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NFL Playoffs: Top 5 Players to Watch in 49ers-Falcons Game

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NFL Playoffs: Top 5 Players to Watch in 49ers-Falcons Game

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Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

For the second year in a row, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves back in the NFC Championship Game, and one more step closer to making a trip to New Orleans, LA. Only this time, the number-two seeded 49ers will be facing the number-one seeded Atlanta Falcons.

You can’t ask for a better matchup with a spot in Super Bowl XLVII on the line.

The unusual thing about this game is that Atlanta finished the regular season tied for the best record in the league and earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Yet, they are considered the underdog in this conference championship game.

Even though the Falcons finally won their first postseason game in the last eight years, a loss following a string of victories in the regular season will be just as disappointing as losing in the first round. The same can be said for the 49ers, who wants to take a step further from where they ended last season.

Many key factors will play a major part in this contest, and any one of them can most definitely determine the outcome of this game. Most of the attention will be on both teams’ passing game and defensive fronts. Injuries, recent decline in production, and the sudden emergence from players all will be heavily looked upon from everyone who will tune in to this contest.

Here are the top five players whom I think that are worth watching in what could be one of the most explosive games in the league’s postseason history.

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5. Vernon Davis

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the emergence of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the production of tight end Vernon Davis has significantly declined. Davis, who is recognized as one of the best tight ends in the league, tallied only 144 receiving yards and one touchdown since Kaepernick’s been under center. Even though Kaepernick is a dual-threat quarterback, Davis’ production will be needed to not only open up running room for Kaepernick, but also for 49ers running back Frank Gore. Maybe going up against Atlanta’s pass defense that was ranked 23rd in the league during the regular season will bring Davis out of his slump.

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4. Tony Gonzalez

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Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have one of the best wide receiving duos in the league, but a much more important factor in Atlanta’s passing game is tight end Tony Gonzalez. The fact that this could be Gonzalez’s last career game is reason enough to keep eyes on the future Hall of Famer, but he is a player not to be taken lightly on third-and-long situations and in the red zone. His production will also help open up Atlanta’s running game against a San Francisco run defense that was ranked fourth in the regular season. Gonzalez will also be an extension of the Falcons’ sixth-ranked passing attack versus the 49ers’ fourth-ranked pass defense.

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3. John Abraham

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Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons defensive end John Abraham hasn’t been much of a threat in Atlanta’s pass rush in the latter part of the regular season, and to make matters worse, Abraham is now nursing an ankle injury that he suffered in the Falcons’ divisional victory last week. Abraham sat out the entire second half last week, and is expected to start in the NFC Championship. Assuming that he is able to play, Abraham’s job of not only rushing the passer, but also containing the outside when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick leaves the pocket and takes off running, will be vital to the Falcons’ success on the defensive side of the ball.

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2. Justin Smith

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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco’s outside linebacker Aldon Smith, one of the league’s top pass rushers, hasn’t made an impact since the absence of defensive end Justin Smith. A partially torn triceps suffered in Week 15 sidelined the All-Pro defensive lineman for the final two weeks of the regular season. San Francisco’s defensive end still might not be at full strength, but his presence will definitely draw attention from Atlanta’s offensive front and make Aldon Smith the disruptive force that he’s been all regular season. The fact that Atlanta has only surrendered 28 sacks during the regular season means that the 49ers will need all the help they can get from their defensive front. We’ll just have to see if that injury will limit Smith’s production.

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1. Colin Kaepernick

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Many doubted the decision of 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh when he made second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick the starter in Week 11. Since taking over, Kaepernick has led San Francisco to a 5-2 record over their last seven regular-season games, and made history in their convincing win in the divisional round of the playoffs. Kaepernick’s throwing ability, combined with his sneaky speed, may be too much for the Falcons to overcome. Everyone is still waiting for Kaepernick to play like the inexperienced quarterback that he is supposed to be. Until that bad game rears its head, all eyes will be on the 49ers signal caller.

Follow me on Twitter @ClydeASpeller