The 2013 Conference Championship weekend features perhaps the most lopsided pair of games in recent memory. The Patriots are eight-point favorites at home against the fourth-seeded Ravens, while the 49ers are four-point favorites on the road in Atlanta. If normal line-making procedures held (awarding a three-point advantage to the home team) the 49ers would be 10-point favorites should the game be played in San Francisco.
Granted, I have not seen as many years of NFL football as many people out there, but I can't remember a more cut-and-dry semifinal round. Very few people like the Ravens to win. Even fewer like the Falcons.
In the words of the infamous Denny Green "If you want to crown them, then crown their [rear-ends]!"
But if they are who I think they are, I am not ready to punch my ticket to a Patriots-49ers Super Bowl. Not only are people overlooking several important game-related factors (including experience, previous contests, and unfavorable matchups), people seem to have forgotten how important the intangibles are, all those things you can't find in a box score.
Let's start with the NFC. First of all, during the regular season the Falcons and the Broncos tied for the NFL's best record. That matters. I'm not saying they were the best two teams in the league, because I don't believe they were. But you cannot argue with win and losses. The Atlanta Falcons were one of the best two teams in getting the W.
The 49ers were 11-4-1, which is a statistically weak two seed. Only two teams in the last seven seasons have earned a first round bye with less than twelve wins. They were unable to defeat a mediocre Rams team in two meetings, and they also dropped games to the Giants (who missed the playoffs) and the Vikings (who should have missed the playoffs). They were able to rest up, and save an admittedly brilliant offensive game plan for a second-round date with Green Bay. One playoff win, albeit an impressive and historic one, is still just one win.
The Falcons were 7-1 at home, only dropping a meaningless Week 17 bout against Tampa Bay. With the exception of a blowout win here and there, most of their games were within a score or two. They lost just one game by more than five points. They were not always the prettiest team to watch, as evidenced by their dismal attempt to protect a 20-point 4th quarter lead last week. But if the Falcons are good at two things, it's playing at home, and keeping games close. That's exactly what I'm looking for.
Three of San Francisco's four losses came on the road. They were outplayed by both Minnesota and St. Louis in road defeats. And they were decimated by Seattle in a heavily important game in December. With Kaepernick at the helm they fared just 2-2 away from home, and the young QB phenom had more than his fair share of troubles with the opposing pressure.
All this information only gets me so far, however. It convinces me that the game will be close. But it does not convince me that the Falcons will win. It doesn't explain how the Falcons offensive line will be able to protect Matt Ryan. It doesn't show that the Falcons run defense will play well against Frank Gore. The Falcons performance on the field thus far is worthy of covering the spread, but what pushes them over the top?
Would you believe me if I told you that last Sunday marked Tony Gonzalez's first career playoff victory? An illustrious 16-year Hall of Fame career, likely coming to a close at the end of the season. It was also the first for quarterback Matt Ryan, who, despite leading his team to the playoffs four of his first five seasons, had begun to develop a Peyton Manning-like reputation for choking in big games.
Some say that the Falcons will be content with their small taste of playoff success, that they have already won their Super Bowl. I like to think that they have shaken the proverbial monkey off their collective back. I expect them to come out playing fast and loose, knowing that this team, perhaps unlike ones in previous years, can get the job done.
It may even work to their advantage that they allowed the Seahawks to climb back into the game. That's called adversity. A 34-7 drubbing of the Seahawks would have been less stressful, certainly. But would it have instilled such a sense of confidence? Or a sense that no comeback is too drastic?
Lastly, there is absolutely no way the Falcons could be less prepared for Colin Kaepernick than the Packers were. It is simply impossible. I don't expect a repeat performance from the San Francisco offense, with a week of preparation for Atlanta, and the hostile Georgia Dome atmosphere. For me, it comes down to Atlanta's offense. I know they can throw the ball, and if the smash and dash backfield combo of Turner and Rodgers can get just a little bit of a ground game going, I think the Falcons come away winners at home 23-20.
As for the AFC Conference Championship, it's a little bit tougher to come up with a statistically-backed argument for the Ravens. They don't have the home field advantage. Their 4-4 road record this season doesn't exactly instill confidence when heading to Foxborough. Their team is not more talented than the Patriots. They don't have a better quarterback. They may not even have the better defense when you really look at it.
But I do have one solid point to make before I start gushing about Ray Lewis' retirement and Joe Flacco's emergence as an elite quarterback. And here it is: The Ravens just seem to know how to play the Patriots.
Here's a timeline for you:
- 2007, Week 13 - The undefeated Patriots beat a 4-8 Ravens team 27-24, needing a last-minute touchdown pass to stave off defeat.
- 2009, Wild Card Weekend - The sixth-seeded Ravens crush the No. 3 Patriots 33-14 as Ray Rice goes bonkers and the defense makes Brady look old and slow.
- 2010, Week 6 - The Patriots need a 10-point fourth quarter comeback and overtime to beat the Ravens 23-20 in New England.
- 2011, Divisional Round - The Patriots win 23-20 again as Lee Evans drops the winning touchdown and Billy Cundiff shanks an easy field goal for the tie.
- 2012, Week 3 - The Ravens get an emotional win 31-30, spurred on by Torrey Smith's 127-yard, two-touchdown performance the day after the tragic passing of his younger brother.
So if you're keeping score at home, that's 2-3 against the Patriots the last five meetings. But each loss was by just three points and required either a major Patriots come back or major Ravens mistake. A couple plays here or there, that record could be 5-0.
To further the trend, the Ravens haven't lost a game to New England by more than three since 2004, when Kyle Boller threw 91 yards as the starting quarterback.
That's about all I've got. History tells us the game should be close. But again, the question is begged, why should the Ravens win it?
I'll admit to you, this pick is a lot of heart, and very little head.
Ray Lewis, who many call the greatest defensive player of all time, means more to his teammates and his franchise than perhaps any other player. Even with a freshly torn triceps, he is leading his team in tackles in the playoffs, and his team is giving it all they've got, trying to ward off his retirement just one week longer. The Ravens have momentum, and a lot to play for. And at least Lewis won't have to worry about covering Rob Gronkowski over the middle.
The key to this game, as in all games involving the Ravens, is Joe Flacco. Which Flacco is going to show up? When his game is on, he's as good as anyone. And I mean that. He has the strongest arm in the NFL and has the ability to make those big Eli Manning-like clutch throws. Unrelated side note: I have now used both Manning brothers as adjectives. Nice, huh?
I believe that Joe Flacco is poised to make his move. He was brilliant in last year's Championship game. He was great in the Week 3 contest between these teams. And he was incredible in last week's huge win at Denver. If Joe Flacco takes advantage of a mediocre Patriots pass defense, Ray Lewis and his defense will do the rest. The Ravens win another overtime thriller, 30-24.