New England Vs. Baltimore
I’m certain Tom Brady quotes Biggie to himself when he thinks about the Super Bowl.
The later the playoffs go, the more ownership he has. He lives in this space. He gets mail here. The cable is in his name. He’s been deep into the playoffs enough times that it probably barely registers anymore. With the amount of Super Bowl's he’s played in, it’s feasible that he does have property in one of the host cities (remember, Super Bowl XXXVI was played in New Orleans. He was the MVP of the game. It's not far-fetched). What this means is that the AFC Championship Game is even less of a concern. Sunday’s tilt against Baltimore is his 7th trip to the pre-Super Bowl. Let that marinate for a second…Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez just won his first playoff game and Tom Brady has played in seven AFC title games (thanks Mo Lewis.)
The Patriots record in those seven games is a robust 6-1. All they do is come back with more and more hits. Other than coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (and to an extent DT Vince Wilfork), it doesn’t really matter who else is on the team. The Patriots change players like soiled bed sheets, and somehow re-up the next year and produce their same stellar results. It’s applied science x redundancy x we don’t give a crap about none of y’all. That’s the Patriots way, and I’ll be damned if its not effective. They led the league in scoring this year with a healthy 34.8 ppg average. They gained the most first downs in the history of the league with 444, and led the league in yardage gained per game with 427. The Patriots got a 118 catch season from We Welker (people aren’t gonna like it, but if you think that Welker isn’t making the HOF, you’re kidding yourself), Rams castoff Brandon Lloyd was the deep threat, Stevan Ridley took the RB baton and ran with it to the tune of a 1200-yard season and the Ron Gronkowski (when healthy)/ Aaron Hernandez combo put their usual numbers up. It’s the same song up in Foxborough.
Their defense, which early in the season had to be carried by the offense, has stepped up in recent weeks. Especially as CB Aqib Talib has gotten used to his role and became the leader of the secondary. He has shutdown talent and his incendiary style gave the rest of those guys just the right amount of edge. Playmakers Wilfork, MLB Brandon Spikes and DE Rob Ninkovich keep other teams face down in the mud under the disguise of Belichick's exotic formations. It’s really an impressive operation.
If you’re Baltimore, you’re looking at this in two ways. They were just here last season, in this same exact spot. If not for a missed FG by Billy Cundiff and a dropped pass by WR Lee Evans, they would have beaten New England. They know this, fans know this and most importantly the Patriots know this. They aren’t afraid of them and especially after that epic battle against Denver, might even feel like destiny is on their side. This whole notion of sending Ray Lewis out with a ring is one 3rd quarter lead from becoming a official movement, and every player on that Ravens sidelines will play a little better as the prize gets closer.
The key match up is, as always, the Patriots short yardage passing game vs. the Ravens linebackers and safeties. Not having Gronk really hurts here, but let’s not act like Hernandez isn’t capable of having a 2 TD game. The combination of him and Welker will determine everything. If Welker has a 10 catch, 130-yard type of game, there isn’t any scenario that makes sense to me that allows the Ravens to win this game. NE will put up 25 plus on the Ravens D, you can take that to the bank right now. I’m not sure the Ravens offense can compete with that.
Baltimore hasn’t peaked yet. In both wins over Cincinnati and Denver, they played well in spurts, but never displayed any deft ability to control the game. Against the Bronco’s defense they failed to convert a 3rd down in the entire first half, and if not for the beatdown administered to Champ Bailey or the Hail Mary that sent them to OT, they wouldn’t even be here. That said, their O-Line has been very solid (the key to those deep Flacco throws was extra time in the pocket) and they’ve gotten excellent contributions from their WRs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Even better, if you’re a glass half-full T.R.U. believer, is that Ray Rice hasn’t really gone off yet. He’s a top five RB and you can only hold those dudes down for but so long. He could go off and have a 170-yard rushing day. I mean, if he wasn’t running against Vince Wilfork that is. It will be close, but the Patriots are taking another Super Bowl vacay.
Atlanta Vs. San Francisco
Neither of these teams are upset-makers. Both of them were considered playoff caliber, if not playoff guarantees, when the season first started. We knew why Atlanta brought in CB Asante Samuel and why San Fran brought in new players like Randy Moss. Not for the headlines, but for make or break plays that happen in tight playoff matches. Both of these teams had potential back in September and both are a game away from an intoxicating package of near fulfillment.
The only real surprise here is Colin Kaepernick. Whose play of late has most of his detractors (me included) re-considering their disapproval of the benching of Alex Smith. Last week he was tremendous and with every correct option read, makes Niners coach Jim Harbaugh seem like a astrophysicist. That said, I don’t really feel good about a young QB in his first road game playoff game. This will only be his 9th start. We are dealing with levels of feasibility, reflex reactions that say it’s not possible. Voices in the back of my mind that sound like Pat Summerall explaining how traditions are made. How are they made you ask? They are chiseled out of granite and that granite has writing on it. It says “don’t trust a young quarterback with eight starts under his belt!”
I’d feel a lot better if I knew for sure if Falcons DE John Abraham was playing at full power or not. He tweaked his ankle against Seattle and if he’s absent or struggling against that very talented 49er offensive line, Atlanta has nobody else who can really rush the passer. If the Falcons are to win, they’re gonna have to be creative and take a less predictable gameplan into Sunday’s match-up. No doubt San Fran’s defense is feeling empowered after beating Green Bay up. They’ll be bumping Tony Gonzalez as much as they can get away with and the versatility of their linebackers’ means the short throws won’t be there consistently. They’ll have to go deep, and that allows for interceptions by Matt Ryan, not to mention body shots for that extra second he has to wait for Roddy White or Julio Jones to get open. I don’t expect the Falcons run game to carry them like it did against the Seahawks, either. Patrick Willis isn’t letting Michael Turner eat, no way, no how. They’re gonna have to pass to beat the 49ers and that should concern any Falcons fan out there.
This isn’t an easy game to pick, because the flaws for both teams are easily identifiable, but I think the Falcons find a way to pull it out at the end. The Kaepernick ride will stop here.