Colin Kaepernick didn’t draw the same hype as Newton when he came out of Nevada nearly two years ago. He didn’t have the Heisman credentials or national title to tout around, like Newton did at Auburn. He wasn’t as eccentric or stirring up the same excitement as his peculiar counterpart. He simply didn’t demand the same attention. But just nine games into his career as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Kaepernick is proving he’s just as dynamic a quarterback. The Falcons should be terrified about that.
Newton dismantled the Falcons during each of their two meetings this season, passing for more than 500 yards combined and running for another 200 as Carolina drew the season series at one game a piece. He also accounted for six total touchdowns in the two games, and maybe even more importantly, he exposed the fatal flaw of the Falcons’ defense: mobile quarterbacks.
Russell Wilson gave the Falcons similar trouble in last week’s divisional playoffs, throwing for 385 yards and running for another 60 while scoring a trio of touchdowns in the nearly successful comeback, further confirming the Falcons’ struggles with such dual-threat quarterbacks.
The success of Newton and Wilson laid the framework for the 49ers’ game plan this weekend, although it probably doesn’t change that much. The key in the 49ers’ trip to Atlanta on Sunday will be Kaepernick’s ability to break containment and make plays outside of the pocket — something of a specialty for the electric playmaker.
Kaepernick put up some terrifying numbers of his own against the Packers in his postseason debut, gaining 263 yards through the air and another 181 on the ground while scoring four touchdowns in the 45-31 rout. The performance goes down as one of the all-time greats in postseason history and more than adequately rivals what Newton and Wilson were able to accomplish against the Falcons — only spelling more trouble for Atlanta in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Kaepernick’s speed is something that the Falcons can manage. Between John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux, Dunta Robinson and some other quality players, Atlanta can keep up with Kaepernick on the outside. The trick is slowing him down while also containing his incredibly accurate passing.
After throwing a first-quarter pick-six against Green Bay on Saturday night, Kaepernick was razor sharp with his throws the rest of the way and connected with both Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis on deep patterns to exploit the secondary. The Falcons will be stouter over the top, with Robinson and Asante Samuel both more than capable of shutting down big-play receivers, but they can also be exploited if Kaepernick is able to extend plays and throw from outside the pocket.
Kaepernick is just as dangerous a quarterback as Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco or Tom Brady right now, but the major difference is that his threat level cannot be contained. Clearly, the Packers did not control his mobility, and if Newton and Wilson are any example, then the Falcons may also struggle with him.
The Falcons finally got over their lingering playoff hump at home last week — albeit by the skin of their teeth — but another agonizing challenge will be knocking on the door come Sunday. Kaepernick may not have the same hardware as Newton, but his skill level is entirely comparable. So, much like how the Falcons failed to defend Newton earlier this season, don’t be surprised when they struggle with Kaepernick this weekend.
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos — He came up short in the postseason once again and is now just 9-11 in his postseason career. The playoffs continue to seem like too big a stage for the all-time great (insert choking sound here).
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons: Up — The Falcons built, and then conceded, a 20-point lead to the Seahawks, but fortunately Ryan is as cool as they come under pressure. Atlanta may not be so lucky giving up a lead like that against the 49ers, though.
John Fox, head coach, Denver Broncos: Down — Hopefully Fox was watching closely as Ryan led the Falcons to a game-winning field goal with 28 seconds and two timeouts left, because that’s how you win in the playoffs. So, the question is: Why pay Manning $20 million if you’re just going to take the ball out of his hands in crunch time? Mind-boggling!
Shane Vereen, RB, New England Patriots: Up — The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the playoffs, but they might have found lightning in a bottle with Vereen. He’s yet another weapon in the holster for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. It’s just not fair sometimes.
Green Bay Packers Defense: Down — The Packers allowed Adrian Peterson to run for more than 500 yards in three games this year, yet the 49ers piled up 323 rushing yards alone on Sunday. Not to mention the 45 points Green Bay allowed — that’s the most the Pack has given up since the Cardinals scored 51 on them in the 2009 playoffs. Yikes.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: Up — Wilson single-handedly led the Seahawks back in Atlanta, and Pete Carroll can breathe a sigh of relief that he’s got a definitive leader for the future. This kid is cool as ice, and he’s going to win a Super Bowl someday. Quote me on it.