Friday, January 18, 2013

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships

We are down to the final four in the NFL Playoffs. Going into last week's games it isn't the final four many had been expecting. Everyone assumed we would get Manning vs. Brady in the AFC, and I saw a lot of people picking Seattle at Green Bay in a rematch of the Monday Night Monstrosity. Instead for the second straight season, it will be Baltimore at New England for the AFC Championship. While on the NFC side of things, the Niners are back in the championship game, but this time travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. This week most appear to be sure that we will have a New England vs. San Francisco Super Bowl in two weeks. As a 49ers fan, I am very confident about their chances against Atlanta, but with everyone picking the Niners it definitely makes me nervous. If I have learned anything watching the NFL for over 20 years, it is to expect the unexpected.


NFC Championship: #2 San Francisco (12-4-1) at #1 Atlanta (14-3), San Francisco favored by 4

Colin Kaepernick arrived on the national scene last week with his incredible performance against the Green Bay Packers. After he threw that drive opening pick six, my fears of him being overwhelmed by the moment looked to be right. But then he showed incredible moxie and played tremendously the rest of the game. He rushed for 181 yards, which is incredible to do as a quarterback in the NFL. He wasn't just a rushing threat though, the touch he showed on his deep balls was beautiful. For the few idiots questioning the move from game manager Alex Smith, to game changer Kaepernick there was nothing left for them to say. The Falcons dominated Seattle in the first half, and had me crowing as I was one of the few to predict that they would beat the Seahawks. Then it seemed as if a switch turned and this version of the Falcons remembered they don't enjoy success and would rather be losers. Matty "Ice" Ryan finally actually lived up to that nickname and calmly drove the Falcons into field goal range, and the rest was history.

Last year, the 49ers had a championship defense but a mediocre offense. Smith did play out of his mind against New Orleans last year, but that Saints defense wasn't good. Smith wet himself in the NFC Championship game, not even completing a pass to a wide receiver the entire game. That won't happen Sunday with Kaepernick. For one, WR Michael Crabtree has emerged as the number one receiver the 49ers envisioned when they drafted him. He is living up to the moniker he bestowed upon himself, as "King Crab". I think part of that has to do with old timer Randy Moss. Moss hasn't made a ton of huge plays this season, but his presence has taken some pressure off Crabtree. Moss has been an ideal signing this year. He has made a few plays, not caused any trouble, and has been a good influence on the receiving corps. Last year's main man in the playoffs was TE Vernon Davis. Davis has mostly disappeared from the offense for the last month, but did have one long reception against Green Bay. Kaepernick targeted him a few times against the Packers, and hopefully he can get something going on Sunday. Let's also not forget about Frank "the tank" Gore, who continues to run through holes and play at a high level. The Falcons defense struggles to rush the quarterback, is mediocre at best, and has a gimpy John Abraham. The 49ers have to be licking their chops at going up against this defense. The Falcons defense also has to contend with one of the best offensive lines in the game. Pro Bowler Joe Staley was battling an injury against Green Bay, but battled through it and played great. All indications are that he will play Sunday, and hopefully he can gut through the injury.

Atlanta definitely has some weapons offensively, especially in the receiving game. Roddy White, Julio Jones, and the ageless TE Tony Gonzalez make up one of the best receiving corps in the game today. They have a pretty good quarterback in Ryan throwing them the ball, but Ryan makes a lot of stupid, head scratching throws. Going up against the Niners beastly defense, he is going to have to make some decisions on the run, and the ball hawks in the Niners secondary figure to at least pick off one or two of his passes. One thing that happened in the Falcons win over Seattle that no one anticipated was the Falcons run games being more effective than Seattle's. Michael Turner was running like it was 2009. He may have gashed the Seahawks overrated defense, but I bet he doesn't even average 4.0 yards a carry against San Francisco. Jacquizz Rodgers concerns me more than Turner, but the Falcons seem intent on Turner getting the bulk of the carries. The Niners do have to watch Rogers coming out of the backfield and catching passes, because once he gets the ball, with his speed, he can turn anything into a big play. The Falcons offensive line is strong, and the Seahawks lack of pass rush doomed them. I am confident that Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and company can get pressure on Ryan. Special teams wise, Falcons punter Matt Bosher was terrible last week when he actually had to punt, and that could be a factor Sunday as far as field position. Thankfully, for the 49ers David Akers made the one field goal he attempted last week, and I pray that this game doesn't have to come down to his leg.

If the 49ers win this game to advance to the Super Bowl they will have achieved something they haven't all season long, a three game winning streak. Pretty incredible to think that a team with a 12-4-1 record hasn't won three straight all year, but that's the case. On paper, the 49ers are clearly the better team. If this game were in San Francisco I would give the Falcons no chance at all. Dealing with the crowd at the Georgia Dome will be tough, but let's not forget this Falcons team blew a 20 point lead at home last week. Plus, the 49ers have already shown they can go into tough environments like Lambeau, the Superdome, and New England and not only win games, but dominate. The 49ers are too well coached and have too much talent to lose this game and will return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.

Prediction: San Francisco 28, Atlanta 17


AFC Championship: #4 Baltimore (12-6) at #1 New England (13-4), New England favored by 9

The Ravens came into the playoffs with no momentum but here they are, in the AFC Championship game for the third time in five seasons. Them beating the Colts in the Wild Card round wasn't a surprise, but almost no one had them beating the Broncos. I thought the game would be close, but still figured Denver would pull it out. I underestimated the Broncos fraudiness and Peyton Manning's ability to choke in the playoffs. The Ravens are once again huge underdogs, and once again I think this game will be closer than the experts think. The Patriots bulldozed the Texans and seemed destined to reach their sixth Super Bowl in twelve seasons. They did lose TE Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the playoffs when he re-injured his forearm early in the Texans game. However, the offense has hummed along fine without him this season, so it doesn't appear to be a crucial loss.

For Baltimore to stay in this game they will once again need a tremendous effort from polarizing quarterback Joe Flacco. Some have been quick to laud praise on Flacco and call him elite, while others still aren't that impressed, despite Flacco having 5 road playoff wins in his career. I fall somewhere in the middle, but there is no denying that Flacco has come up huge for his team in some big spots. Last year in the AFC Championship he outplayed Tom Brady, and had Lee Evans held on to the ball, Flacco would have been in the Super Bowl. These teams met in Week 3 this season in Baltimore, and Flacco outplayed Brady in that game as well. Flacco has shown that he likes playing against the Patriots defense, and I expect he will play well in this game. It got lost in the shuffle of all the storylines from last week's game but RB Ray Rice also played very well. He rushed for 101 yards against New England earlier this season, and when is running well, it makes things so much easier for Flacco. Flacco has some bonafide receivers in Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and even TE Dennis Pitta. Defensively, the Ravens have looked much better since they finally got healthy. The scoreboard showed Denver with 35 points last week, but 14 of those came from kickoff and punt returns. The defense will have to dole out big hits on guys like Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez to stop them from taking over the middle of the field. The Patriots offensive line is stingy, so it is imperative for Baltimore that if they can't pressure Brady, they at least make the receivers nervous.

New England will play their hurry, uptempo offense, and you can expect them to have some wrinkles that no one will know about it beforehand. In last year's game it was using Hernandez at running back, and last week it was highlighting Shane Vareen in the passing game. The Patriots couldn't get their running game on track in the Week 3 meeting at Baltimore. I don't expect that to be the case Sunday. Stevan Ridley has become a strong runner, and as long as he isn't fumbling he will gain yardage. Defensively, the Patriots won't shut down the Ravens attack, they just need to manage them, as the offense is bound to put up points for New England. The Ravens line has played well in the playoffs but was re-tooled just two weeks ago, so the opportunities are there for the Patriots to pressure Flacco. Also, Vince Wilfork is always a beast in the middle and will be hard to stop from making Ray Rice's life difficult.

If this was the Ravens defense from three or four years ago I think I would go with the upset. This is the third time the Ravens have reached this game and the law of averages would make you think they have to break through and reach the Super Bowl at some point. I just don't think their defense, even healthy can make enough plays to prevent the Patriots from hanging 30 points. A Harbowl battle between the 49ers and Ravens would be fun, but I don't think John's team can do their part of the deal. The Patriots will once again represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and look to win their first championship since 2004.

Prediction: New England 30, Baltimore 24

Last Week Against the Spread: 2-2
Overall Against the Spread: 121-135-7

Last Week Straight Up: 3-1
Overall Straight Up: 171-92-1

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