Before I divulge my championship picks, there are some things from last week that must be discussed…
Denver has absolutely no excuse for losing a game where they score two touchdowns on returns and also had a TOUCHDOWN lead with 40 seconds to play. Call me crazy, but wouldn’t you want your safeties as far back as possible so you don’t allow say, I don’t know, a 70 yard miracle bomb to a receiver who is really just a glorified kick returner? Jack Del Rio is the worst game planner I’ve ever seen, how he still gets work as a coordinator is beyond me. Listen, vanilla tastes good, but if vanilla worked all the time, we wouldn’t add toppings and flavors. Someone needs to have that talk with Jack, because his defense is as vanilla as it gets.
As for the Denver offense, I questioned Peyton Manning when he signed with Denver because of the weather in the playoffs. It is cold in Denver during January, plain and simple. Manning is not physically the same, and he could not throw the ball the way he needed to fully exploit the Baltimore defense. Manning should have signed with Arizona; old people need a dry heat. In my preview last week, I said exactly what Baltimore needs to do to win because it is what they do every week; run, play action bomb, hit Boldin or Pitta on an intermediate route, and play smart defense. Baltimore almost blew it on special teams, but when you hit three bombs (shouldn’t happen in the NFL) it covers up mistakes. Denver gave that game away and to Baltimore’ credit, they were smart enough to know how to take it.
In the the NFC…well, it’s simple; Atlanta did everything they could to choke away another playoff game, but Mike Smith was able to matchup with another inept game manager in Pete Carroll (left 6 points on the field in the first half) and avoided what would have been one of the biggest collapses in NFL playoff history. I will give Matt Ryan credit for leading them down the field for the field goal. He saved Mike Smith’ job… speaking of coaches- Green Bay defensive coaches, I have a question for you? Why, after allowing 100 yards on the ground using one plan, would you not adjust? Green Bay’ game plan was fundamentally flawed from the start, and they refused to change. When Kaepernick was dropping back to pass, the defensive backs and linebackers were keeping their back to the ball in coverage, and once Kaepernick broke contain, he had 30-40 free yards to run with, and he gashed them for over 180 yards. No spy, no adjustments at all. USC fans like me had visions of Vince Young and a deer-in-headlight Pete Carroll in 2005…
Ok, I feel better; I got that off my chest. Now, let’s take a look at this week’s Title bouts…
I’m on record saying I don’t trust the Falcons. My opinion has been verified by their results in the playoffs, and last week’s “win” didn’t build any more confidence. I’ve also admitted Atlanta has a ton of talent, and if they put it together, they can beat anyone. Many teams can say that, but Atlanta presents matchup nightmares for defenses because of their receivers and Tony Gonzalez. The key for Atlanta is balance, and last week, for the first three quarters, they found that balance. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rogers were a huge issue for Seattle, and that just opened up the passing game even more. Seeing that makes me think they can possibly do the same to San Francisco, and for that reason, I think Atlanta will put over 20 on Sunday.
San Francisco hasn’t played Atlanta, so the best way to get an idea of how they will attack the Falcons defense is to see what Carolina did with Cam Newton. If the Niners are able to use Kaepernick the way the Panthers used Newton this year, it could be a long day for the dirty birds. Cam Newton, in two games, had these totals- 38-59, 502 yards passing, 4 touchdowns; 18 carries, 202 yards rushing, 2 touchdowns (35, 72); Atlanta won the first meeting, 30-28, and Carolina won the second game, 30-20. Atlanta not only gave up big rushing numbers to Newton, they also allowed two long runs. Those are backbreakers in the playoffs and Atlanta will have to find a way to avoid that. People are under the impression that the Niners are all defense, but their offense is explosive and able to hang in shootouts that inevitably break out in the NFL. For this reason, I’m taking the San Francisco 49ers to return to their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.
49ers 31, Falcons 28
New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens
This game has brought up so many different opinions that I decided to “ignore the noise” (thanks BB) on Tuesday and focus on the matchups and trends. Many want to look at the last five years results and assume this game has to be close, but that isn’t the case. Baltimore was able to overcome a 9 point lead late in the fourth and knock off the Patriots in September, which gives them confidence that they can beat this Patriot team. Last year’s AFC title is history; so much has changed since then that the only thing to take from that game is Baltimore’ confidence. Notice that word, confidence? That word has been attached to the Ravens, but as confident as they are, they are slower and older, and there are major matchup issues the Ravens are going to have to deal with. I can’t help but feel that Baltimore isn’t as equipped to beat New England as they may think.
In week 3, the Patriots had a healthy Rob Gronkowski, which is not the case tomorrow. Aaron Hernandez, on the other hand, missed the first meeting with an ankle injury. The Patriots still threw for over 300 yards, but the loss of Hernandez was big, especially since he was the focal point of the offense in the first two games. Gronkowski only had two catches for 21 yards, but he was open all game. Patriot fans may remember Brady forcing the ball to Lloyd in week 3, but I am willing to bet my car that the Brady will be looking to spread it around this week. Shane Vereen getting involved in the passing game brings another added element that Baltimore did not have to deal with in September, so I fully expect the Patriots to be able to move and score on Baltimore.
When the Ravens have the ball, they’ll try and expose the Patriots the way they have in the past, first establishing Rice then letting it fly on the Patriots pathetic secondary. That is what the Ravens COULD do on this defense, but this isn’t week three or last year. This Patriots defense, since adding Aqib Talib, is one of the most underrated in football. They are able to get off the field on third down, which has been the biggest downfall from 08-11, so that alone gives them a better chance to hold Baltimore down. From a health perspective, only Chandler Jones is dinged up, but he is expected to play. Last week was a nice warm up for New England, facing Arian Foster and Andre Johnson is no small chore, and they were able to keep them in check. The Ravens will make’s some plays on Sunday, but the days of Joe Flacco tearing up the Patriots secondary is coming to an end. The defense is the difference.
Patriots 30, Ravens 20
Follow me https://twitter.com/chris_simoneau