Last week was an all-or-nothing situation. I bombed Saturday, whiffing on both the Broncos and Packers, but won Sunday with
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.
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
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? Tampa Bay
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
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,
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
It’s no secret that
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.
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
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.
Sunday (6:30, CBS)
So we meet again…
Familiar foes face off for the third time in a calendar year, with
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.