8 Potential Difference MakersFriday, January 18, 2013
San Francisco-Atlanta Difference Makers
Colin Kaepernick -- The 49ers morphed from a conservative, ball-control team into one of the league's most diverse offensively when Kaepernick took the quarterback reins from Alex Smith in Week 11. Although still a smashmouth power-running offense at its core, San Francisco now challenges all areas of the field in the passing game and flummoxes base NFL defenses on zone-read runs. In addition to his game-breaking rushing ability, triggerman Kaepernick has recorded a 9:3 TD-to-INT ratio and 8.37 yards-per-attempt average over his last four starts, so he's no slouch as a dropback passer. The Falcons struggled to defend the read-option games of Carolina and Washington during the regular season. They're going to have their hands full with Kaepernick.
Aldon Smith -- The NFL's sack leader through 13 regular season games, Smith is now mired in a sack-less four-game funk. A contributing factor was the absence of double team-commanding teammate Justin Smith, who lines up directly adjacent to Aldon on passing plays and bullies offensive linemen for Aldon to often essentially rush the quarterback unblocked on inside stunts. Justin returned from his partially torn left triceps muscle in the Divisional Round, however, and Aldon still didn't register a takedown of Aaron Rodgers. The Niners must get more of an impact from their top edge rusher if they're going to contain Matt Ryan and Atlanta's lethal pass attack.
Matt Ryan -- Ryan is the straw that stirs the drink for an Atlanta offense that's been carried by its passing game all season long. As dangerous as any quarterback in football from a clean pocket, Ryan's protection has been pristine in recent weeks. Over his last four games, he's absorbed just four combined sacks while completing 100-of-139 throws (71.9 percent) for 1,037 yards (7.46 YPA), and an 11:2 TD-to-INT ratio. The Falcons will be hard pressed for rushing success versus San Francisco's immovable front seven, so it'll likely be up to Ryan to shoulder the offensive load.
John Abraham -- The Falcons' lone truly threatening pass rusher, Abraham exited last Sunday's Divisional Round game with an ankle injury late in the second quarter, never to return. It's no coincidence that the Seahawks' offense took off with Abraham on the sideline, dominating the final two quarters. Seattle outscored Atlanta 28-10 in the second half, with the Falcons escaping on a 49-yard Matt Bryant field goal. Atlanta's defense will be in trouble against red-hot Colin Kaepernick if Abraham re-aggravates the ankle injury, or if his effectiveness is compromised.
Baltimore-New England Difference Makers
Brandon Lloyd -- When New England and Baltimore squared off in Week 3 of the regular season, Lloyd racked up nine receptions for 108 yards on a team-high 12 targets. Most frequently working in Ravens right cornerback Cary Williams' coverage, Lloyd dominated on pass patterns down the sideline. While the rest of Baltimore's defense has improved since that early-season meeting, Williams has remained the Ravens' primary weakness in the secondary. Expect quarterback Tom Brady to once again attack Williams with Lloyd in Sunday night's AFC Championship Game.
Vince Wilfork -- Wilfork was every bit deserving of his All-Pro selection this season, but Week 3 against Baltimore wasn't among his shining 2012 moments. Wilfork got pushed around by Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda as tailback Ray Rice totaled 150 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore's thrilling 31-30 win. In order to contain Rice in the rematch, the Patriots are going to need a better performance from their decorated nose tackle. Wilfork is New England's anchor in run defense.
Jacoby Jones -- Jones has many failings as a receiver, but he will be critical to Baltimore's upset chances. Should Torrey Smith draw Pats No. 1 corner Aqib Talib in coverage, Jones will match up with seventh-round rookie Alfonzo Dennard. Jones' confidence figures to be strong after snaring last week's tide-turning 70-yard touchdown bomb with 31 seconds left in regulation. Also a homerun hitter in the return game, Jones led the league in regular season kickoff-return average (30.7 yards) among qualifiers with at least 20 attempts. He scored three times on special teams.
Paul Kruger -- Ray Lewis. Terrell Suggs. Ed Reed. Haloti Ngata. Those are the four big-name members of Baltimore's defense, but none has played as well as Kruger this season. A contract-year outside linebacker who'll land big money on the free agent market, Kruger has ten sacks over his last ten games and gives the Ravens their best chance to make dropping back to pass difficult for Tom Brady. In Week 3, Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer limited Kruger to three tackles and a single quarterback hit. Baltimore is going to need more from him this time around.