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Sunday Five: Too late for Falcons to devise Kaepernick-stopping scheme?

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The NFL conference championship games are set. As you ponder how the Falcons will handle Colin Kaepernick, who is changing the game, consider how unders became overs and all the explosive plays from the divisional round.

Re-think defensive structure

Three of the four remaining quarterbacks are classic drop-back passers who won't run unless forced to. Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan all won while combining for 14 yards on four carries.

Then there is Colin Kaepernick. He had 16 carries for 181 yards and a pair of rushing TDs. I watched that 49ers-Packers game with Dan Marino and Bill Cowher, and Kaepernick was an eye-opener for all three of us.

Marino turns to me at one point and says: "I rushed for 87 yards in my career, this kid could win a Super Bowl this year if he keeps running like this."

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Cowher took a different tack, watching Kaepernick with defending the guy in mind.

"He has excellent accuracy and velocity on his throws and the running breaks down defenses," Cowher said.

Kaepernick clearly represents the future. Or is the future here now? The odds are still 3-1 that a drop-back passer wins this Super Bowl, but it's no lock that this trend will hold.

The Falcons' defense will be first up in trying to next deal with Kaepernick.

And the 49ers are doing things that break down defensive fundamentals. For instance, on one of Kaepernick's rushing TDs, the 49ers not only executed a ride fake from the shotgun, but they also pulled a backside guard to kick out the play-side outside linebacker. It's a key for that OLB to take on the guard and squeeze the hole. As the backer stuck to his key, Kaepernick pulled the ball and ran right around him. In 30 years, I haven't seen many teams ever try and kick out a contain player with the intention of running outside of him. It is a new wrinkle that NFL defenses have to think about in this off-season.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, they don't have that much time.

Finally, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is being criticized for letting Kaepernick run wild. In his defense, Capers called for a few corner blitzes, and the cornerback came clean and only to miss the tackle on Kaepernick. That is not Dom Capers' fault.

From under to over

For those who enjoy figuring how many total points will be scored, the divisional round was the total opposite of the wild-card weekend.

Every wild-card game finished with fewer than the predicted number of points. During the first week of playoff action, defenses dominated as the eight offenses generated only seven TD passes. Add Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick and Matt Ryan to the mix in the divisional round and there was a point explosion.

After resting for a week, those four QBs delivered 11 touchdown passes, plus Kaepernick ran for two scores. And the four QBs who played and won during the wild-card round returned and threw more touchdown passes in the divisional round. Over wild-card weekend, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub threw four TD passes. This past weekend, they connected for nine. It is a quarterback-driven league, and as we climb toward the Super Bowl the men that can throw touchdown passes will keep their team in the tournament -- though we may not see scoring like we did this past weekend.

The oddsmakers for the divisional round week forgot about the scoring power of those quarterbacks. The 49ers and Packers combined for 76 points (the predicted total was 45). The Ravens and Broncos combined for 73 (the number was 46) The Seahawks and Falcons generated 58 (46 was predicted). The Texans and Patriots put 69 points on the board (51 was predicted).

So, how many points will be scored in the two championship games?

Don't be surprised when the over-under is lower, even after all the scoring this past weekend. Over the past five years, not one conference championship game cracked 60 combined points (over that span, the AFC championship game averages 43 points and the NFC game 46 points). And the four remaining defenses all finished in the top 12 in points allowed.

Playing in the Senior Bowl

Next week, I head to the Senior Bowl practices and game. As usual there will be a number of college players who will decline to play -- especially quarterbacks. The advice they get is that the game can hurt draft status, they don't know the receivers and more thoughts that add up to saying no.

I couldn't help but think about the playoff quarterbacks who thought the Senior Bowl was a good idea for them and took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the game and demonstrate to the NFL coaches that they love to compete.

Kaepernick, Wilson and Flacco played in the Senior Bowl and all played very well this past weekend. Of course, Kaepernick and Flacco are a game away from the Super Bowl.

A week ago Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder were playing in postseason games only two years after they were in the Senior Bowl. There's something to be said for the young quarterbacks who show NFL people they want to play football in front of NFL decision-makers, no matter what the supposed risk is when it comes to their draft status.

It was a lot like the Favre play

The final play by Peyton Manning in the loss to the Ravens was an interception as he was flushed from the pocket to his right and threw back across his body -- a high risk pass.

It looked so much like the same pass Brett Favre attempted late in the Vikings-Saints NFC championship game that ended Favre's chances of returning to the Super Bowl.

Those are plays that haunt great quarterbacks like Manning and Favre for a long time. I had a Hall of Fame quarterback tell me years later he pulls up to a red light and his mind wanders right back to a big mistake play that took a Super Bowl away from him.

I hope Peyton Manning lets the memory go and gets ready for another run to the big game. I'm not sure Brett Favre ever got over his throw back across his body that ended his run to glory.

Explosive plays -- divisional games off charts

Passes plays more than 20 yards and runs more than 10 yards are described as explosive plays -- as are kickoff returns of 40 or more yards and punt returns of 20 or more yards. Interception returns over 20 yards are also considered explosive plays.

The divisional round of the playoffs was loaded with explosive plays. Here's how the divisional playoff games compared to the regular season.

Receptions more than 20 yards: There were 32 receptions over 20 yards, nine for TDs. Regular season average: 24 receptions and four TDs every four games.

Runs more than 10 yards: There were 25 runs over 10 yards, three for TDs. Colin Kaepernick dominated this explosive dimension with seven of those runs and two scores. Regular season average: 24 runs and 2 touchdowns every four games.

Kick/punt returns: There were four explosive returns and two touchdowns this weekend. Regular season average: 3.3 returns and less than one TD every four games.

Interception returns: There were three INT returns, averaging 43.3 yards a return and there were two touchdowns. Regular season average: 2.75 explosive returns averaging 38 yards and just under one TD every four regular-season games.

Finally, in the four divisional-round games, we had 64 explosive plays or 16 per game. I hope you didn't get up from your seat during these four games because you might have missed the fireworks!


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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