The NFL season is quickly winding down as both the AFC and NFC will be decided on Sunday. If the divisional round is any indication of this weekend’s action, fans are in for a treat.
The early game will see the San Francisco 49ers travel to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons.
While this game features numerous matchups that could help decide the outcome, it could come down to whether or not John Abraham is effective enough to disrupt 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and force him into making mistakes.
San Francisco, on the other hand, will have to deal with Matt Ryan’s ability to spread the ball around the field to wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and tight end Tony Gonzalez. The 49ers won’t be able to stop all three, so they will have to decide whether or not to try to shut one down or attempt to keep all three at bay somehow.
The second game is a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship that saw the New England Patriots advance past the Baltimore Ravens into the Super Bowl. These two teams also played in Week 3 of this season, where the Patriots lost in Baltimore 31-30.
Round Three will be in New England on Sunday night.
The fact that New England and Baltimore have so much recent history lends to this contest being a must-see on Sunday night. Throw in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick trying to extend their legacies, and Ray Lewis’ remarkable career facing its last hurrah and this game could be an instant classic.
Here is one bold prediction for each team during Sunday’s action.
Colin Kaepernick Has More Impressive Encore
Kaepernick is coming off a 444-total-yard, four-touchdown performance in last week’s 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers. While it may be hard-pressed to assume he could surpass those total at any point in his career again, he has a chance to do so just one week later.
The Falcons allowed Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson roll up 445 total yards and three touchdowns during last week’s thrilling 30-28 win.
While most of that production occurred in the second half with Atlanta defensive end John Abraham on the bench with an injured ankle, the pass-rusher will enter Sunday’s game still hobbled. Preventing Kaepernick from dictating the pace on offense is the biggest key for a Falcons’ victory.
If this game resembles last week’s 49ers-Packers outcome, Kaepernick could be in for another monster performance.
Falcons Completely Stymied on the Ground
The Falcons surprised everyone with their ground game last week, rolling up 167 yards on just 26 carries. Both Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers performed well, as Atlanta used a consistent rushing attack to control most of the game.
The Seahawks allowed just 103.1 rushing yards per game this season and held the league’s best running attack (Washington Redskins) to just 104 yards on the ground the week before.
For Atlanta—a team that tallied just 87.3 rushing yards per game on the season—to put up those numbers on Seattle last week comes as a shock. But don’t expect anywhere close to a repeat against San Francisco on Sunday.
The 49ers are a more experienced group than the Seahawks and have a very talented defensive line that will prevent Turner and Rodgers from getting to the second level. This group allowed just 94.2 yards per game on 3.7 yards per carry during the regular season.
However, the Falcons should still be able to sustain long drives by utilizing Gonzalez in the passing game; so this game won’t be decided with their running game at all.
Aaron Hernandez Can’t Get Going
Though Rob Gronkowski is as talented as they come at tight end in the NFL, it is becoming more and more obvious that it doesn’t matter who lines up there for the Patriots. When healthy, Aaron Hernandez is also one of the best tight ends in the league.
With Gronkowski now out for the rest of the season, Hernandez will need to step for the Patriots and their tight end-reliant offense.
However, the Ravens have done a fantastic job of thwarting opposing tight ends from beating them this season. Including the playoffs, Baltimore has allowed just 84 receptions, 1,000 yards and just two touchdowns to tight ends all season long—including just two receptions for 21 yards to Gronkowski in their earlier meeting.
Though both Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 12 catches and 153 yards in last year’s AFC title tilt, the Ravens will stop at nothing to prevent Brady from hooking up with Hernandez on Sunday.
New England will need to rely on an improved running game and its other weapons to advance to the Super Bowl again.
Joe Flacco Has Career Day through the Air
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off the best playoff performance of his career, throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 38-35 victory over the Denver Broncos.
While he has thrown for more yards or touchdowns in other games since entering the league in 2008, Flacco has yet to have 350 passing yards and four touchdowns in the same game. Sunday could be that day, though.
The Patriots allowed 271.4 yards per game and 27 touchdowns through the air this season. While most of that can be attributed to their opponents playing catch up for much of the time, Flacco put up 382 yards and three scores in their Week 3 shootout.
Last year’s AFC Championship played out a bit slower, but Flacco was still able to rack up 306 yards and two touchdowns in that game as well.
Flacco just seems to have the Patriots’ number lately, though we have seen both teams on the positive side of the outcome in their recent contests; so expect this game to be a shootout, with either team capable of winning.
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