There are times in every man’s life where he has to swallow his pride. This past weekend, my pride was force-fed to me through a feeding tube. In the aftermath of the four contests, I found myself 1-3 for the weekend in terms of my picks. So it would be understandable if you decide not to read on because of how incredibly erroneous I was. But I implore you to continue as there will be plenty of excuses and even more probably wrong predictions on the way. After all, I am only human.
A Look Back
After the dust settled from this past weekend’s games, football fans around the country were left with an unforgettable two days of playoff action. We had upsets, we had blowouts, we had comebacks, and we had miracles. Two games this weekend will instantly enter the conversation of the best playoff games ever while the other two games turned out to be statement wins. If any non-football fans caught any of the action from this past weekend, they would understand why we fanatics take 12 hours out of our weekend to watch every minute.
The first game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos was one of those games in the aforementioned greatest playoff games ever category. This game had everything. Offensive touchdowns, defensive touchdowns, and special teams touchdowns. It felt like there was a legitimate chance of a big play whenever any player touched the ball. The amazing thing about this game is that nobody saw this coming. Most people (including me) predicted a blowout win for the Broncos. The Ravens were too injury-laden, too error-prone, and too over-matched to even contest. At first, it seemed like these predictions were going to come true. The first Ravens’ possession ended in a punt. This would not have been a huge issue if the Ravens stopped the run-back. However, returner Trindon Holliday ran back the punt for a touchdown and suddenly the Broncos were up 7-0 before Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning stepped onto the field. The Ravens answered with a quick score on a long touchdown to speedy receiver Torrey Smith. The teams went back and forth for the entire first half and ultimately for the rest of the game.
The key moment in this game did not happen at the end with Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco’s incredible Hail Mary throw to Jacoby Jones which tied up the game at the end of regulation. Rather, the key moment happened at the end of the first half. Prior to this, the Broncos managed to engineer a five minute long drive which put them into field goal range. However, kicker Matt Prater missed the attempt horribly and set up the Ravens at their own 42 yard line with over a minute left in the half. The Ravens went on to score a touchdown to tie the game going into halftime. Consider what would have happened if Prater makes the kick. The score becomes 24-14 and the Ravens most likely have to start their drive at their own 20 yard line. Presumably, Denver holds them to at least a field goal or maybe no points at all. Regardless, Denver goes into halftime with the lead and, possibly, some momentum. However, Prater misses, Flacco throws the aforementioned miracle throw that was more the result of really bad coverage with 31 seconds left in the game, Peyton Manning throws an ill-advised interception in overtime, and the Ravens move on to the AFC Championship game.
The next game was also exciting but for decidedly different reasons. While the Ravens-Broncos game will be remembered for drama, the game between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers will be remembered as 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s postseason coming out party. It didn’t start out well for Kaepernick, however. His second throw of the game was a pick-6 and the 49ers found themselves down by seven points early. But nobody on the 49ers panicked. Over the next three quarters, they gradually pounded the Packers into the ground as Kaepernick set the single game record for rushing yards by a quarterback when he finished with 181 yards.
To say this game was a blowout is a stretch despite the 45-31 final score. The 49ers didn’t pull away until the fourth quarter. In fact, as late as halfway through the third quarter, the Packers looked like they were in prime position to make a comeback. However, their drives stalled at inopportune times as Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers failed to get anything going.
The final result of this game is ultimately due to Rodgers’ inability to execute at crucial moments. He threw a costly interception in the second quarter which led to a San Francisco touchdown. On the first drive of the second half, he had the opportunity to construct a drive that would swing the game’s momentum firmly in his team’s favor. Instead, he was sacked on third down which capped off a three-and-out. The energy and precision that we are all so accustomed to seeing out of Rodgers was missing in this game. One has to wonder if they have lost the magic that fueled their Super Bowl run in the 2010-11 season.
After those two games, I personally thought that Sunday’s games would be snoozers by comparison. In the early moments of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons, it seemed as though this would be true. After the first half, the Seahawks trailed 20-0. Their defense did not resemble the marquee unit they had been all year and was getting shredded by Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. Twice in the first half, the offense had an opportunity to put points on the board but questionable calls and poor clock management robbed them of any chance at them. It seemed as though the game would turn into a rout very quickly. In the second half, the tide started to turn. Seattle drove 78 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter and it looked as if they had some momentum. However, Seattle’s defense failed them once again and gave up yet another touchdown towards the end of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter started with the score at 27-7 in favor of the Falcons. Trailing 20 points in the final quarter of play is not the recipe for success for any football team. However, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson made some clutch throws against an Atlanta secondary that was inept at stopping any of his throws or scrambles. With 31 seconds left, the Seahawks suddenly found themselves ahead 28-27. At this point, my father started lecturing me about college applications because he figured the game was over. Suddenly, Ryan drove his team to the Seattle 31 yard line and set up a game winning field goal. The improbable happened twice in this game. First, with the Seattle rally in the 4th quarter and then the Falcons’ go ahead field goal that booked the Falcons a date in the NFC Championship game.
The implications of this game reach far beyond Atlanta’s advancement. First of all, it proved why many thought the Seahawks were the team to watch in the postseason. They were out of it and then suddenly back in it. Wilson is a keeper at quarterback and the groundwork is set for many fruitful seasons to come.
On the Falcons’ side, there is good news and bad news. Good news is that Ryan is finally over his playoff hurdle so he won’t have to bear that burden going further. Bad news is that the Falcons as a whole played fairly poorly down the stretch. On the first drive of the fourth quarter, Ryan was intercepted. The next two drives were three-and-outs. The defense couldn’t get off the field. These are areas that San Francisco will exploit in the next game.
Finally, the Houston Texans and New England Patriots squared off in a rematch of their regular season game in which the Patriots disassembled the Texans. Many were convinced that this game was going to have a similar result. They were right as the Patriots cruised 41-28. However, the game didn’t start off as a blowout. Houston returned the opening kickoff 94 yards to the Patriot 12 yard line. It seemed as though this game might have become a bigger struggle than many had thought. However, the Texans could not punch into the end zone. In hindsight, this was the only point at which the Texans could have made a statement to the Patriots. Score the touchdown and Tom Brady comes onto the field down 7 points after just two minutes of play. Furthermore, the Patriots’ highly acclaimed offense started off slowly. Therefore, more than likely, the Patriots end the quarter still down a touchdown. In reality, the Texans settled for a field goal and the Patriots eventually answered with a touchdown towards the end of the first quarter.
From there, it was pretty much all Patriots. While there was a brief glimmer of hope for the Texans when they scored 10 points in four minutes, New England effectively manhandled them for the rest of the game. Texans’ running back Arian Foster was a non-factor despite getting all the carries for the Texans. In the end, the Texans showed that they still have work to do before they can entrench themselves among the elite teams in the AFC.
The Patriots did not emerge from the game unscathed, however. Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski reinjured his left arm and will miss the remainder of the playoffs. His absence will be felt most in the red zone where his big frame and athleticism has led to many touchdown connections with quarterback Tom Brady. Steady running back Danny Woodhead also left the game early. The good news for the Patriots is that from the injury reports, it appears he should be back in time for next weekend’s game. On defense, the biggest loss was rookie defensive end Chandler Jones. While clearly not the pass rushing threat he was at the beginning of the season, the possible absence of Jones looms large over the defense as they attempt to defend a reinvigorated passing attack from the Ravens.
This Sunday will feature two compelling match-ups. The first game, between the 49ers and Falcons, is between two teams that both come into the game with plenty of momentum. For example, 49ers’ coach Jim Harbaugh should feel thoroughly vindicated for his decision to replace quarterback Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick. At the time, people questioned his decision. Smith led this same 49ers team to the NFC Championship game last year and came within a botched punt return of going to the Super Bowl. This season, he was the top rated passer in the entire NFL before he was sidelined with a concussion. Kaepernick, at the time of Smith’s backup, stepped up in the next game which turned out to be a rout of our very own Chicago Bears. He followed it up with a strong performance in New Orleans against the Saints and Harbaugh decided to stick with him permanently. His reasons were simple. While Alex Smith was a steady quarterback, it became apparent that he had hit his ceiling of potential. He didn’t provide the same spark or big play ability that Kaepernick did. So when the 49ers demolished the Packers and Kaepernick had a career game on the biggest stage of his life, Harbaugh must have breathed a sigh of relief.
Kaepernick contributes in two ways. First, his running ability is incredibly dangerous. On one of his touchdown rushes (he had two in the game), he outran even the traditionally quicker secondary players of the Packers. This opens up the passing game and allows the team to run the read-option attack which allows the quarterback to make a split second decision between handing the ball off to the running back and keeping it himself. It was obvious that the Packers were not prepared for this. They had absolutely no containment.
His second biggest contribution is his ability to make big plays through the air. While Smith was exceptional at preventing turnovers, Kaepernick allows the offense to stretch the field. The opposition cannot sell out on the run because the 49ers have a receiving core that is talented enough to get behind them and a quarterback capable to delivering the ball to them. It’s a dilemma that no defense has a complete answer for right now.
Of course, the rest of the 49ers’ players are pretty good too. Their defense seemed a little porous in their performance against the Packers but that can be chalked up to playing a prolific quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. However, considering that they are now facing a Falcons team that loves to pass the ball, this will be an area to watch.
While most people paid attention to Kaepernick’s performance, Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore quietly contributed a big game as well. Against the Falcons, he should be their primary option if they want to keep the Falcons’ offense off the field.
On the Falcons’ side, there is an abundance of talent. Quarterback Matt Ryan played an excellent game against a tough Seattle defense. However, he did throw two interceptions. Turning the ball over has been an issue for him all year and will continue to be against a 49ers’ defense that thrives on pressuring quarterbacks. That being said, one cannot discount his play at the end of the game. He was clutch, which is a word that is seldom used when describing his playoff history. His regular season history is a completely different story. As I mentioned in last week’s article, Atlanta has excelled in late game comebacks. If this game is close at the end, the Falcons’ chances of winning go up dramatically.
Of course, a quarterback is nothing without his wide receivers and tight ends. As far as these positions are concerned, the Falcons are not lacking in talent. Veteran wide receiver Roddy White is still a productive vertical threat and sophomore wide receiver Julio Jones is a star evolving right in front of our eyes. The anchor to the passing game is tight end Tony Gonzalez. Even after 15 years in the league, he is still among the best tight ends to ever play the game. He is a huge red zone threat and can dominate the middle of the field. If Ryan expects to win, he should look for Gonzalez early and often.
Conversely, defense is not the Falcons’ strength. To make matters worse, their best pass rusher, defensive end John Abraham, is questionable for Sunday’s game. They have an impressive secondary, however, with standout cornerback Asante Samuel anchoring the defensive back corps.
Trying to predict this game is difficult. On a pure talent-level basis, the 49ers edge out the Falcons. They are far more balanced between run and pass on offense and their defense is clearly superior. However, one has to wonder how much last weekend’s win did for the Falcons psychologically. They have been told for years that they couldn’t win in the postseason and now suddenly that burden is lifted. Will Ryan lift his play as a result? In the end, that is the question that will determine the game. Oh, and that Kaepernick guy is pretty good too. Ultimately, too many question marks on the Falcons side for me to pick them in good faith. Prediction: 49ers 28 – 20 Falcons.
The second game is a rematch of last year’s dramatic AFC Championship game between the Ravens and Patriots. As we all know, that game ended with a shank on a possible game-tying field goal from former Ravens’ kicker Billy Cundiff and a trip to the Super Bowl for the Patriots. So, what’s to expect from the encore?
Let’s start with the Ravens. Last week showed me something. When quarterback Joe Flacco is on a roll, he is as good as any quarterback in the NFL. He has exceptional arm strength and thrives when given time to find a receiver down the field. He consistently hit his deep threats, receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, and also picked apart the Broncos’ secondary with intermediate and short range passes. Chances he repeats that type of performance against the Patriots? In my opinion, slim to none. I think he will have an average game at best which puts all the burden on the Ravens’ running game and defense.
Speaking of the running game, the Ravens have one of the best running backs in the NFL in Ray Rice. Rice is a small player with a low center of gravity and immense power. The combination is deadly once he gets going. He is a threat running and catching the ball. Point is that if the Ravens expect to stay in this game, they need to use Rice in large amounts as both an explosive part of their offense and an efficient part of their clock management. If they can use Rice to control the clock and keep the Patriots’ offense off the field, then they have a chance to pull off the upset.
The Ravens’ defense is not the juggernaut that we have been used to for the past decade. All the key pieces are still there including Pro Bowlers Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Nagta. But if one takes a close look at that group, he or she will see that all of them are either hobbled by injury or old or both. Another important part of their defense, cornerback Lardarius Webb, is on the injured reserve. Point being, this unit has been struggling the entire season. That being said, Lewis’ retirement announcement seems to have provided a shot in the arm for the entire defense. They are playing with an intensity that we haven’t seen since the beginning of the year. In the Wild-Card Round, they shut down the Indianapolis Colts. Last week, they intercepted Peyton Manning twice. On Sunday, they will play hard. Whether they can sustain that energy is a different story.
Their emotional and physical endurance will be tested by the Patriots’ offense. The excellence of quarterback Tom Brady and his corps of receivers and tight ends has been well documented. However, two new wrinkles have been added this year that make them even more dangerous. First, their running game has vastly improved from last year. Sophomore running backs Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen have proven to be explosive play-makers. The aforementioned running back Danny Woodhead (assuming, of course, that he isn’t impacted by injury) is a reliable change of pace back who excels in pass protection and catching. Don’t forget about undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden who showed flashes of explosiveness earlier in the year before a suspension. Quite honestly, there isn’t a deeper running back group left in the playoffs. Their solid running game opens up the passing game as well and allows for the Patriots to control the clock with ease at the end of games.
Then there is the hurry up strategy that has been used with greater frequency than ever this season. To say this is a completely new phenomenon is misleading, however. The hurry up offense itself has been around for more than a decade. The Patriots have been perfecting it for the last couple of years. Essentially, after a play is run, the offense hurries to the new line of scrimmage and quickly runs off another play. The effects this has on the defense can be disastrous. For one, often times they are not set or are confused when the play is run, leading to easy completions and big play potential. Furthermore, the hurry up keeps the same group of defenders on the field. If there is a mismatch that presents itself during a drive, the Patriots can continue to attack it. This also tires out the defense. So, if the Ravens are suffering from any sort of hangover following their emotional win in Denver or are simply fatigued, it will become obvious over the course of the game.
The Patriots’ defense will need its best performance in order to win this game. They cannot let the Ravens speedy receivers beat them consistently and they need to shut down Rice. A tall order, but this group, regardless of the criticisms, is capable of such a performance. Cornerback Aqib Talib needs to prove that the Patriots made the right decision when they decided to trade for him mid-season. The entire secondary needs to prove that it is worthy of the incredible offense that the Patriots possess.
These two teams met earlier in the regular season and the Ravens emerged victorious by a single point. A lot has changed since then for both teams. The Patriots are clicking on all cylinders. If they win the turnover battle, they should be in good shape for this game. However, this could be a challenge given that in recent years, Brady doesn’t seem to be able to play two good playoff games consecutively. On the other hand, the Ravens should be worn out from their two postseason games and the emotional and physical strain of overachieving. However, if I’ve learned anything from these playoffs, it’s that one cannot count the Ravens out. This game will not be a blowout like some predict. It will be close. In the end, the Patriots have too many weapons for the Ravens to counter. Prediction: Patriots 31 – 27 Ravens.
So will it be a regular season rematch between the Patriots and 49ers in the Super Bowl like I am predicting? Or a Harbaugh Bowl (Ravens and 49ers)? Or a match-up between two of the NFL’s most potent offenses (Patriots and Falcons)? Or maybe even a battle of the underdogs (Ravens and Falcons)? The great thing about the NFL is that any one of these match-ups is possible and would not thoroughly shock anybody. All of these teams truly earned their place in what is effectively the semifinals of the playoffs. So take those 6 hours out of your Sunday and watch the action because given what we have already seen in the playoffs thus far, these are going to be incredible games.