Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012-2013 NFL Playoff Predictions - Conference Championships

Last week was an all-or-nothing situation.  I bombed Saturday, whiffing on both the Broncos and Packers, but won Sunday with Atlanta and San Francisco.  That brings my season record to 149-82-1.  If this week’s games are half as exciting as last week’s, we’re in for another week of fantastic football.

San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) @ Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Sunday (3:00, FOX)

David v. Goliath?

Despite earning the NFC’s #1 seed and taking down the game’s hottest team last week the Atlanta Falcons head into the conference championship game as four point underdogs, at home.  Yes, the team that went 7-1 at home this year (only loss was that meaningless finale against Tampa Bay) and is 34-6 in the Georgia Dome during Matt Ryan’s career is getting more than a field goal on their own turf.  Are the Falcons still not that believable, or are the Niners just that good?

If last week is any indication, it’s the latter.  After throwing a pick-6 on his first possession of the game, Colin Kaepernick responded the way leaders do.  He ran one in from 20 yards out to tie the game at six and give him his first of four scores on the day.  Kaepernick outplayed Aaron Rodgers and dominated a Packers defense that forgot you’re allowed to make in-game adjustments when the opposition is whipping you up and down the field.  I’m talking to you Dom Capers.  Kaepernick set a league record for most rushing yards in a game by a QB with 181 and added another 263 through the air, including two TD tosses to Michael Crabtree.  If the Falcons are as stubborn as the Packers were, San Fran fans can start making reservations for New Orleans.

The second year QB is getting a ton of talk, as he should.  Not only has he kept a championship caliber team on course after the controversial QB change, but he’s given the Niners an explosive rushing dimension which has means success for the Niners and nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.  Crabtree has loved life with Kaepernick on the giving end of passes, but you’ve got to wonder how focused he’ll be Sunday.  It was announced Friday that the Niners standout receiver is being investigated for an alleged sexual assault.  He’ll play Sunday, but as Kaepernick’s overwhelming prime target, any slip in focus could take away one dimension of a hot offense and give the Falcons a break they need in this matchup.

Atlanta enjoyed a 20-0 halftime lead on the Seahawks but needed to drive 41 yards in 31 seconds and have Matt Bryant to hit a 49 yard field goal to live another week.  Whether it was the Falcons getting lax on defense, conservative on offense, or the west coast Seahawks finally waking up, Atlanta nearly lost a game that had no business being close in the fourth quarter.  Russell Wilson’s spectacular season ended last Sunday, but he went out with a bang.  The rookie threw for 385 yards and two TDs while adding another 60 yards on the ground and a rushing score.  Wilson had all day to throw in that game, and if the Falcons let Kaepernick and the Niners enjoy that same comfort, there won’t be a 20 point lead on which the Falcons can rest. 

The Falcons did defeat the strength of the Seahawks, their read option run game.  Wilson got his, but Marshawn Lynch was held to just 46 yards on the ground, his lowest output since week six against the Patriots.  Lynch didn’t practice in the week leading up to the game, dealing with a foot sprain.  Frank Gore won’t be nearly as gimpy as Lynch clearly played last week.  Gore gashed the Packers for 119 yards and a score on the ground and also had 48 yards receiving.  He’s the downhill type of runner that spells trouble for Atlanta.  They’re not terribly strong up front and will have a tough time against San Fran’s massive front and hammering rusher. 

With the Falcons committing to the edges to stop Wilson and Lynch, Zach Miller had the middle of the field to himself, as his 8 catches for 142 yards and a TD illustrate.  Vernon Davis hasn’t been high on Kaepernick’s radar, but he’ll destroy the Falcons if they give him the same ground they gave Miller.  Like the zone read last week against the Packers, look for this week’s surprise from Jim Harbaugh to be a steady diet of Davis in the intermediate game.  San Francisco isn’t a pass-heavy offense, but I do expect Harbaugh to exploit what I believe is a slow Atlanta secondary, be it with the spacing of Crabtree, Davis, and Randy Moss or the legs of Kaepernick on the edges.  You saw how he ran last week against the Packers secondary when he got to the second and third levels.  The Packers are much quicker than the Falcons in the back end which is very bad news for Atlanta if (when) a Niner breaks free with the football.  With a gimpy John Abraham as their only pass rush threat, it could be a long afternoon for the Falcons defense.

It’s no secret that Atlanta’s fate lies in the hands of Matt Ryan and the passing game.  Still, they had to love getting a combined 162 yards rushing from Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers last week against Seattle.  Turner surprisingly slashed the Seahawks for seven yards a carry, with Rodgers not far behind at 6.4.  Call me cynical, but I don’t see that happening two weeks in a row.  Yes, it gives the Niners defense something else to think about, but they’ll only go as far as Ryan’s trio of receivers takes them.  Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez combined for 17 catches, 186 yards, and 2 TDs against Seattle’s highly publicized secondary.  The Niners secondary might (I stress might) be a notch below Seattle’s, but not by much.  They cover a lot of ground, and their safeties love to hit people.  Will Ryan be able to survive the rush in his face and continually make plays downfield?  If he does, will Atlanta’s receivers hold up to San Fran’s physicality?

After getting out to that big lead last week, the Falcons got away from what they do well.  They tried to shorten the game by throwing less which led to too many short drives and too much time of possession for the Seahawks.  Wilson dominated a Falcons defense that isn’t known for its stoutness or ability to put teams in long yardage situations.  An already soft defense played entirely too soft in surrendering 21 points in less than 13 minutes and owe a big thank you to Bryant for making them participants rather than viewers this week.  Atlanta is far and away the weakest of the four remaining defenses, and that’s not a good sign for this matchup. 

For a franchise with such a steep history of winning, a victory in Atlanta on Sunday would vault the Niners to their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years.  Kaepernick was seven years old when Steve Young lit up the Chargers in Miami

All of the matchups, with the possible exception of Ryan against the Niners secondary, favor San Fran.  If I went with the Falcons, I would be doing so simply as a guess.  Sure they could pull off the win.  Hell, I already referenced their toughness at home.  I just simply don’t see the Falcons being able to trade punches long enough to keep this one close, unless Kaepernick has a down game.  We saw how he responded to last week’s opening pick-6, and that had to give him an extreme amount of confidence.  I don’t see him struggling in this one.  This one ends up closer on the scoreboard than it actually is.  One Harbaugh brother makes it to the Super Bowl. 

Niners 27
Falcons 20

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ New England Patriots (12-4)
Sunday (6:30, CBS)

So we meet again…

Familiar foes face off for the third time in a calendar year, with Baltimore heading to Foxboro to decide the AFC’s half of the Super Bowl equation.  The Ravens and Patriots split the last two contests, and the total margin of victory in their last three meetings is seven points, with no game being decided by more than three.  That said, the oddsmakers aren’t expecting this one to be as close.  The Patriots opened as ten point favorites which is a greater margin than the seven point combined win-loss margin I just mentioned.  I’m not sure I agree with the wise guys. 

How did these teams reach the AFC finals?  Baltimore is coming off the huge upset of Denver, and the Patriots had their way with the Texans for the second time in a month.  Soon to be free agent Joe Flacco made himself a lot of money last Saturday, capping off another playoff victory with three TDs including the instant classic overtime forcing deep ball to Jacoby Jones with 30 seconds remaining in regulation.  Rahim Moore just became famous for all the wrong reasons.  Houston kept it close on the scoreboard for a half, but New England pulled away in second frame, scoring three unanswered TDs to go up 25 with less than a quarter to play.  Who needs Gronk?  When Rob Gronkowski went down early in the game with an injury to his recently-healed forearm, the Patriots stuck to their tradition – next guy up.  That guy in this game was backup RB Shane Vereen.  Bill Belichick and company intelligently used Vereen in the passing game, lining him up at receiver and exploiting mismatches.  Vereen finished the game with three scores; two in the passing game, and one on the ground.

If you’ve been listening to sports talk radio this week you’ve likely heard multiple mentions of the fact that Flacco has outplayed Tom Brady in their recent meetings.  Over the three game stretch mentioned above, Flacco threw for 973 yards compared to Brady’s 866 and had a 7-2 TD to INT ratio compared to Brady’s 2-4 ratio.  Now I’m not going to sit here and try to convince anyone that Flacco is a superior QB to Brady because he isn’t, but Flacco’s numbers in these matchups combined with his career postseason success and the wave of momentum the Ravens are currently riding leads me to believe that Baltimore definitely has a shot of doing what they couldn’t do in last year’s playoffs, beat the Patriots in Foxboro. 

In knocking off the #1 seed Broncos last week in the cold of Mile High, the Ravens survived two huge Trindon Holliday TD returns and three scoring passes from Peyton Manning.  Like a championship boxer, they withstood flurries from the Broncos and responded with even more damaging production of their own.  Flacco continued his hot streak, tossing three TDs and no INTs, with two of those scores, including that highlight heave, going to Torrey Smith.  Four receivers caught at least three passes, and five of them were targeted at least four times.  Flacco is going to need to spread the ball around like that again to take down the defending conference champs.

He’s also going to need another big game from Ray Rice.  The Rutgers rusher totaled 131 yards on 30 totes and scored once in Denver last week.  He’s averaged nearly 28 touches a game in the last three hookups with the Patriots and will need to repeat or exceed that number for the Ravens to get the win.  Backup Bernard Pierce comes into this one a little banged up, so Rice will likely be asked to shoulder more of the load in the backfield. 

Baltimore’s defense is really clicking.  Whether it’s them getting healthy or rallying around Ray, this group has made the plays when it has counted this postseason.  Lewis had a whopping 17 tackles last week, and Terrell Suggs added 10 of his own along with two sacks.  Often overlooked Dannell Ellerbe keeps taking care of business.  He’s been the biggest key to the Ravens hanging on, stepping up big time in Lewis’ absence and now making plays along side of him.  To make a deep playoff run you’ve got to get some guys to step up, and that’s exactly what Paul Kruger and Corey Graham have done.  The former recovered that huge Manning fumble, and the latter gave the Ravens their first lead of the game by returning a Manning interception for six and got him again in OT to set up the winning kick. 

New England’s defense doesn’t get a lot of talk, possibly because of how strong they are on the other side of the ball, but this is a unit that, while not statistically outstanding, makes the necessary plays at the necessary time.  They forced two turnovers in the regular season finale against the Dolphins and another one last week against the Texans.  They’re led up front by veterans Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich, and Jerod Mayo and rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.  Ray Rice is going to have his hands full finding rushing lanes.  In their one win in the last three of these meetings, Rice ran for 101 yards and a TD.  In the two losses, he totaled 155 yards and zero scores.  I don’t see them stopping Flacco, but the Patriots like their corner combo of Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington which allows Devin McCourty to be a presence at free safety.  Look for Talib to shadow Torrey Smith and keep him from burning the Patriots like he did the Broncos.  If Talib is able to contain Smith, Baltimore will need a big game from Anquan Boldin in the slot against Arrington.  I expect to see the Ravens spread out the Patriots secondary and target Boldin over the middle quite a bit. 

Tom Terrific is going to have to put that moniker on display Sunday to slow down this Ravens freight train.  As I’ve pointed out, he’s struggled recently in these matchups, but I’d argue that this is a drastically different Patriots team.  It’s still an offense that exploits mismatches, but they’re now a very strong running team and play with a tempo that is impossible to keep up with when Brady is at his best.  I believe they’re really going to push the tempo early to see how tired these Ravens defenders are after logging a ton of snaps over the last two weeks, and I expect to see New England to a lot of run run running in the up tempo offense. 

Baltimore surrendered 152 yards on the ground to the Colts in the Wild Card round and another 125 to Denver last week.  Vick Ballard and Ronnie Hillman combined for 174 yards on 44 carries for an average of four yards per rush.  No offense to Ballard who had a strong finish to the season, but he’d be down the depth chart in New England.  Hillman was a non-factor all year until stepping in for an injured Knowshon Moreno last week.  In a note I saw on Rotoworld, New England is 13-0 when they rush for 100 yards as a team and 0-4 when they don’t.  Given the Colts and Broncos success on the ground against the Ravens, you better bet Bill Belichick is going to call Stevan Ridley and the aforementioned Vereen’s number early and often. 

New England totaled 122 rushing yards last week against Houston’s stout rush defense, and I think the success of Ridley and Vereen, rather than the arm and mind of Brady, will end up being the Patriots strength in this one.  This is the matchup that I believe tilts a very even contest in New England’s favor.  The Ravens don’t wilt, but the Patriots prove why they’re the conference’s best team.  I said that last week would be Ray Lewis’ swansong, but I was wrong.  Maybe they’ll pull out another one and advance to New Orleans, but I truly believe this is the end of the line.  What a great ride it’s been.

Patriots 31
Ravens 27

No comments:

Post a Comment