The final pit stop on the road to the Super Bowl is this weekend, as both the AFC and NFC Championship games will be played. This weekend has produced some of the greatest moments in the history of the NFL. The potential for memorable moments is making fans giddy with excitement for the two games. Here’s a look at the matchups.
San Francisco at Atlanta
The top 2 seeds in the NFC will meet in the Georgia Dome. The 49ers got here, thanks to a 45-31 victory over Green Bay. The Falcons survived a major scare against Seattle, winning the game 30-28 victory, thanks to a 49 yard field goal from Matt Bryant with 8 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers won last week, thanks to a brilliant performance by second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Nevada-Reno product completed 17 out of 31 pass attempts for 263 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception. But it was his legs that killed the Packers. Kaepernick ran for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns on 16 carries last week, shattering the record for rushing yards in a playoff game by a quarterback. Kaepernick ran the read-option offence to perfection last week, as he totally had the Packers befuddled, with his ball-handling and deception. The Falcons will have to be on guard at all times, as one false move by a defender, and Kaepernick is off to the races.
The read-option also provided Frank Gore with some room. The powerful running back rushed the ball 23 times for 119 yards and a touchdown last week. Since Kaepernick’s runs were outside the tackle box, taking the outside linebackers with him, it leaves room up the middle for Gore to bulldoze his way up the field. Gore is excellent at selling the fakes and play-action passes, which also makes him a solid blocker when teams blitz. If Kaepernick and Gore each gain 100+ yards on the ground, the 49ers will be on their way to New Orleans.
Kaepernick’s running ability also opened up the passing game as well. With safeties cheating forward to prevent the run, it left receivers with single coverage, and openings down the field. Michael Crabtree benefitted the most from the single coverage last week, recording 9 receptions for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, a story that just broke on Friday involving Crabtree may be a concern for the 49ers. San Francisco police have questioned Crabtree on an alleged sexual assault that happened Saturday night, following the 49ers victory. Crabtree hasn’t been arrested and will play on Sunday. But will it be a distraction to him and his teammates remains to be seen. Randy Moss and Vernon Davis didn’t put up huge numbers against Green Bay, but could be factors this week. Davis in particular is someone to watch. Seahawks tight end Zach Miller had a huge game against the Falcons, catching 8 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. The Falcon linebackers had difficulty covering the Seahawks tight end, so look for Davis to be more involved in the 49er game plan this week.
Speaking of the Falcon defence, there are major questions surrounding the health of defensive end John Abraham. The 13 year veteran is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a sprained ankle. Abraham led the Falcons with 10 sacks this season, and the Falcons pass rush revolves around him. If Abraham is ineffective or can’t play, it will leave a major hole in Atlanta’s defence. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive end Jonathan Babineaux will be asked to shoulder more of the load for Atlanta. Both are great players, but I wonder if too much will be asked of them to stop the 49ers offence.
The Falcons are no slouches on offence either. Quarterback Matt Ryan finally got the monkey off his back with his first playoff win last week, but he will need to cut down on the mistakes. Ryan did complete 24 out of 35 pass attempts for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns. However Ryan did throw 2 interceptions which nearly cost the Falcons the game. There are still questions about Ryan’s decision-making in the pocket, and with the 49ers showing various schemes and confusing blitz packages, Ryan will need to make adjustments on the fly, if Atlanta is to succeed.
The Falcons did get a big boost in the running game last week. Michael Turner had an excellent game against Seattle, carrying the ball 14 times for 98 yards last week. If anything, Turner didn’t have enough carries in the game. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter must utilize Turner more in his play calling. Turner still has the ability to wear down defenders with his punishing running style. He should carry the ball 20 times this week, if Atlanta wants to go to New Orleans. Jacquizz Rodgers also had a solid game last week, carrying the ball 10 times for 64 yards against Seattle. Rodgers brings speed and big-play ability to the Falcons ground game.
You could make a solid argument that the Falcons have the best receiver tandem in the NFL. Roddy White and Julio Jones have the ability to stretch defences with their speed and route running. Both are big play threats that can also be called upon to make key first down receptions. The 49ers secondary will have their hands full, covering this terrific combination. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is the inspirational leader of the Falcons. The 16 year veteran won his first playoff game last week, and desperately wants to win a Super Bowl before he retires. Gonzalez has said he is 95% certain this is his final season in the NFL, so look for him to provide leadership for the Falcons.
The 49ers did admit it wasn’t their best game defensively last week, but they did make the proper adjustments in the second half to contain Aaron Rodgers and company. However, Aldon Smith will need to have a better performance this week. Against the Packers, Smith was virtually invisible as the Packers offensive line did a nice job containing the sack leader for San Francisco. Smith will need to put pressure on Matt Ryan for the 49ers to really put the defensive game plan to full use. Linebacker Patrick Willis and free safety Dashon Goldson are focal points in the defence as well. If they can shut down the middle of the field, forcing the Falcons to go to the outside, it will limit scoring opportunities for the Falcons.
This will be a better game than most people expect. Many observers are picking a blowout win for the 49ers but I don’t see it that way. The Falcons are an excellent team and will use the noisy Georgia Dome crowd to its advantage. That being said, I don’t trust Atlanta in tense situations. Whether it be questionable play calling to poor execution on the field, the Falcons do have a bad habit at choking in the big moment. The Falcons were lucky to escape with a victory last week. I’m predicting heartbreak for Falcon fans this week. San Francisco wins.
Baltimore at New England
A rematch of last year’s thrilling AFC Championship game, which the Patriots won 23-20 thanks to a missed field goal by the Ravens Billy Cundiff, at the end of the game. The Ravens were crushed after last year’s game, and are seeking revenge for that defeat. Baltimore got here thanks to an enthralling victory over Denver last week, in which Joe Flacco found Jacoby Jones behind the Denver defence on a hail-mary that was poorly defended. The Ravens went on to win the game in overtime. New England made it this far by easily defeating Houston last week.
The Ravens surprised many experts by showing an explosive offence last week. Flacco had a terrific game against Denver, completing 18 out of 34 pass attempts for 331 yards and 3 touchdowns. What was so significant about Flacco’s performance was that he didn’t throw an interception, while making big plays down the field. Flacco did a nice job spreading the ball to six different receivers last week, as he made very smart decision in the pocket.
We all know about Jacoby Jones miracle touchdown catch, but let us not forget the contributions of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. These two are quickly becoming a top-flight receiving combo that are giving secondaries fits. Boldin is a physical presence down the field who made 6 receptions for 71 yards last week. Smith is the deep threat with great hands to spare. Against Denver, Smith made 3 receptions for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns. With New England’s secondary battling injuries, the Ravens are looking at some advantageous matchups down the field.
What makes the passing game so effective is that the Ravens can pound the ball on the ground. Ray Rice had an outstanding game against Denver last week, carrying the ball 30 times for 131 yards and a touchdown. If Rice can run the ball that effectively against the Patriots, Baltimore could be well on their way to New Orleans.
The Patriots are banged up, but Bill Belichick does know how to cobble together a stifling defensive game plan. Linebacker Jerod Mayo will play hurt, while cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will have their hands full against the Ravens receivers. The Patriots didn’t record a single sack against Houston last week, and that will have to change against Baltimore. If the Pats can’t get any pressure on Flacco, they will have difficulty beating the Ravens.
For New England, it all begins and ends with Tom Brady. The superstar quarterback with the supermodel wife is looking for his fourth Super Bowl ring, to equal his hero Joe Montana. Brady had his usual outstanding playoff game last week, completing 25 out of 40 passes for 344 yards and 3 touchdowns. However in last year’s AFC title game, Brady did struggle against the tough Ravens defence, as he uncharacteristically threw 2 picks in that game. Brady will face a team that has given him fits in the past, and it will be interesting to see how Tom Terrific handles the pressure.
One thing the Patriots would benefit from is a strong running game. Stevan Ridley had a satisfactory performance last week, carrying the ball 15 times for 82 yards and a touchdown. Ridley’s strong running, opened up the Patriots offence, giving them a balanced attack. Shane Vereen was a dual threat in the backfield last week, rushing the ball for 41 yards on 7 carries and a touchdown, while catching 5 passes for 83 yards and 2 touchdowns. Vereen was the secret weapon for the Patriots last week, so expect Baltimore to keep a close eye on him.
The Patriots suffered a major blow in the passing game as tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his arm early in the game, and will be lost for the rest of the playoffs. Gronkowski’s ability to go down the field for his size, provided mismatches down the field. His loss will hurt the Patriots. Wes Welker will be called upon to play an even bigger role for New England. Welker had a terrific game against Houston, catching 8 passes for 131 yards. His route running in underneath patterns, to go with his deceptive speed, is a nightmare to defend. Welker will need to be huge if the Patriots want to go to the Super Bowl. With Gronkowski out, Aaron Hernandez will be the tight end. Although not as big, Hernandez is a dependable pass catcher, recording 6 receptions for 85 yards last week. It could very well come down to Hernandez’s ability to make the big reception at the critical moment.
Ray Lewis is retiring at the end of the season, and desperately wants to go out a winner. The future hall of fame linebacker, is the inspirational leader of the Ravens defence, and is making sure nothing gets in his way of another Super Bowl ring. Lewis led the team with 13 tackles last week, giving Peyton Manning fits all game long. Ed Reed doesn’t have an interception in the playoffs yet, so he is due for a pick. The Patriots better beware of where Reed is on the field. Terrell Suggs is a terror on the outside, recording 2 sacks against Denver last week, while just being a boss in Denver’s backfield.
A concern for Baltimore is special teams. The Ravens gave up a kick and a punt return for touchdowns last week. If it’s a close game, the return game could play a part. The Ravens need to shore up their cover teams in the return game.
Home field advantage belongs to the Patriots and they will have a noisy crowd behind them. However, the Ravens have momentum and magic on their side. The miracle at Mile High last week could be a sign that this is Baltimore’s year. With Ray Lewis providing incentive to the Ravens, they could be unstoppable. The Patriots are banged up, and I’m not sure they match up well against Baltimore. Also the Ravens beat the Patriots earlier in the season. Add to the fact Baltimore wants revenge. Upset special. Baltimore wins.
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