NFL Championship Weekend: Who Moves on to the Super Bowl and Why
That divisional round was something special, wasn't it? If you did not happen to watch it, there is a ton of stuff you missed. To give some quick insight on some of what you may have missed, this past weekend gave us:
- The most combined points in a divisional playoff weekend in history (276; an average of 69 per game) with every team scoring at least 28 points
- Ray Lewis and the Ravens overcoming the odds to go on the road and beat Peyton Manning for the first time since 2001 and continue his strange trend of faltering in the playoffs (9-11 overall now); it's the sixth straight year with an upset of this proportion in this round
- The huge plays by the Joe Flacco and the Ravens' passing game (two long TDs to Torrey Smith against Champ Bailey; the "Baltimore Bomb" to Jacoby Jones to tie it up and get it to overtime)
- The amazing playoff debut of Colin Kaepernick, who absolutely destroyed the Packers (263 yards passing, 181 yards rushing, 4 total TDs)
- Atlanta finally breaking through in the playoffs and getting that elusive first win
- Russell Wilson and his Seahawks almost tearing that win away from the Falcons after being down by 20-0 and 27-7 at different points in the game
- Tom Brady becoming the all-time leader in playoff wins (17) while leading his Patriots to another rout of the Texans
And that was just some of the greatness this slate of games gave us. My picks didn't do well (1-3), but that's always secondary to getting to watch and enjoy the sport I love. I'll just try again next year for that elusive 11-0 playoff picking record. As for now, I'll keep trekking through these playoffs and see if I can still salvage a decent record. Onward!
AFC Championship Game: Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Recent series results: NE leads 3-2
2012 Reg. Season: BAL def. NE 31-30
2011 Playoffs: NE def. BAL 23-20
2010 Reg. Season: NE def. BAL 23-20 [OT]
2009 Playoffs: BAL def. NE 33-14
2009 Reg. Season: NE def. BAL 27-21
The Argument for Baltimore Winning
Joe Flacco has showed us again in these playoffs that he can make the big plays needed to win games and that he'll do it on anyone from a bad defense like the Colts in the Wild Card Round to a much stronger D in the one the Broncos fielded.
Champ Bailey may be slowing down overall, but it was ridiculous the way he got destroyed by Flacco and Torrey Smith. That ability to hit the deep ball is the biggest reason the Ravens pose a problem to New England, because where the Patriots are vulnerable is in the secondary, especially on the deep pass.
The Ravens also are a team that is not afraid of anybody and know they can beat the Patriots. That's important because you need to come in with that mentality to beat a team like this; the Texans didn't seem to have that belief and you see how that ended up.
The emotion they will still be running on in trying to give Ray Lewis a Super Bowl sendoff into retirement will factor into this too; that extra fire will continue to push them to play at a high level.
The Ravens also play such a physical game that they will beat up and harass New England.
Oh and don't forget the revenge factor. This team still feels like it should have been them playing against the Giants in the Super Bowl last year, but sheer dumb luck stole it away from them. They definitely want to make up for that and show it was not a fluke that they were in position to win.
The Argument for New England Winning
New England has home-field advantage, which is great for them since Foxborough has always been a difficult place to win since Belichick has been there.
They may have some injury concerns, especially on offense with Danny Woodhead and Rob Gronkowski, but this is one of the best teams at filling in for injured players and adjusting their attack based on matchups and who they have available.
Their defense is much better overall than in recent years, especially against the run. Their secondary may be the weak link, but it has gotten better over the second half of the season and with the acquisition of Aqib Talib at CB to add playmaking ability.
The biggest note is that they have one of the all-time greats still playing amazing, top-three level NFL QB in Tom Brady. Win or lose, Brady will be their biggest factor.
So Who Wins?
It will be a tough game, as they usually are between these two. The best place to look for the answer I believe will be the QB matchup. It seems cliche, yes, but the fact is this is closer than one might think.
Here are some stats from the last five matchups between the teams.
108/167, 1271 yards, 64.6% CMP, 7.7 YPA, 9 TD/4 INT, 56.1 QBR
121/195, 1278 yards, 62.1% CMP, 6.6 YPA, 5 TD/7 INT, 58.1 QBR
Who is who? Hard to guess right? Now try again with these:
76/118, 855 yards, 64.4% CMP, 7.3 YPA, 6 TD/2 INT, 56.7 QBR
93/154, 943 yards, 62% CMP, 6.1 YPA, 4 TD/7 INT, 51.1 QBR
How about now? Who would you want in this game?
To end the suspense, QB1 is Flacco and QB2 is Brady. As you can see, Flacco has been able to keep up with and even outplay Brady to an extent in their games during his career.
What makes it more surprising is how only one time has the game between these teams been in Baltimore, meaning Flacco has done most of this on the road, where Brady and his Pats usually play so well. That second stat set is actually Flacco's* road stats and Brady's home stats in their meetings. As you can see, overall in those games Flacco actually has played better than Brady in relatively all facets.
A huge stat worth noting, that out of any could be the biggest difference is the YPA, or yards per attempt. This stat indicates at how well a QB is doing at getting the ball down the field. Flacco has Brady handled in this regard for sure, posting a 7.7 average (7.3 road) while Brady has only gotten a 6.6 average (6.1 at home). This means in their games Flacco has been able to consistently hit deeper passes than Brady.
Even in Brady's best game (this year's matchup) Brady averaged 8.2 YPA (great number), but Flacco was even greater with a 9.8 YPA (basically he averaged a first down for every attempt).
This stat indicates that Flacco can hit deep on this team often, so whether it is early or late in the game New England will need to be prepared for him to strike, especially since their weakest point is in the secondary. Not to say New England won't have its own chances to do so (Baltimore's CBs are nothing special), but the stats indicate they won't do it with the same veracity as Baltimore.
Even with all of these factors that the Ravens have on their side, it is just so difficult to go against Tom Brady here. I've struggled all week with the decision, debating whether all of the Ravens' positive factors coming in, matched up with the trend their recent games against these Patriots tends to go, will be enough to pull out a win.
In making my final choice, I looked back to their matchup from this season one more time.
The Ravens came into that game with more of their top defenders still intact, especially at CB. The Patriots were without one of their top TEs in Aaron Hernandez, but they did have Gronk. The Ravens came in with two huge emotional factors for that game too, just like in this one: First matchup since "dropping" the Championship Game, as well as the emotional blow felt for their teammate Torrey Smith, who had just lost his brother in the past 24 hours before the game.
With all of that going into the game, a lot ended up happening; Smith went off with 6 catches for 127 yards and 2 TDs, Flacco had a great day overall and outplayed Brady. The Ravens held the offensive edge with 503 total yards to 396 yards, and slowed the good rushing attack of NE for 77 yards total.
Even with all of that, though, it took a 27-yard field goal with no time on the clock (and it's debatable whether it even stayed in the uprights) to get the win for them. At home, where they are much better.
The fact is that this game now is set to be similar; a shootout with a few timely defensive plays. The factors are in essence the same, but with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. I just think Brady will do what needs to be done to win, no matter what Flacco and his Ravens do. Patriots take a close one.
New England Patriots 27
Baltimore Ravens 24
*Excludes 2009 playoffs, since Flacco basically just handed off to Ray Rice and threw only 10 passes in a blowout win
NFC Championship Game: San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Recent series results: ATL leads 2-0
2010 Regular Season: ATL def. SF 16-14
2009 Regular Season: ATL def. SF 45-10
There haven't been many recent matchups, with both of these most recent ones taking place before Jim Harbaugh had become head coach. That means tons of things have changed, but a decent amount of players from those games should still be around by now.
I could go further back, but then we would lose a lot of the current players involved in the matchups and it just would not have much value in predicting how this game will be decided.
The Argument for San Francisco Winning
San Fran is a good road team, holding a 5-3 record there this year (6-2 last year). Also, they have shown they can win anywhere by gaining road wins in Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans and New England (all difficult places to go into and win) over the past two years.
They have the ability to play in any type of game: blowouts (eight double-digit wins this year), close games (3-1-1 in games within one score), defensive battles (for example, 13-6 Week 7 win over Seattle), shootouts (for example, 41-34 Week 15 win over New England, 45-31 win last week over Green Bay), leaning on the running game (Gore and Kaepernick, regular formations and read-option), using their improved stable of pass-catchers (a greatly improved Michael Crabtree, TE Delanie Walker, Randy Moss, etc.)...you get the point.
They have 9 Pro Bowlers and 10 All-Pros (6 first-team, 4 second-team), which means there are mountains of talent on this team.
Their coach is already one of the best in the league by far, with the ability to make brilliant decisions (like keeping Kaepernick as starter) and adjustments (like adjusting his game-plan to pass in the first half then switch to heavy use of the Pistol formation read-option in the second half last weekend against Green Bay) unlike pretty much any coach league-wide.
His counterpart in Atlanta (Mike Smith) is much more characterized by strange in-game decision-making blunders than his successful ones.
The defense is powerful and can do to many teams reliant on wide-open offenses what many teams are unable to do: defend them man-to-man with confidence. This won't always work, but they believe enough in their players, and those players make enough positive plays in those situations, that they usually come out alright even against the best offenses.
Speaking of offense, their QB is officially someone worth taking notice of, if you hadn't before last weekend. Kaepernick is gifted as a thrower and a runner, and as long as he keeps his decision-making favorable he is practically a demi-god running amok on the field.
The Argument for Atlanta Winning
Matt Ryan is an elite-level quarterback, putting up 422/615 CMP/ATT for 4,719 YDS, 32 TD / 14 INT and a 74.5 QBR rating this year, which is top-five QB quality. He has great numbers throughout his career in the regular season, sporting numbers of 1,654/2,637 CMP/ATT for 18,957 for 127 TD / 60 INT and an average QBR of 68.7 (very impressive).
His playoff numbers overall are much worse, but last week's performance against Seattle (ended with 85.4 QBR, which is really great) is promising.
The receiving corps (WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White out wide, TE Tony Gonzalez in the middle and WR Harry Douglas utilizing the slot) is one of the top in the league for sure, and can make huge plays all over the field against any defense, which they did last week at times against a secondary in Seattle that's possibly the best in the league.
Their defense, while not world-beaters, has shown it can make plays when needed.
They have been a great team at home (34-6 record at home).
All season they've played in games that always seem to come right down to the end and done well in being the winners most of the time (8-2 in one-score games, incl. playoffs; 5-1 at home in those games).
Their run game showed life against Seattle and could end up being a factor against a San Francisco defense that has been gashed on occasion this year (most recently, giving up 104 yards on 16 rushes to the Packers last weekend within that blowout).
So Who Wins?
When I look at this game, what I see is one team that has been fueled this year mostly by great decision-making and one that has been fueled by great luck.
Now, both of them had to have some degree of each of those to make it this far, as any team does in any given game and year. The difference is that over the entire season and playoffs, you can observe and study these teams and see how much drastically different their paths to this point were.
San Francisco got here by taking its style from last year and adding a larger threat of passing to it, then adjusting that even more midseason to fit a quarterback with a much wider array of skills than their previous starter.
Atlanta got here by riding the arm of their QB and playing in tons of games that came down to the wire, some of which had some ridiculous circumstances.
If you look at that, you can see which team I think is which in terms of decision-making and luck.
While San Fran has made it by having a coach unafraid to make franchise-altering decisions (and being right about them too) in changing over to Colin Kaepernick as his starter at QB and switching up his offensive game plans entirely week-to-week and even half-to-half, Atlanta has had to rely on a great deal of luck to survive all of the close calls and crazy circumstances they've encountered this year.
The Falcons also were doing that against the weakest schedule the league had to offer (only 3 teams they played were above .500), and while they didn't lose often they did lose to three sub-.500 teams that had major flaws to be exploited.
The fact that they did win most of those games in the end is what matters record-wise, but playing that kind of cardiac game all the time suggests an inability to either put teams away and hold a consistent level of effort, two flaws that could be what brings the team to its demise.
Past that, there are matchup factors that'll be important:
- The Falcons offense will have to attack the secondary of these 49ers (which can be exploited) and find a way to continue running the ball like they did last week.
- The Falcons defense will need to have a solution for the read-option offense of the 49ers, which pretty much looks unstoppable based on last weekend
- The coaching decisions by Mike Smith will need to do a better job at his decision-making.
My thoughts on those? I think that the Falcons will be able to put up points in this game, something the Packers started to do late but could've done so much better if they had been able to keep it close with their defense.
With the fact that they have now seen this extensive use of the Pistol and read-option, I think they won't necessarily stop that attack but will slow them down enough to keep the score between these two from getting too out-of-hand too early and therefore keep the Falcons' running game as at least something to consider defending against.
This is where the coaching comes in; the halftime adjustments made by Harbaugh will again end up blowing up the scoreboard.
I can see the Falcons somehow keeping up with the pace to the end though and having this be another one of those close games with a strange ending that gets decided by a couple calls by the coaches. The Falcons have been doing that all year, but I just cannot take Mike Smith over Jim Harbaugh in a situation like that where everything is riding on a call or two.
I have to take the team with the better coach, better run game and better overall talent, San Francisco.
Be prepared for a ton of points, some strange occurrences and a whole lot of excitement; this should be fun.
San Francisco 49ers 38
Atlanta Falcons 34