With a trip to New Orleans and a Super Bowl berth on the line this Sunday, each coach on each staff is devising a game plan to find the weakness of their opponent. Sometimes coaches out-think themselves and should simply game-plan to the strength of their team.
Each team is looking to establish dominance and turn the game in their favor. Finding the keys early in the week helps preparation and creates a sense of purpose and direction.
The Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots have all been to the conference championship before. The teams that follow these keys will find themselves back in the Super Bowl.
Get tight end Tony Gonzalez involved early
The Falcons are loaded with offensive threats, but Gonzalez provides a safe haven for quarterback Matt Ryan. The future Hall of Fame tight end has some of the softest hands in the NFL, is a smart route-runner and understands how to get open versus man and zone coverage.
Gonzalez had six catches in last week’s win against the Seattle Seahawks, and five of them were for first downs. Ryan needs to get the ball to Gonzalez early in the game to keep the 49ers safeties from ignoring the middle of the field and flying outside to help the cornerbacks.
Use zone blitzes
The 49ers offensive line has struggled to pick up blitz schemes employed by defensive opponents, allowing 41 sacks on the regular season. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan must continually mix up his defensive line to create better one-on-one rush matchups, especially with a hobbled John Abraham at defensive end.
The Falcons have the athletes to play from different defensive fronts with ease. By switching up which player is rushing the passer and who is dropping into coverage, this will put the onus on the offensive line to adjust and should allow the Falcons to contain the speedy Colin Kaepernick.
Defensive end Kroy Biermann must step up
Profootballfocus.com has 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis as the 11th-best tackle in the NFL, even though he gave up eight sacks on the season and 28 quarterback hits. Facing Davis will be Kroy Biermann, who only had four sacks on the season and did not cause a turnover. His production must increase if the Falcons expect to win.
Biermann is a tough, hard-nosed player who is active with his hands. When going up against Davis, Biermann needs to use tremendous leverage to get under the pads of the 49ers right tackle and force him back into the pocket.
With Abraham dealing with an ankle issue, Biermann needs to step up as the leader of the defensive line and play the best game of his career.
Get off to a fast start
The Falcons were up by 20 points at halftime versus the Seahawks and had control of the game. But both the defense and offense got conservative in the second half and allowed the Seahawks to get back into it.
Matt Ryan must get his offensive unit going early with quick-hitting plays to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. A quick score will force the 49ers defense back on their heels and put early pressure on Kaepernick.
The Falcons need to get on the scoreboard early and often. Then they can slow the game down and work on eating up the clock with running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. A quick start will also keep the Falcons from being so one dimensional and give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter more options with his play-calling.
Run the ball to the left
Left tackle Joe Staley is the staple of the 49ers line and left guard Mike Iupati is a Pro Bowler. They will be matched up versus dinged-up defensive end John Abraham, who is known more for his ability to rush the passer than to stop the run.
The 49ers should be able to get plenty of push off the line of scrimmage by running counters and power runs to the left side. The Falcons ranked 21st in the NFL in rush defense during the regular season (123 ypg), so the 49ers need to take advantage of this weakness and exploit it.
Running the ball with Frank Gore and LaMichael James can take pressure off quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the passing attack. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can option Kaepernick to the left side as well once Abraham has committed to the pass rush.
Go deep early to Michael Crabtree
Kaepernick needs his No. 1 receiver to get hot quickly. Until the Falcons' two cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel, can prove that they can stop the deep pass, Kaepernick needs to throw the long ball to his best deep threat. Neither Robinson nor Samuel rank in the top 40 cornerbacks in the NFL, according to Profootballfocus.com.
Even if Kaepernick and Crabtree are not successful in hooking up, this will force the Falcons to honor Crabtree as a deep threat and back off more in coverage, opening up the underneath routes for tight end Vernon Davis.
Get another receiver or tight end Vernon Davis involved in the game plan
The 49ers do not have a No. 2 wide receiver that puts fear in the heart of the Falcons defensive backs. Crabtree has scored two touchdowns in each of his last two games and will need another big outing, but if the Falcons game-plan him well and double-team him, Randy Moss or Davis need to be used more effectively. Both are solid enough as route-runners to get open for the strong-armed Kaepernick and have good run-after-the-catch ability.
By spreading the ball around to all the receivers, Kaepernick will keep the Falcons defense off balance and get his other offensive teammates involved in the game.
Get something out of the return game
Ted Ginn Jr. is one of the better punt returners in the NFL and is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. LaMichael James has gotten a chance to handle kickoff returns this year as well. Special teams coach Brad Seely needs to devise a solid scheme to take advantage of the less-than-stellar coverage units of the Falcons.
The return units led by linebackers Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant and fullback Bruce Miller should be able to get Kaepernick the field position he needs to get the 49ers in scoring range. The 49ers need to win the field-position battle to take the crowd out of the game as well.
Line up in two-tight end formations and pound the football
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw the ball 34 times in the win over the Denver Broncos, but the passing attack is not the way to win versus the New England Patriots. The Ravens need to line up in power formation and hammer running back Ray Rice at the Patriots defense.
While the Ravens have veterans Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones on the roster to go with speedster Torrey Smith at receiver, they need to run the ball 30 to 40 times if they want to win.
Against the Broncos, Rice rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown. The left side of the Ravens offensive line is massive, with left tackle Bryant McKinnie and Kelechi Osemele leading the way. These powerful blockers can easily move rookie defensive end Chandler Jones off the ball.
Both tight ends for the Ravens, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, are solid blockers who can hold their own in the run game. With Rice’s power-running style behind the best fullback in the NFL in Vonta Leach, the Ravens can run a ball-control attack and keep New England’s high-powered offense on the bench.
Blitz quarterback Tom Brady
Brady has always had a strong arm, but in the past couple years, injuries have really limited his abilities outside the tackle box. By sending in linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe to rush the passer, the onus will be on Brady to get the ball out early. This should allow opportunities for cornerbacks Cary Williams, Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham to jump the short routes and get interceptions.
The linebackers for the Ravens have struggled in coverage, so sending them on blitzes keeps them from making mistakes in their pass-coverage responsibilities. Brady has shown in the Patriots' losses this season that he can be rattled in the pocket.
In the Week 3 loss to the Ravens, Brady was harassed for a majority of the game. The Ravens need to get physical with this offensive line and not give Brady clear passing lanes to set his feet and make accurate throws.
Eliminate the Patriots' rushing attack
In the Patriots win over the Houston Texans, running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for 123 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The Patriots have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, but they have also shown a weakness when the team cannot run the football.
In the four losses the Patriots suffered this season, quarterback Tom Brady attempted 41, 46, 58 and 65 passes. When the Patriots become one-dimensional, they are not as good of a football team.
The Ravens need to play strong one-gap football and line up Bernard Pollard close to the line of scrimmage in order to take away the run threat. With big bodies like Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody clogging up the interior of the Patriots' line, the Ravens will either lose at the hand of Brady or force the Pro Bowl quarterback into mistakes that will send them to the Super Bowl.
Run lots of play action
The threat of Ray Rice getting established in this game early will be a huge key for the Ravens. Once the running game gets started, it will open up the secondary for play-action passes. The Patriots' pass defense was rated 28th in the NFL during the regular season; they've also been gashed at times by the running game.
Flacco has played well of late thanks to the Ravens' ground attack. He also sells the run fakes effectively, and if he can use it to freeze New England's aggressive linebackers and safeties, Flacco should have all day to find the likes of tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson open over the middle of the field. Play action will also open up the deep post routes for Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith.
Get running back Stevan Ridley 20 carries
Stevan Ridley has carried the football 20 or more times in a game in six contests for the Patriots this season—all were wins. In the four losses the Patriots suffered during the 2012 season, Ridley averaged 14 carries at under 3.9 yards per attempt.
The Ravens defense has played worse versus the run in their two playoff games, allowing 138.5 rushing yards on average. This is opposed to allowing 122.8 yards a game during the regular season.
Both the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos were able to get their rushing attacks going against the Ravens. If the Patriots can get Ridley over 20 carries, the Patriots offense will be hard for the Ravens to contain.
Patriots need to run the ball behind right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and right guard Dan Connolly. They also need to attack outside linebacker Paul Kruger. Kruger is having a monster postseason as a pass-rusher, but he can be driven out of the play as a run defender.
Get tight end Aaron Hernandez involved all day in the passing game
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is a future Hall of Fame player, but he is no match for Hernandez in coverage. The loss of the Patriots' other tight end, Rob Gronkowski, to a broken forearm will allow Hernandez to be more of a focal point of the offense.
With the secondary of the Ravens focused on stopping receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who torched them in Week 3, Brady needs to look to Hernandez over the middle of the field. Hernandez has the speed and size to get open against a linebacker corps that has been susceptible to the passing game all season long.
With the safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard having to help the cornerbacks with Welker and Lloyd, Hernandez should be able to find the holes in the Ravens' zone defense. He may not average over 10 yards a catch, but if he has over 100 yards receiving, the Patriots will win the game with ease.
Play basic coverages
In the Ravens' losses this season, the opposing defense has taken running back Ray Rice out of the game and forced quarterback Joe Flacco to win the game on his own. In the six losses on the season for the Ravens, Rice only gained 383 yards.
If the Patriots defense can contain and control Rice with their front seven, this will allow safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty to play deeper and read Flacco’s eyes. Head coach Bill Belichick is known as a defensive coach, but in this matchup, less may be more.
Flacco is not the type of quarterback to make a lot of plays on the move, and his accuracy goes way down outside the pocket. If the Patriots can keep the football out of Rice’s hands, the Patriots should be able to win without using any run stunts or run blitzes.
When Flacco drops back to pass, the Patriots will not need to blitz much either. This will allow the linebackers to widen their coverage responsibilities and take away passing lanes from Flacco. As a result, Gregory and McCourty can easily defend the long passes that Flacco will force. The Patriots need to get at least one interception to win this game.
Rally to tackle returner Jacoby Jones hard
Jones has single-handedly won two games for the Ravens this year. His abilities as a punt and kick returner made him a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro this season.
Jones averaged 30.7 yards a kickoff return this season and had two touchdowns. The Patriots' special teams units have not played poorly this season, but they have had lapses, like the long return allowed versus the San Francisco 49ers.
Jones has the ability to score anytime he touches the football. On kickoffs, kicker Stephen Gostkowski needs to kick the football out of the back of the end zone. On punts, where Jones has shown the propensity to fumble, special teams aces Niko Koutouvides and Matthew Slater need to get in the face of Jones and force him into making poor decisions.
One big special teams play can mean the difference in this game.