Who Has the Advantage at Every Position in Conference Championship Games?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 15, 2013

Who Has the Advantage at Every Position in Conference Championship Games?

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    The field in the 2013 NFL playoffs has gone from 12 to eight and now to four. By this weekend, the participants for Super Bowl XLVII will be determined after the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots settle the small matter of the conference championship games.

    Each of these teams brings some sort of edge into their matchup, whether it's a battle-tested quarterback with five Super Bowl appearances, a punishing defense led by a stellar corps of linebackers, or one of the most talented cadres of pass-catchers in the National Football League.

    But how do these teams stack up against one another across the board at every area from quarterbacks to kicking game, running backs to secondary?

    We're going to find out by first ranking each remaining team at every position group and then assigning a total "score."

    How that score is determined is simple. Rank first in a category, you get four points. Rank fourth, you get one. There are eight total categories, so a "perfect" score would be 32 points.

    Make sense? Good. On with the show!


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    1) New England Patriots

    Tom Brady is coming off another MVP-caliber season with over 4,800 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, and Brady has now won more playoff games than any quarterback in NFL history (17).

    2) San Francisco 49ers

    Colin Kaepernick may not have the experience of the other players on this list, but his record-setting postseason debut against the Green Bay Packers can't be ignored. The presence of Alex Smith behind him on the bench if he goes down also can't be ignored.

    3) Atlanta Falcons

    Matt Ryan set career highs across the board in his fifth NFL season and finally won a playoff game. But that nail-biter victory over the Seattle Seahawks doesn't completely erase his history of struggling in big games.

    4) Baltimore Ravens

    Joe Flacco actually has the highest passer rating of any quarterback in the postseason, and when Flacco's on his game, he can be as good as any passer in the NFL. Unfortunately, as he's shown time and again this season, he can also be erratic, especially on the road.

Running Back

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    1) Baltimore Ravens

    Ray Rice's 1,143 rushing yards in 2012 were his lowest output since his rookie season, but that total had a lot more to do with the Ravens' somewhat puzzling use of the fifth-year pro than it did with any hole in Rice's game. Talent wins out here.

    2) San Francisco 49ers

    For the sixth time in the past seven seasons, Frank Gore topped 1,000 yards on the ground this season. Gore's 4.7 yards per carry in 2012 was his highest mark in that category since the 2009 campaign.

    3) New England Patriots

    Second-year pro Stevan Ridley actually outgained both Rice and Gore on the ground this year. Shane Vereen exploded for three touchdowns in last week's win over Houston. Still, I'm not prepared to rank either back over more proven commodities in the two veterans.

    4) Atlanta Falcons

    The Atlanta Falcons ranked a dismal 29th in the National Football League in rushing this season (87.3 yards per game). While the team found some room on the ground in the win over the Seattle Seahawks, the fact remains that lead back Michael Turner is a plodder at this stage of his career.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

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    1) Atlanta Falcons

    In Julio Jones, the Falcons have a Pro Bowl downfield threat. Roddy White has posted at least 1,100 receiving yards in six straight seasons. Tony Gonzalez may be the greatest tight end who's ever laced them up. It's as good a group of pass-catchers there is in the NFL.

    2) Baltimore Ravens

    As Torrey Smith showed quite aptly against Denver, he's one of the most dangerous vertical wideouts in the NFL. Anquan Boldin provides Joe Flacco with a veteran presence underneath. Dennis Pitta is an underrated talent at tight end.

    3) New England Patriots

    The season-ending injury suffered by Rob Gronkowski Sunday is a blow, and Brandon Lloyd hasn't had the impact that many thought he would in New England. But with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez still at his disposal, Tom Brady isn't exactly hurting for viable targets.

    4) San Francisco 49ers

    Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has blossomed since Kaepernick took over at quarterback, while tight end Vernon Davis has all but vanished. They've got Randy Moss, but this isn't 2009. While the San Francisco receiving corps is decent, that's about all it is.

Offensive Line

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    1) San Francisco 49ers

    The San Francisco offensive line is solid in pass protection and absolutely dominant in run blocking, featuring a pair of Pro Bowl performers in guard Mike Iupati and tackle Joe Staley. It grades out as the NFL's highest-rated offensive line by a wide margin, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    2) New England Patriots

    The Patriots O-line, led by tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder (who both graded out among the top 20 players at their position in the NFL), and Pro Bowler Logan Mankins, trailed only the 49ers in Pro Football Focus' line rankings.

    3) Baltimore Ravens

    The Ravens made some changes along the offensive front before the playoffs began, shifting Michael Oher to right tackle and installing veteran Bryant McKinnie on the left side. So far those moves are paying off.

    4) Atlanta Falcons

    The Falcons offensive line may well be better than the sum of its parts, but the unit didn't grade out in the top 15 in either run- or pass-blocking in 2012, per Pro Football Focus. Rookie guard Peter Konz in particular has been problematic.

Defensive Line

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    1) New England Patriots

    This ranking is something of a misnomer since none of the remaining playoff teams possess especially dominant defensive lines. The Patriots were the highest-ranking unit in Football Outsiders' defensive line evaluations and possesses a disruptive talent in tackle Vince Wilfork.

    2) San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers defensive line, like many 3-4 fronts, is more about holding the point of attack so the linebackers can clean up. And in that regard, they play very well, especially if injured Pro Bowl end Justin Smith can stay on the field.

    3) Baltimore Ravens

    Were the unit healthy, the Ravens D-line would probably top this list. And while Paul Kruger's nine sacks have been a pleasant surprise, tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) doesn't appear to be 100 percent.

    4) Atlanta Falcons

    The Falcons were actually a top-10 defensive front in 2012, according to Football Outsiders, but that was with end John Abraham on the field. Without him, the Falcons are going to have a very hard time generating a pass rush, which doesn't bode well moving forward.


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    1) San Francisco 49ers

    Everything you need to know about how phenomenal the 49ers linebackers are can be summed up in one sentence: All four starters (Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks) were named either first- or second-team All-Pros by the Associated Press.

    2) Baltimore Ravens

    It may seem strange to base a ranking almost entirely off one player's return, but in two postseason games, Ray Lewis has 30 total tackles. His impact on the entire Baltimore defense can't be overstated. Terrell Suggs (Achilles) is still working his way back to 100 percent.

    3) New England Patriots

    Weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo was named to the Pro Bowl after notching 147 tackles in 2012. The versatile Rob Ninkovich demonstrated his importance last week with an interception and an onside kick recovery against the Texans.

    4) Atlanta Falcons

    While Stephen Nicholas tallied a career-high 97 tackles in 2012, the play of Sean Weatherspoon regressed somewhat. While middle linebacker Akeem Dent is serviceable, he's been a big step down for the team from Curtis Lofton.


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    1) Atlanta Falcons

    Not many teams could absorb the loss of a starting cornerback as easily as the Falcons did when Brent Grimes went down. Asante Samuel is one of the better man corners in the NFL. Dunta Robinson is more than adequate. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are a pair of solid young safeties.

    2) San Francisco 49ers

    Much like on the defensive line, none of these teams possess defensive backfields that inspire terror in opponents. The San Francisco secondary is manned by capable veterans like Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who all play well within the scheme.

    3) Baltimore Ravens

    Free safety Ed Reed is still capable of making the big play, and strong safety Bernard Pollard is a thundering hitter. But the Ravens pass defense has never fully recovered from the loss of top cornerback Lardarius Webb earlier this season.

    4) New England Patriots

    Granted, the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib has been a boost, and the stats are skewed because the Patriots offense forces teams to throw. But there's no denying that New England's 28th-ranked pass defense can be attacked successfully.

Special Teams

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    1) Atlanta Falcons

    Kicker Matt Bryant showed against the Seattle Seahawks that he's capable of hitting a long field goal under pressure, and return man Jacquizz Rodgers is more than able to break a long one at any time.

    2) New England Patriots

    In punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the Patriots have the best one-two punch left in the playoffs. However, their coverage lapses against Houston were concerning.

    3) San Francisco 49ers

    Ted Ginn Jr. is one of only a few players in NFL history to return a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in the same game. Punter Andy Lee is as good as they come, but kicker David Akers has had his share of struggles in 2012.

    4) Baltimore Ravens

    Justin Tucker is certainly an improvement over Billy Cundiff at kicker, and Jacoby Jones is a Pro Bowl selection as a kick returner this year. But one week after giving up two return touchdowns, the Ravens have to be ranked last here.

Final Rankings

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    1) San Francisco 49ers (23 total points)

    The 49ers don't have an elite secondary or receivers, but they're a balanced team capable of dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Add in the added dimension that Colin Kaepernick brings on offense, and you have the Super Bowl favorites.

    2) New England Patriots (21 total points)

    Shock and amazement. The New England Patriots are who we thought they were—an offensive juggernaut who will have to hope that their defense doesn't let them down for the second straight season.

    3) Atlanta Falcons (18 total points)

    Make no mistake: You can say what you will about the Falcons, but they still won 13 games in 2012. However, outside of their receivers, they aren't a team with much of an edge against the remaining contenders. Their deficiencies up front on defense will be a real problem against the 49ers.

    4) Baltimore Ravens (18 total points)

    After walking into Denver and downing the Broncos, it's folly to discount the Ravens. But for them to lift the Lombardi Trophy, they have to pull that magic act off two more times. Possible, but unlikely.