With the NFL down to its' version of the Final Four, a microscope is placed on each team and prominent player remaining. It is undeniable that monster performances are needed to win in the conference championship games.
It is easy to assume that Tom Brady will have a huge game on Sunday. The question is whether it will be enough to send the Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl appearance under Mr. Brady and Bill Belichick.
While it is a reasonable question, the answer is no.
The Baltimore Ravens will win the AFC Championship Game this year, after coming short by one Lee Evans dropped pass a season ago. The 2012 version of the Ravens have shown tremendous grit in the playoffs, coming away with a win that promises to be the most memorable from this playoff year, assuming there are no more cliffhanger theatrics.
It will take another brilliant effort from Joe Flacco, who is now 7-4 in his postseason career. Early in his career, Flacco struggled in the playoffs but benefited from playing in a run-based offense which could chew up yardage and play to the teams’ strengths as a great defensive team.
In years one and two—which account for five of the 11 games—his best QB Rating for any single game was 89.4. Since year three—which account for six playoff games—he has a QB Rating below 95 only once.
Of course, the Ravens are going to want to run the football on Sunday, but Flacco will still be left with key conversion opportunities. Saturday in Denver he showed he could make his best throws in the most crucial situations—check the beautiful throw he made in between two Denver defenders while being pressured to tie the game with 31 seconds remaining.
In his past six postseason games he has proven he can make those throws.
It helps that the Patriots do not have the pressure packages and athleticism of the Broncos’ defense. It will mean Flacco—who was sacked much more than any of the remaining passers in the playoffs—will have a clean pocket to throw from, which is when he is at his best.
In the other game—San Francisco at Atlanta—Colin Kaepernick is the big name going into this contest. His incredible game against Green Bay—181 yards rushing to go along with 263 through the air—has caused for a media crush of epic proportions.
If he can do as predicted by some—myself included—and lead the Niners to a Super Bowl win, it would be the closest thing we’ve had to a Tom Brady story since Tom Brady himself in 2001-02. Yet, he is not the player who most needs to have a huge game.
It is his backfield mate—in the pistol that San Francisco used 34 times on Sunday, that term is appropriate—Frank Gore, who must carry the load. Gore carried the offense on his back for much of 2012—carrying the ball 258 times for 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns. He also caught 28 passes for 234 yards and another touchdown.
With all the hype around Kaepernick this week, Atlanta is going to put many of their eggs into the “Stop Kaepernick” basket. It’s not to say that Mike Nolan is going to completely forget about Gore.
It is only to say that there will be such an emphasis placed on slowing the zone read—likely keeping the defensive end home at all costs, and occasionally keeping an outside backer for contain as well—that it would be wiser for Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh to ease Kaepernick into the game with a heavy dose of Gore and some play-action passing.
The 29-year old Gore is a guy who gets better as the game goes on and the carries add up. Wearing the Atlanta defense down as the game progresses will open up the QB keeper and downfield passing game, too. Most of all, though, it will allow Gore to bruise and batter an Atlanta defense which prefers a soft, mental game than a pound it and pound back style.
Look for Gore to go well over 150 yards rushing, with Kaepernick’s running numbers deflating to a more modest total.
Whether these predictions hold up or not, it is the recipe for victory for Baltimore and San Francisco on Sunday. And for us, it is the recipe to get the Super Bowl we all want—“The Harbaugh Bowl”.