I won’t Lance Armstrong you, I have very little idea what will happen Sunday. But know this, the conference championships will be the last pure football day until September, so soak it all in, because you know you’re going to miss it. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs: 6 – 2 – 0
Sunday, January 20 (3:00PM ET)
(2) 49ers at (1) Falcons
Colin Kaepernick was amazing last weekend against the Green Bay Packers. Flat out amazing. However, when a defense allows a quarterback to throw for 283 yards AND run for another 181, some of that amazing translates to awfulness by the opposing defense. It takes a special kind of terrible to surrender that kind of day, especially in the playoffs when the stakes are the highest. Can Kaepernick accomplish even half of what he did against the Packers against the Falcons? Atlanta’s defense isn’t dramatically better than Green Bay’s, but they know exactly what’s coming and they’ve had a week to prepare accordingly. Atlanta’s singular focus should be making someone other than Kaepernick beat them.
I actually expect the Falcons to have some success in containing Kaepernick simply because they got a first hand look at what Kaepernick brings to the table after they spent the 2nd half of their slim victory over the Seahawks chasing Russell Wilson all over the Georgia Dome. I’m not saying Kaepernick will be easily stopped, but it’s more difficult to throw a football from point A to point B than to run it. Atlanta must force Kaepernick to beat them through the air, even if it means leaving their corners on an island for the better part of the game.
Though the 49ers are the obvious pick here, I can’t ignore Atlanta’s resiliency. All season long the Falcons escaped sure losses with shocking victories. Though we’ve all written them off for the past three months, here they are, one win from an NFC title and a shot at the Vince Lombardi trophy. Crazy things happen in these championship games. The Patriots were supposed to crush the Ravens last year and should have lost. The Eagles were favored in four of five NFC title games throughout the Andy Reid era and only won once. All bets are off when the Super Bowl is within reach.
Atlanta’s best shot at winning this game is Matt Ryan. San Francisco’s secondary is still a little overrated. If the Falcons can give Ryan time, he should find some advantages downfield. Green Bay’s receivers struggled to get loose of the 49ers physical coverage. Green Bay’s receivers rely heavily on speed and quickness. Atlanta’s receivers are physical monsters. Running them off their routes won’t be nearly as easy. It’s not much, but the passing game will be Atlanta’s greatest advantage. If Matt Ryan has anything short of a great game, the Falcons have no chance.
And there’s the rub. It took Matt Ryan four playoff starts to surpass the 200 yard mark in a playoff game. Even in his fifth start, he looked overwhelmed at times. His ghastly 4th quarter interception ignited a Seahawks rally and nearly cost Atlanta the game until Ryan rallied the Falcons to the game winning field goal. Was it simply a moment of triumph or did “Matty Ice” turn a corner? I wish I had a confident answer one way or the other.
Colin Kaepernick may not be as consistent or experienced as Matt Ryan, but he’s fearless. I’ll roll with fearless over experience in a title game. 49ERS If I were Charles Barkley; Falcons +4.5
Sunday, January 20 (6:30PM ET)
(4) Ravens at (1) Patriots
Are the Ravens a team of destiny a la the 2007/2011 New York Giants, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers? Were their late season struggles just what they needed to galvanize an unsettled team? Is Ray Lewis’ surprising return from a torn triceps and imminent retirement driving what we thought was an underachieving defense? (Wouldn’t it be the ultimate defensive conquest if Lewis took out Manning and Brady en route to his 2nd ring?) Baltimore’s win in Denver didn’t surprise me. I essentially predicted the upset right here last week but didn’t have the stones to see it through. What surprises me, though, is how I can’t help but think Baltimore can upset the Patriots.
I’m a Patriots apologist. I’m one of the few that root for the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick duo. I enjoy greatness and therefore celebrate it. I was certain the Patriots would cruise past the Ravens in last year’s AFC title game and then steamroll the Giants to a championship. Obviously, I was wrong. The Patriots would have fallen to the Ravens if not for the poor hands of Lee Evans and the flawed foot of Billy Cundiff. 12 months later, I’m faced with the same choice and battling the same urge to believe in a Patriots core that hasn’t come through in their biggest game of the year since cruising past my beloved Eagles eight years ago.
If I were to pick the Ravens, here’s why:
Joe Flacco is very El Manning-ish right now. He’s nailing the toughest throws in the biggest moments without flinching. His 3rd down throw in the shadow of his own goal post to Dennis Pitta in overtime last week was beautiful. Only the greatest quarterbacks complete that throw in pristine conditions. Flacco did it with a wind-chill hovering around single digits. His deep balls to both Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin have been deadly. Even his underthrown desperation heave to Jacoby Jones found its way into Jones’ hands thanks to a defensive meltdown by Raheem Moore. Those lucky breaks don’t normally happen to Flacco, but when you’re on, things go your way. How many interceptions did the 49ers drop in last year’s NFC Championship game? Things were going Eli Manning’s way for over a month last season and he sealed his second title with an unbelievable pass to Mario Manningham in the Super Bowl. Hot quarterbacks are a nightmare for opponents. Lucky quarterbacks are a death sentence. Flacco is both right now.
The Ravens also have a unique aura about them. Ray Lewis may be a little crazy, but he’s whipped his team into such a frenzy that they actually believe they’re supposed to win the Super Bowl this year. You can’t sucker punch teams like that and expect them to go away. It will take a mammoth 60 minute (or more) effort to remove the Ravens from the postseason. Considering the Ravens are the toughest (both emotionally and physically) team in the NFL, eliminating them will be no easy task.
Strengths and weakness only matter so much at this point in the playoffs. In fact, they probably matter more in the Super Bowl where both teams are rested and the conditions are often ideal. But that’s in two weeks. Here, in the conference championships, games are won on grit and sheer will. The matchups matter less, the size of the heart matter more. Ray Lewis wants another ring. His team wants it for him. Unfortunately, the fiery and equally desperate Tom Brady stands in his way. It just feels like Brady’s year. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -8.5
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs: 6 – 2 – 0