NFL Playoffs: Conference Championship Predictions
After last week’s games which were by far the best NFL action of the season, fans will be greeted with two sensational matchups on Sunday. Atlanta will host San Francisco in the Georgia Dome and the Ravens will reacquaint themselves with the Patriots in Foxboro again. It’s Bourbon Street or bust for these four teams. Ryan and Andy, both 5-3 this postseason, break down the games and dish out their predictions.
(2) San Francisco 49ers vs (1) Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, 3:00PM ET)
Ryan Tartaglia: With 31 seconds left, Russell Wilson brought the Seahawks back from a 20-0 halftime deficit. The Seahawks were 31 seconds away from having one of the greatest comebacks in postseason history. They were 31 seconds away from making my prediction nearly come to fruition. 31 seconds. I was feeling confident. The Seahawks held the Falcons to just one touchdown in the second half. It was all but over. Then the longest 18 seconds of football transpired. It took two plays and 18 seconds for Matt Ryan to put the Falcons in field goal range for a chance to win the game. The kick went up and it was NO GOOD! NO GOOD! The Seahawks stun the Falcons. Wait, Pete Carroll called a timeout. Of course, the next kick went right through the uprights. Falcons win, 30-28. Pete Carroll beat Pete Carroll. It’s that simple. The Falcons shouldn’t be here but they are and it is all because of Matty Ice.
By all accounts San Francisco should annihilate the Falcons on Sunday, but this game has all sorts of unusual circumstances. No one believes that Atlanta can beat San Francisco and the spread shows. Atlanta is 4 point underdogs at home. This is the number 1 seed in the NFC, yet they are 4 point underdogs? That is nothing but an insult to the Atlanta Falcons, but the line makes sense. While they didn’t win, Russell Wilson torched the Atlanta defense (385 passing yards, 2 passing TD, 1 INT, 7 carries, 60 yards, 1 rushing TD). Then if you go back to Atlanta’s meetings with Carolina, Cam Newton torched the Falcons defense as well. In two games, Newton threw for 502 yards and four touchdowns while also collecting 202 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Mobile quarterbacks are the Falcons biggest weakness, and right now Colin Kaepernick is San Francisco’s biggest strength.
After that 48-point barrage against Green Bay, everyone is talking about San Francisco’s dynamic offense and not enough attention has been put on the Falcons offense that has evolved throughout the season. The Falcons have all the weapons to win this matchup. Roddy White’s route running skills, Julio Jones’ speed and Tony Gonzalez’s hands are the strongest blend of attributes a dynamic passing offense can have. Even though the Niners defeated the Patriots in Week 14, New England laid out the blueprint needed to beat San Fran. The Patriots came back from a 31-3 deficit with a no-huddle attack that featured Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead in the backfield. With Jacquizz Rodgers, White and Gonzalez, the Falcons have the right recipe to shred up the Niners defense. Matt Ryan isn’t Tom Brady, but he does have 16 fourth quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives, including seven this year.
All the pressure is on the Niners to win. The Georgia Dome will be rocking and the Falcons, led by Matt Ryan and Samuel L. Jackson rise up and head to their first Super Bowl in team history. Falcons 40, 49ers 30.
Andy Deossa: Sorry guys, I was just kidding last week when I went against San Francisco. Not sure what caused me to do that but I’m jumping back on the bandwagon and sticking to my original Super Bowl prediction. But to get to the Mercedes-Benz Dome in New Orleans the 49ers have to beat the Falcons in the raucous Georgia Dome.
Atlanta’s nail-biting win against the Seahawks exposed a few weak spots for the Falcons. Let me remind you that the Falcons had a convincing 20-0 lead at halftime. That game should not have been close. What happened to Atlanta in the locker-room? I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. Matt Ryan had a solid performance but his occasional bad decision-making, like that egregious interception thrown into double coverage in the fourth quarter, will be a key factor against such a tough defense like San Francisco’s.
Speaking of defense, that’s where the problem is for Atlanta. People are congratulating the Falcons defense for holding Marshawn Lynch to only 46 yards. That’s a great accomplishment. Letting rookie quarterback Russell Wilson shred you for 385 passing yards and 60 rushing yards on seven carries is where the focus should really be though. There’s no way Atlanta will hold Frank Gore under 50 rushing yards. And as was the case against Seattle, the Falcons also have to worry about a versatile quarterback that is even better than the one they just played. Colin Kaepernick completely shut me up and proved how effective he could be, finishing with 263 passing yards, 181 rushing yards and four touchdowns against Green Bay. In the the first half alone, Kaepernick had five scrambles for 75 yards and a 20-yard touchdown run. Later in the game he had a 56-yard scamper right into the end zone. The Falcons defense, which allows a league-worst 8.9 yards per quarterback run, struggled to contain Wilson and they will struggle to contain Kaepernick.
Furthermore, Seahawks tight end Zach Miller (8 catches, 142 yards, 1 touchdown) had great success against Atlanta’s defense. With Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss being the 49ers deep threats, look for Vernon Davis to have a big impact in this one. Both offenses could go back-and-forth in a shootout, but the 49ers defense, ranked fourth in both opposing rushing and passing yards, will do just enough to come up with the necessary plays to erase those nasty memories of last year’s NFC Championship loss and lead San Fran to Super Bowl XLVII. The 49ers haven’t beat the Falcons since 2001. That will change this Sunday.
(4) Baltimore Ravens vs (2) New England Patriots (Sunday, 6:30PM ET)
RT: There was one play that stood out to me last week. It wasn’t Matt Ryan’s predictable 17-yard completion to Tony Gonzalez before Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal. It wasn’t Colin Kaepernick’s 56-yard touchdown run that made my jaw drop. It wasn’t even Joe Flacco’s 70-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 30 seconds left that left my body feeling numb. It came in the fourth quarter of the final game on Sunday. Already up 18 points, Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense marched back on to the field, thanks in part to the Houston Texans inability to keep their drive alive on a 4th and 1. What happened next? Tom Brady smelled blood, saw man coverage and killed the Texans Super Bowl aspirations by throwing a 33-yard dime into the hands of Shane Vereen for a 25-point lead. It was art in its purest form. With one play, the heart of the Houston Texans was shattered.
That won’t happen on Sunday. The Baltimore Ravens football team won’t have their hearts broken. They might be down 18. They might be down 25. They might even be down 45, but the Ravens will play football until the final whistle blows. It’s ridiculous to think that Vegas has the Ravens at 9 point underdogs. 9 points! 9 points for a Ravens team that has outscored New England 104-90 in their last four games is simply too much. The Ravens are better than the Texans, who were 9.5 point underdogs to the Pats last week. Aside from the New York Football Giants, the Ray Lewis Retirement Party is the only defense that gives Tom Brady fits. As for Joe Flacco, he’s played relatively well against the Patriots defense. In the past four games, each team is 2-2, so let’s see how the two quarterbacks stack up against each other.
Player A: 81/120 (67.5 Completion %), 1007 Passing Yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs
Player B: 100/163 (61.3 Completion %), 1020 Passing Yards, 4 TDs, 7 INTs
The guy with the better numbers is Player A, right? Well, Player A is Joe Flacco. Joe Flacco has outplayed Tom Brady in the past four meetings. These numbers do not lie. Joe Flacco has been nothing more than sensational in the postseason. He bested Peyton Manning last week in Denver, throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns. Flacco’s performance has likely secured himself a nice payday with the Ravens but a win on Sunday would force the Ravens front office to hand him a blank check. His ability to get the ball down the field is terrifying. Some say that is a weakness for the Patriots. I say it’s not. Devin McCourty has been a better safety than cornerback, and while Andre Johnson had a successful game on Aqib Talib on Sunday, Matt Schaub was not able to throw any deep routes to Johnson. Planting Talib on Torrey Smith and covering Anquan Boldin with Alfonzo Dennard, who is not afraid of a little bump and run coverage, should be the gameplan.
The Ravens can win on Sunday but too much is against them. The Ravens needed five quarters and change to defeat the Broncos in Denver. Peyton Manning ran 87 offensive plays in that game. The week before, Andrew Luck ran 87 offensive plays. Now the not-so-youthful Ravens have to travel up to Foxboro to play the Patriots who dropped 41 points in 65 plays on the Texans last week. The talk is on the rematch of last year’s AFC Championship and rightfully so, but Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the entire Patriots organization will be focused on the 31-30 defeat they suffered in Week 3. Rob Gronkowski played in that game but was a non-factor with 2 catches and 21 yards. Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd picked up the slack, combining for 250 passing yards on 19 catches. Aaron Hernandez did not play in that game. Sub in Hernandez for Gronk and I actually believe it benefits the Patriots. Yes, it sucks not to have Gronk but Hernandez’s versatility has caused problems for the heavy-footed Baltimore linebackers in the past (2 games, 10 catches, 127 receiving yards).
Joe Flacco will get his much desired contract, Ray Lewis will get his retirement party, but Tom Brady will be Bayou bound. Patriots 34, Ravens 27.
The Patriots eliminated the Ravens last year on the same stage (thank you, Billy Cundiff) en route to another Super Bowl appearance. Earlier this season, a Ravens kicker played a significant role in the game against New England, this time in a good way, as Justin Tucker nailed a 27-yarder to give the Ravens a 31-30 victory over the Patriots. That game also seemed like destiny for Baltimore, especially for Torrey Smith who was playing less than 24 hours after his younger brother died in a motorcycle accident. Smith dominated New England’s defense, catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
In that game, as Ryan explained, Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady. We all know Brady is the better quarterback but it’s time to start giving Flacco a bit more credit in the postseason. He is 7-4 in the playoffs, including five road wins. One of those road victories was a few years ago at Gillette Stadium when the Ravens beat the Patriots, 33-14. Flacco wasn’t better than Brady that day, though. Why? Because Baltimore cruised right past New England as if they were the Cleveland Browns, outscoring them 24-0 in the first quarter. Ray Rice took over that game, running for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
What I’m trying to get at here is that the Patriots are very beatable. And once again as stated by Ryan, if there’s one team besides the Giants that knows how to expose New England’s weaknesses it’s the Ravens. Baltimore was in this same position last year and its ready to go onto the next step. The Patriots secondary (McCourty, Talib, Dennard and whoever else) will not be able to control the combination of Boldin, Smith, Jones, Rice and Dennis Pitta.
It’s just destiny for the Ravens. Ray Lewis’ final game will be played on the biggest stage in football. And finally, the Harbaugh brothers will meet each other there. Ravens win a close game in Foxboro.