By Zac Bellman
Colin Kaepernick vs. Falcon’s zone coverage
Kaepernick ran for a playoff record 181 yards in his first playoff game, taking advantage of the fact that the Packers remained in man coverage for most of the game. The Falcons will take note that they have to keep more eyes on Kaepernick to prevent him from running, and that means running a lot of zone coverage. It will be up to Kaepernick to make good pre-snap reads and send players in motion to help decipher the coverage before the play starts. He showed good awareness last week when running the read option as well as moving out of the pocket to stretch the zones and find a running or throwing lane. The Falcons must not only run zone, but run it well from the pass rushers to the secondary to contain Kaepernick.
Michael Crabtree vs. Asante Samuel
After a breakout year for Michael Crabtree, especially after Kaepernick took over, he continued to come up big with nine catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the divisional round. He showed good ability to go over the middle on slant patterns to attack the middle of the field, something many receivers can’t do well. Attempting to throw off the timing of these slant patterns will be Asante Samuel, who will jam him at the line in cover 2 and man coverage situations. Samuel is also a veteran who has shown proficiency for jumping slant patterns over his career, which he could definitely do in this game. Kaepernick will look Crabtree’s way plenty in this game, so Samuel can’t play too deep or risk losing Crabtree on a quick slant.
Matt Bosher vs. Andy Lee
In a game this tightly contested, every yard matters, even on the plays where most people start heading to the kitchen looking for snacks. One botched punt, one line drive that gives a returner a good head start, or one bad hold on a field goal could change the game. Lee is one of the best in the game right now, receiving the nod from AP as a first team All-Pro. You won’t hear this matchup as a key to the game if both players do their job, but one miscue could prove to be the difference in the final score.
Tony Gonzalez vs. NaVorro Bowman
Another future Hall of Famer in likely his last quest for the Lombardi trophy is Tony Gonzalez, who caught six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown last week. He has been Matt Ryan’s security blanket since he came to Atlanta and will be targeted in red zone situations. Although he doesn’t get as much recognition as his teammate Patrick Willis, Bowman quietly led his team in tackles and also is coming on as a pass defender. He was tabbed to cover Jermichael Finley against the Packers and broke up two passes, so the 49ers will likely give him the nod to cover Gonzalez with maybe some safety help in certain situations. Edge: 49ers 28-24
Haloti Ngata vs. Ryan Wendell
Tom Brady is one of the few pocket passers left in an era that seems to be shifting toward the mobile quarterback. As a result, he relies heavily on his offensive line to establish a good pocket and give him lanes to throw. Haloti Ngata is the type of player who can clog up these lanes and collapse the pocket with a strong inside rush. To counter this, the Patriots will double him with either Dan Connolly or Logan Mankins on almost every play. This could create opportunities for blitzes by the inside linebackers to get to Brady and get him out of rhythm. Ngata was as dominant as he was all season in the prior meeting with the Patriots, tallying nine tackles and half a sack. The Patriots will look to limit his impact to keep their offense moving.
Justin Tucker vs. the Pressure
Last year the Ravens were a Billy Cundiff 32-yard field goal away from forcing overtime in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots. He shanked it and the rest is history. Cundiff was ridden out of town and the Ravens brought in Justin Tucker to replace him. Tucker exceeded expectations with a Pro Bowl caliber season going 30-33 on the season and his kicks made the difference in five games that the Ravens won by three points or less. Tucker has shown he has nerves of steel, nailing a game winner in double overtime last week against the Broncos, but he still lacks championship experience. The true test for Tucker will be when he has to trot out for that kick to send the Ravens to the Super Bowl.
Tom Brady vs. Ed Reed
One of the veterans in the defensive secondary for the Ravens that will likely have an impact is Ed Reed. He has a nose for the football, can deliver punishing hits, and plays very good pass coverage. Like Ngata, he also had a season high nine tackles in the previous meeting with the Patriots to go along with two pass deflections. Tom Brady likes to throw deep passes in single coverage to his slot receivers, and Reed will be assigned to cover slot receivers in some situations. Brady must know where Reed is on the field at all times because he plays the ball so well, attacking it at its highest point much like a receiver.
Torrey Smith vs. Aqib Talib
In the wake of the passing of his brother, Torrey Smith had a banner day, catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots lined up against him in mostly single coverage with the occasional double team, with Kyle Arrington handling the majority burden of covering Smith. This game was one of the reasons the Patriots went shopping for a shutdown corner to help them make a championship run. They found a cheap one with some baggage in Aqib Talib, who has high potential but a lengthy police record in Tampa Bay. Talib returned an interception for a touchdown in his first game with the Patriots, and has excelled at shutting down an opponent’s best wide receiver. The battles at the line of scrimmage between these two will be intense as Smith looks to gain separation from Talib.
Patriots Running Backs vs. Ravens Linebackers
It’s hard to pick just one running back for this matchup because as we saw last weekend it can be Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, or Danny Woodhead scoring on any given day. Ridley has size and power, Woodhead has speed and elusiveness, and Vereen is a bit of a mix between the two. Ridley and Ray Lewis will be meeting at least a couple times in between the tackles, but it will be up to Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw to handle Vereen and Woodhead, whose impact is felt mostly in passes into the flat. Bill Belichick does not mess around if one of these backs fumbles though, so the Ravens could remove one of these three from the game plan by forcing an early turnover. Edge: Ravens 30-27