The San Francisco 49ers travel to Atlanta today, readying for their match-up with the Falcons for the conference title. At this level, it takes a complete team effort to survive and advance to the next round. The Niners are going to have to play even better than they did in the division bout versus the Packers.
And the contributions are going to have to come from everywhere.
This week Colin Kaepernick has been all the buzz. His breakout postseason debut was a quantum statement. Aside from his physical abilities, the fact that he has taken to this game like a fish to water is an encouraging sign for this team in the midst of a championship run.
Justin Smith and Aldon Smith have also been in the headlines. Justin's tricep and Aldon's sack drought have the media asking questions. Everyone knows that the 49ers will have to generate a pass rush against Matt Ryan and this high-powered Falcons offense. It will be critical for these two to get going on Sunday.
But after you get past the big names, there are a lot of unheralded guys that do not receive their due credit. And like I mentioned before, it's going to be all hands on deck this Sunday. Here are my top under-the-radar difference-makers for the 49ers in the NFC Championship:
C.J. Spillman: The 49ers' backup safety and special teams gunner has been an impact player for the Niners. He made a couple exceptional special teams plays in Saturday's divisional game against the Pack. He is often the first guy down the field, and is always in on the tackle.
Spillman recovered the momentum-shifting muffed punt that setup the 49ers score. He also made a terrific play, getting downfield and timing the tackle on returner Randall Cobb. If and when the 49ers have to punt, Spillman will need to help the Niners win the field position battle.
Ahmad Brooks: It's pretty clear that, in a game like this, pass rush is going to be essential for the 49ers. And while all the fingers will point at the Smith Brothers, Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks need to do their part too.
Brooks is very capable of having a big game. He sees a better right side in practice every day, going against Anthony Davis and Alex Boone. During the season, Brooks racked up 2.5 sacks at Green Bay and at New Orleans. If Matt Ryan drops back enough, Brooks will have his chances.
Delanie Walker: I counted three drops in the first half of the 49ers-Packers game. With all of the other threats on offense, Walker has shown an ability to get free but hasn't been as sure-handed when targeted. Also, Kaepernick has looked his way since taking over, so he needs to take advantage of his opportunities.
If he steps up, Walker can be a major X-factor in the NFC Championship - especially against a team that does not do so well against tight ends.
David Akers: NFL kickers are a big-time asset in postseason games. A strong-legged, consistent veteran is exactly what contenders need. The 49ers thought they had that going into the season, but Akers wound up having a down year in 2012.
However, he was not a liability in the divisional round, largely thanks to the Colin Kaepernick Show, with Frank Gore on keyboard. Now it's come down to the two best teams in the NFC, and it might be a close one. The Niners badly need Akers to rise to the occasion.