defensive End, San Francisco 49ers)
If it wasn't clear how much Smith means to the 49ers' pass rush, it became readily apparent against the Packers. San Francisco's front-seven sacked Aaron Rodgers just once, but hurried on a whopping 17 drop-backs(per Pro Football Focus).
The result was a consistent game of check-downs and hurried throws for Rodgers, who finished with 257 yards and two touchdowns, but averaged over a full yard per completion less than in the regular season.
Though some of those struggles were indicative of Green Bay's below-average offensive line, Smith's return from injury meant miles more to San Francisco. In the two games Smith missed to end the season, the 49ers' pass rush lacked the same voracity, hurrying opposing quarterbacks just 11 times.
If Smith is able to clog up the Falcons' offensive line similar to how he did off the right edge against Green Bay, Ryan could have to start adjusting his strategy. The Atlanta quarterback was sacked just 28 times this season, which gave the team the eighth-best adjusted sack rate in the league (per Football Outsiders).
As Rodgers proved, though, you don't have to get sacked to become a check-down artist. Ryan adjusting to a shorter field would negate much of Atlanta's down-field prowess with Julio Jones and make Tony Gonzalez an increasingly important cog in the offense.
Relying on (arguably) the greatest tight end of all-time is something the Falcons do with great pleasure on most occasions. But in a game where they will likely need a huge aerial assault to come out on top, Smith's presence is one that must be accounted for.
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