The Super Bowl might be the mother of all one-day sporting events but when it comes to pure football enjoyment it can’t hold a candle to Championship Sunday. Unlike the Super Bowl these games are not played in a neutral site filled with corporate sponsors and the wealthy. These are games played in a hostile environment filled with loyal fans that, in the case of the Falcons, might have waited a lifetime to witness their team host a Championship game.
Led by Joe Montana the San Francisco 49ers earned the mantle as the NFL’s “Team of the Decade” during the 1980′s. In fact between 1981 and 1994 the 49ers were in the NFC Championship game a remarkable nine times and won five Super Bowls. However 1994 is a long time ago and there are a lot of anxious 49ers fans desperate for a return to Super Bowl glory. The 49ers thought they were going to get there last year only to lose a heartbreaker to the Giants. That loss helped drive the 49ers during the season and now they find themselves with a chance to get it right this time.
For only the third time in their franchise history the Atlanta Falcons are taking part in the NFC Championship game. Sunday’s game against the 49ers will also mark the first time in the history of the Falcons that they will be hosting the NFC Championship game. The Falcons first joined the NFL in 1966 so Sunday’s title game at the Georgia Dome has been a long time coming.
The 49ers win if: If they can run the ball. Much like the Packers discovered the week before, it won’t really matter what the Falcons do on offence if they are not able stop the 49ers power running game. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick shredded the Packers for 323 yards on the ground in the 49ers convincing win. When the Falcons look at the film of the 49ers win over the Packers they will be shocked how many times Kaepernick was untouched as he ran through the Green Bay defence.
Three of the five members of the 49ers starting offensive line are first-round draft picks and that investment in time and money is paying huge dividends in their running game. So the Falcons defence has two issues to worry about with the 49ers running game: the speed of Kaepernick and the power of Gore. If you focus too much on one, you will get beat by the other. More than anything the Falcons can’t let Kaepernick get past the line of scrimmage when he runs. Once he’s in open space he’s capable of taking it all the way.
The Falcons win if: If they can keep the score close at the end of the game. After what they did to the Seahawks last week the Falcons have total faith that if they have some time on the clock and some timeouts left that Matt Ryan will somehow find a way to win the game. Five times this year the Falcons appeared to be dead and buried only to have Ryan engineer a game winning drive in the fourth quarter.
When Ryan steps into the huddle he has total faith in Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez; and they certainly feel the same way about him. The Falcons boast one of the best passing attacks in the NFL and certainly are capable of scoring their fair share of points. Gonzalez said Ryan is a cool customer when he steps into the huddle late in the game and the Falcons need to drive down the field in order to win the game. “He looks at you and says, ‘we’ve got this. We’ve been here before, let’s just go down the field and do what we did last time and things will take care of themselves.’ That’s what happened.” Whether or not they can keep the score close at the end will fall on the shoulders of the Falcons defence. If they can’t contain Kaepernick then Ryan won’t a chance to pull off some late game heroics.
Keep an eye on: 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith. Smith had 19.5 sacks this year but has been shut-out since Week 14; so he’s due. Smith’s ability to get to Ryan and not allow him time to set up in the pocket will be critical to the 49ers defensive game plan. Ryan dropped back to pass 615 times this year so the Falcons offence could not be more different than the 49ers. Ryan doesn’t run very much so if Smith wants to find him he will know where is. Smith is a part of the 49ers outstanding front seven so even if the Falcons neutralize him, they have six other guys that can get to the quarterback.
Key matchup: 49ers cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown versus Falcons receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Even though the Falcons ran the ball better than expected last week the success of their offence is built around their passing game. Last week facing a good Seahawks secondary White and Jones combined for 11 catches, 135 yards and one touchdown. Brown had a strong game against the Packers last week and came up with the 49ers only interception of Aaron Rodgers.
Intangibles: On Friday San Francisco police interviewed receiver Michael Crabtree for allegations in a sexual assault investigation. Crabtree was not arrested and did travel with the team to Atlanta. What affect this has on the 49ers hottest receiver their past two games (17 catches, 291 yards four touchdowns) remains to be seen. These two teams have faced each other in the playoffs only once before with the Falcons beating the 49ers in the 1998 divisional playoffs. The 49ers are looking to win their first road playoff games since January of 1989 when they beat the Bears in the NFC Championship game. The Falcons are 32-1 when Matt Ryan has a passer rating of at least 100.
Who wins: Last week’s win over the Seahawks was a watershed moment for the Falcons. This is a good time to be a Falcons fan in Atlanta right now; two straight home play-off games and a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Facing them is a 49ers team that can beat you in many ways and more than anything is capable of beating you up physically. The Falcons have the skill and speed to keep up with the 49ers; but are they tough enough to go toe-to-toe with them physically for four quarters? I don’t think they do. The 49ers have the edge along both sides of the line of scrimmage and they also have some of the best linebackers in the entire NFL. Kaepernick passed his first playoff test with flying colours last week. Barring a meltdown that sees him toss two interceptions and fumbles the ball away the 49ers will win their first road playoff game in 24 years and book their flights for New Orleans for Super Bowl 47.
49ers 31 – Falcons 27
January 22 of 2012 is a painful date in the history of the Ravens franchise. On a day where the Ravens defence did not allow Tom Brady to throw a single touchdown and also intercepted him twice they still lost the game and a chance at going to the Super Bowl. That game will forever haunt the Ravens for the dropped pass in the end zone by Lee Evans and the missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. In a season filled with injuries and slumps and many question marks the Ravens have defied the odds to set up a re-match against the class of the AFC for the past decade; the New England Patriots.
As the Ravens ended this season losing four of their final five games there were not many people who thought they would be back in the Championship game. When all hope seemed lost for the Ravens Ray Lewis announced before the start of the playoffs that not only was he ready to come back from his torn triceps; he was retiring from the NFL after this season. Playing like a man on a mission Lewis leads all players with 30 tackles in the post-season (The next closest player, Cary Williams, has 18) and has willed this team to the AFC title game.
This is the seventh appearance in the AFC Championship game during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. Unlike the Ravens who needed double over-time to beat the Broncos last week the Patriots laid waste to the Texans and served notice that they are also on a mission; a mission to erase the memory of last year’s loss to the Giants in Super Bowl 46.
The Ravens win if: Joe Flacco plays like he did against the Broncos. Flacco may have his doubters out there but there are none in the Ravens locker room. None other than Ray Lewis himself said to Flacco “you’re the General, lead us to victory”. Flacco has done more than lead in the post-season; he’s been playing his ass off. In the past two games Flacco has thrown for 613 yards, five touchdowns and has a passer rating of 120.
The Ravens will also win if they can compliment Flacco’s deep passing game with Ray Rice. Rice has enjoyed success against the Patriots in the past and he has racked up 246 yards of total offense in the post-season. Since Jim Caldwell took over as the new offensive coordinator Rice has been given a bigger workload and has helped rejuvenate the slumping Ravens offence. Flacco isn’t Tom Brady but he’s smart to realize that if the Patriots are trying to take away the deep pass he will check out of the play and gladly hand the ball off to Rice.
The Patriots win if: Tom Brady doesn’t come down with the flu Saturday night. All joking aside Brady and the Patriots offense can do no wrong right about now; even with the season ending injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Unlike what the NFL has seen in recent years the Patriots have a very efficient running game to compliment their lethal aerial attack. Because of the Patriots ability to run the ball the play-action passing game with Brady is nearly unstoppable.
Offence isn’t too much of a concern in this game. The concern will be the ability of the Patriots secondary to take away the deep pass from the Ravens. In their week three win over the Patriots the Ravens had five receivers with receptions 20 yards or longer. The addition of Aqib Talib has been a big boost to the Patriots secondary and should help prevent a repeat of that. There are two ways for the Patriots to take away the Ravens vertical passing game; don’t let receivers slip in behind the safeties and get pressure on Flacco. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots safeties play a little deeper than normal on passing downs just to make sure they don’t get burned like the Broncos did.
Keep an eye on: Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. While many, myself included, lambasted Champ Bailey for his brutal effort trying to cover Torrey Smith last week we should give some credit to the Ravens receiver. Smith has evolved into a top notch deep ball receiver and working with a quarterback like Flacco he gets plenty of opportunities to stretch the field. Flacco has a hose and Smith has the speed to run downfield and go get it. Smith is one of a number of Ravens players who have taken their game to another level in the postseason. Smith averaged 17.4 yards per catch in the regular season and in two playoff games he is averaging a whopping 25.8 yards per catch. If Flacco and Smith can hook up on some deep passes early it will force the Patriots secondary to play a little deeper and open up some intermediate passes to the always reliable Anquan Boldin.
Key matchup: The Ravens secondary versus Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. Because of Rob Gronkowski’s injury there were will be even more emphasis on Welker and Hernandez in the Patriots passing game. Welker had a tremendous season (118 catches for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns) and led the entire NFL with 619 yards after the catch. Welker accounted for 32 per cent of Brady’s completions in their win over the Texans and will be the prime target in the Patriots game plan this week.
If the Ravens can use a variety of coverage and defensive schemes to take away Welker and Hernandez that will force Brady to wait a little longer in the pocket for someone to get open and that will expose him to the Baltimore pass rush. The problem with covering Welker is that Brady likes to hit him in the seams between the linebackers and the secondary and let him run wild in the open field. Ray Lewis is a legend but he’s too old and beat up to run with Welker in the open field. The same goes for Hernandez who might not have the size Gronk, but he’s much quicker in open space. The Patriots were 4-1 when Gronkowski was hurt during the regular season so while his absence might be felt in the red zone; the Patriots still have plenty of weapons to work with.
Intangibles: This is the first rematch in an AFC Championship game since the famous Broncos and Browns games from 1986 and 1987. The Patriots are 14-3 at home in the post-season, including a 4-0 record at home in AFC Championship games. Oddly enough one of the few blemishes on Belichick’s postseason resume was a loss to the Ravens at Gillette Stadium in 2009 playoffs. Joe Flacco is the only quarterback to start and win a playoff game in each of their first five seasons. Forecasters are calling for 35 km/h winds around kick-off and how that affects the passing game and kicking game is something to keep an eye on.
Who wins: With all due respect to the Las Vegas oddsmakers this game will NOT be a blowout. The Ravens truly believe they can hang with the Patriots and their last two meetings (a close loss and a one point win) are ample proof that the score will be close. The bottom line is that Ravens are not intimidated by the Patriots, Belichick or Brady.
The Vegas oddsmakers might not have a lot of respect for the Ravens in this matchup but Bill Belichick does: “They’re a tough, hardnosed football team that’s hard to beat. We respect that challenge and we know that’s what it will be on Sunday.” The loss of Gronk might hurt the Patriots but last week players like Shane Vereen stepped up and more than filled the void offensively. The Patriots defense and running game are better than they were a year ago and while everyone talks about the motivation of Ray Lewis to get to the Super Bowl; Brady and Belichick are no less motivated. Brady knows that there is no guarantee that he will be back in the Championship game next year so he’s not about to blow this opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl. The Ravens have the talent, will and desire to keep this game closer than people are giving them credit for. But close still won’t be enough to beat the Patriots on Sunday.
Patriots 33 – Ravens 30