NFL Conference Championships Review

You’re not going to believe this, but we have two brothers facing off in the Super Bowl as head coaches for the first time in NFL history. Shocking, right? Also, it’s been confirmed that the Super Bowl will be Ray Lewis’ last game. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

If you’re short on time and don’t want to read over 1,500 words about yesterday’s NFL action, here’s all you need to know: Ultimately, the Falcons and Patriots lost for three reasons. 1. They played at home. 2. They didn’t score 28 points. 3. They weren’t coached by a Harbaugh.

Sometimes life is that simple.

(2) 49ers 28 at (1) Falcons 24
As I mentioned Friday, the Falcons could emerge as NFC Champions if Matt Ryan had a great game. Not a solid game. Not a really good game. A great game. For the first 30 minutes, Ryan played a great game. For the last 30 minutes, Ryan was better than solid but less than good, and it cost Atlanta an NFC title.

It’s not easy to blow big leads in sports. Turnovers and mental mistakes often play a major role. Ryan had two costly turnovers in the 3rd quarter Sunday. More importantly, both came inside 49ers territory. Though the 49ers failed to convert either turnover into points, the turnovers cost Atlanta at least 3 points and likely more. It’s impossible to speculate how the game would have played out from there, but it’s not a stretch to say the Falcons could have taken a late lead and possibly won the game with a field goal on their final drive instead of needing a touchdown to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive.

To be clear, I’m not pinning the loss on Matt Ryan. Not at all. He played well and certainly eliminated any doubts about his ability to lead a franchise deep into the playoffs. Unfortunately, his team was overmatched in nearly every way. Only a mammoth effort from Ryan would catapult his team to New Orleans. He came up a little short and as a result, the Falcons squandered a double digit 2nd half lead for the 2nd consecutive week. Only this time, there was no miraculous 30 second drive to bail them out.

Let’s talk about the winners. If I’m a 49ers fan, I am absolutely tickled by Colin Kaepernick’s performance. In fact, I think Kaepernick’s play in Atlanta would make me more excited about the future than his play the previous week against the Packers.

Was Kaepernick Superman again? No. Did he run untouched through Atlanta’s defense? Not at all. Did he rack up nearly 450 yards of offense on his own? Not even close. However, Kaepernick displayed a maturity level worthy of an eight-year veteran, not a 2nd year greenhorn in only his ninth NFL start. Kaepernick could have easily bought into the hoopla surrounding his record-breaking performance against Green Bay in the Divisional Round. He could have continually tried to carry the offense, run the football when no lanes existed, and believed he was good enough to win the game on his own. We’ve seen thousands of athletes do it before. Instead, Kaepernick repeatedly gave up the football in the read option and took what the defense gave him. It was pretty clear from the get-go that Atlanta wanted Kaepernick to try to beat them through the air. So he did. Kaepernick calmly sat in the pocket and picked apart an overwhelmed Atlanta secondary. He exposed the Falcons linebackers in coverage and finished with a brilliantly efficient game (16/21, 233, TD, 0 turnovers). I couldn’t have been more impressed.

Count me among those that thought the Falcons could win if they put the game on Kaepernick’s arm. The Falcons did just that and Kaepernick still won despite a 17 point deficit. Atlanta contained Kaepernick in the pocket and swallowed him up the few times he managed to get outside the tackles. I don’t think Atlanta could have executed a better game plan to stop Kaepernick. He wasn’t Superman, but he was brilliant. And more often than not, especially in title games, brains win out over brawn.

(4) Ravens 28 at (1) Patriots 13
Since the 2004 Patriots defeated my Eagles in the Super Bowl on February 6, 2005, New England has come up short in the biggest game of their season every. single. time. (Ok, so the 2008 Patriots technically don’t qualify because they missed the playoffs despite finishing 11-5 and winning their last four games, but oh well.) I think it’s time to revaluate the “greatness” of the Patriots.

Obviously, this is no time to go overboard and demand Bill Belichick be fired or call Tom Brady a choke artist. However, it’s hard to ignore that Brady has come up short in both Super Bowl losses and unexpected playoff exits to the Ravens (twice) and Jets in recent years. I understand you can’t win them all, but you have to win some of them to be considered among the all time greats like Montana and Elway. I was disappointed in Brady’s lackluster performance on Sunday. Though, he wasn’t the reason New England lost, not even close.

New England’s loss falls on Bill Belichick, the evil genius that has abandoned his defensive roots and built his teams around a potent offense that fails to deliver in the postseason. Belichick won three Super Bowl titles with one of the league’s top defenses and a mediocre offense with no-name receivers and cast off running backs. For years his defenses have been soft and overmatched in the postseason against less than spectacular offenses. Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Mark Sanchez will never be confused with Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, and yet they’ve taken it to the Patriot defense and sent Tom Brady home in every postseason since 2006.

Bill Belichick is a great coach, but the more recent years of his tenure look awfully similar to the final days of Andy Reid’s in Philadelphia. Reid also abandoned his long-held philosophy of winning with defense and tough-minded offense and traded it in for flashy offense. It ultimately cost Reid his job. While Belichick has three rings to preserve his employment until he decides to quit, the natives in New England will start growing restless until Belichick improves what is supposed to be his expertise; defense.

However you cut it, the Ravens won yesterday and deserve every ounce of credit. John Harbuagh was outstanding. Joe Flacco was again untouchable. Even the defense played its best game of the season… after a 78 minute war in 12 degree temperatures last week, no less. Baltimore is the toughest and gutsiest team in the NFL, bar none. We should probably have learned by now that the team left for dead and considered by many to be just a playoff “participant” is the most dangerous, but that’s a story for a different day. Let’s focus on what allowed the Ravens to emerge victorious instead.

It all started with New England’s failure to convert 3rd downs early in the 1st half. The Patriots were the NFL’s best team on 3rd downs this season, so watching the Patriots fail to convert not one, not two, but THREE 3rd and 2s on three of their first four drives was alarming. Baltimore was clearly sluggish early on. The Patriots were moving the ball but had almost nothing to show for it. You can’t allow teams like Baltimore to hang around. Those 3rd and 2s came back to haunt New England. That was the first significant momentum swing in Baltimore’s favor.

The second was perhaps the most obvious. With 20 seconds remaining in the 1st half and the Patriots threatening to score inside Baltimore’s 20, Tom Brady escaped the pocket and slid. (And cleated Ed Reed for good measure. If this were baseball, the Ravens definitively throw at Brady during his next at bat.) Instead of calling a timeout, Brady tried to rush to the line and a run a play to preserve the timeout. Belichick either wasn’t paying attention or trusted Brady too much. Either way, the Patriots screwed themselves out of at least one and possibly two shots at the end zone to close the half. They were forced to settle for a field goal. Momentum swing for Baltimore.

Out of the half, the Patriots forced a Baltimore punt. Brady and the offense promptly marched the ball to Baltimore’s 34 where Wes Welker dropped an easy catch for a 1st down. Another huge momentum swing for Baltimore. At this point, New England moved the ball inside the Baltimore 35 on five of their first seven drives and only had 13 points to show for their efforts. Teams don’t recover from that many missed opportunities. I even told my brother at this point the Patriots were in trouble. And they were. Following Welker’s mammoth drop, the Ravens outscored New England 21-0. As my brother likes to say, Gisele Bündchen was right all along; Wes Welker sucks.

Let’s go back to blaming Belichick real quick. Belichick passed on two field goals, one from the Baltimore 35 in the 1st quarter, the other from the Baltimore 34 early in the 3rd. Additionally; Belichick opted to punt on a 3rd and 2 at the Baltimore 45 in the 1st quarter. Belichick has made his name as a risk taker. You have the greatest quarterback of this generation. Why not take a shot at converting? The offense clearly needed a kick-start. A 4th down conversion would have certainly provided it. I know it’s the AFC title game and blah, blah, blah, but you don’t change your stripes in the biggest game of the year! As they say on all those lousy MTV shows, “be you!” Be a risk-taker, defy conventional wisdom, go for it on 4th down like you always do, at least try a 52 yard field goal, DO SOMETHING!

Belichick fell asleep at the wheel Sunday and crashed the Patriots into a wall. New England’s incompetence allowed Baltimore to hang around long enough to shake off the pain and rust from their marathon victory in Denver. And once the Ravens got rolling, it was all over.

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