As compelling as a brother-vs-brother Super Bowl other than Manning vs. Manning (in the form of Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh) could be, I’m doing what many have tried and failed in Conference Championship Games in the past:
Taking both favorites…
Well, sort of…
Either way, if these matchups are half as compelling as what was witnessed last week in one of the greatest Divisional Rounds ever, it will once again prove why the NFL is here (hand extended way over head) and the rest of the major sports leagues are here (hand somewhere between stomach and chest).
3:00 p.m. EST, FOX
As impressive as Matt Ryan’s 31-second-drill was to rally the Falcons over scary Seattle, it was equally disturbing to witness them nearly allowing the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL Playoff history.
A 27-7 lead for a No. 1 seed over a No. 5 (albeit hot) seed at home should never be threatened, let alone relinquished, aand against a rookie quarterback no less. But the Falcons predictably got tight, the defense imploded and we nearly began talking about blowing up the organization from the quarterback to the coach to the GM if not for two huge throws and one clutch kick in those final seconds.
In San Francisco an evening earlier, the home team stayed aggressive and buried the Packers with 21 unanswered points after the game’s last tie at 24. Overall, SF tallied 579 total yards - the most in franchise history (a history that obviously includes Montana or Young running unstoppable offenses) with 323 of those yards coming on the ground.
When breaking down key positions, it appears the 49ers have the overall advantages:
Quarterback: Kaepernick over Ryan
#7’s ability to make things happen with his legs is healthy-RG3-scary. Did you know that Kaepernick actually ran for 178 of his 181 yards against the Packers without being contacted? Talk about running a zone-read-option to perfection. And the Falcons defense hasn't exactly performed well against Kaepernick East (Cam Newton). In two games this season against the Carolina QB, Atlanta surrendered over 500 yards passing and 200 yards rushing. 700 yards of total offense by one player on a sub-500 team? Rut-roh...
Atlanta will have its hands full again, particularly if Kaepernick avoids mistakes, (as he did after an early pick-6 by Sam Shields last week, his only turnover) and completes as many long throws at the relatively high percentage he did versus the Pack, as completed 6 of11 passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield, including 3-3 and a touchdown when looking Michael Crabtree’s way.
Running back: Frank Gore over Michael Turner
Gore ran for 400-plus yards more than Turner (1,214 vs. 800) in the regular season. Both had solid games last week (Gore, 119 yards; Turner 98), but running the ball is more of San Fran’s forte, while the Falcons have become primarily a passing team. If the Niners get out to an early lead, Atlanta mediocre rush defense (ranked 20 in the league) will lose the ball-control battle.
Receivers: Jones/White over Crabtree/Moss
Not much to add on the Atlanta side that you already don’t know. Julio/Roddy is as lethal a 1-2 punch as there is in football. This is a big advantage for the home team if Ryan is on. Remember, he threw two interceptions against the Seahawks last week.
Michael Crabtree has flourished under Kaepernick (291 yards, 4 TDs in the last two games alone), but the loss of Mario Manningham does limit Kaep’s medium/deep options to a not-even-close-to-who-he-used-to-be Randy Moss.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez over Vernon Davis
The big guys appear to be a wash until looking closer at Davis’ numbers lately: Over the past five games, the former Terp is averaging just one reception per game with no touchdowns. So while Crabtree has benefitted from the emergence of Kaepernick, Davis has clearly suffered.
On the other side of the ball is 36-but-ageless Gonzalez, who had 6 catches for 51 yards and a TD on Sunday, including that monster grab that set up the winning FG.
Defense: Advantage – 49ers
Numbers don’t lie:
49ers are ranked third in total yards allowed, fourth against the run, fourth against the pass.
Falcons are 24th in total yards, 21st against the run, 23rd against the pass.
Kicker: Bryant over Akers
Matt Bryant saved the Birds’ bacon with that long game-winner against Seattle. David Akers, meanwhile, had his worst season as a professional , with only 69 percent of kicks made, 15 percentage points below his career average. But the lefty has made some clutch kicks of his own in the past, and kicking anywhere but windy Candlestick Park is always a pleasure. Bryant by a toe…
In the end, it’s hard to imagine Atlanta stopping Kaepernick/Gore on the ground and it’s a much easier to envision San Francisco’s staunch defense making life miserable for Matt Ryan, especially if the visitors get a lead early to allow its pass rushers to tee off.
Jim Harbaugh was so close to taking the Niners to the big dance last year.
He finishes the task in 2013.
6:30 PM, CBS
My Maryland friends are writing me on the Twitter and Facebook as you read this, likely thanking me for picking against their team once again. I had Denver winning on Saturday, although 70-yard Hail Marys can be difficult to predict.
From my buddy Chad, Ravens season ticket holder:
“We always play them tough, and no joke, we should be 4-0 against them in our last four. (Mark) Clayton drop there (in ’09 late), Evans/Cundiff (the culprits of the final two plays last year’s forgettable AFC Championship loss), beat them this year (last second FG), Wild Card win (three years ago). Don't know what else they (Ravens) need to do for respect.”
The reaction from most sharp guys I’ve spoken to is the same: Wow! Pats are 10-point favorites without Gronk! Seems a bit thick to me, particularly considering Flacco’s playoff road record: five career wins away from Baltimore, tied for most in NFL history with Eli.
But Vegas always seems to be one step ahead of everyone. So what do they see to make this line so high?
This year’s true MVP has been as good as he’s ever been, and that includes that memorable 50-TD ’07 season. I won’t bother getting into stats; they’re so great and repeated so often it’s just too boring and predictable. Ultimately, it just seems Brady is so locked in right now, it doesn’t matter who he’s hrowing to, such as seldom-used Shane Vereen last week, 5 catches, 83 yards, TD). It appears we’ve reached that time in an athlete’s career when he’s still physically able to perform at a high level, but also mentally has the game completely down pat. Rarely do the two merge…
Another aspect to worry about if a fan of Baltimore is the rush defense. Ray Lewis retirement hype aside, the Raven defense hasn’t been the one we’re used to seeing in January (277 yards allowed in two playoff games against average running backs). And unlike past Pats-Ravens playoff matchups, New England actually has a credible rushing threat in the form of Stevan Ridley (1263 rushing yards this season, the most since Corey Dillon…the Pats leading rusher when the team used to win Super Bowls).
A quick breakdown on both sides:
Quarterback: Brady over Flacco
Running Back: Rice over Ridley
Receivers: Smith/Boldin even with Welker/Lloyd (although Terp Torrey can be a game-changer, as Champ Bailey can attest)
Tight End: Hernandez over Pitta
Kickers: Tucker even with Gostkowski
Not much of a playoff rematch precedent to work with here: The last time the same two teams met in consecutive AFC Championships was in 1986-87. Both times, the then-Ravens (Browns) lost to the Broncos in excruciating fashion (The Drive, The Fumble, respectively).
It will be a classic. But the Belichick/Brady combo barely survives again to get to their sixth Super Bowl to face Kaepernick, who was only 14 when Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2002.
Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @ConchSports or email firstname.lastname@example.org