Sunday, January 20, 2013

And then there were four...

All these teams are one step closer to their ultimate prize

I told you. I said it; I said that I might have a hard week.  It’s no excuse for going 1-3 (4-4 overall) last week, but at least I gave you fair warning.  Still, given the great games of this weekend I wasn’t totally heartbroken as I watched my hot streak cool dramatically. 

San Francisco 49ers (-4)

The 49ers showed up and showed out vs the reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.  Colin Kaepernick silenced all critics of Jim Harbaugh’s midseason move to replace Alex Smith, by dominating on the field with 263 yards passing, 181 yards rushing, and a combined 4 touchdowns running the spread option-read offense to perfection.  Kaepernick rebounded from an early pick six from Sam Shields, to eviscerate the Packers defense. I thought he would struggle given that he hasn’t even started a full season's complement of games for his career. Usually rookies (which is essentially what he is, given that he didn’t start until midseason this year) struggle, but Russell Wilson and Kaepernick have continued the trend of young QBs outperforming their predecessors.

Despite playing one of the league’s most potent offenses, the defense was able to hold the Packers to 3 points for the majority of the 2nd half (they gave up a meaningless TD late).  They also forced two turnovers against a team that was one of the better squads at holding onto the ball.  The 49ers have boasted one of the most physical front seven defensive fronts in the League, but did give up 6.5 yards per rush to the anemic rushing offense of the Packers.


Atlanta Falcons

What. A. Game.  I came into the matchup last week saying that I trusted Wilson more than Matt Ryan.  I was right to do so; Wilson outplayed Ryan for the duration of the game.  Despite Ryan’s head-scratching interception late with the Seahawks surging, Ryan took the Falcons down the field in 31 seconds with two Timeouts for a game-winning Field Goal.  Ryan hadn’t won a playoff game despite the plethora of weapons this team has possessed for years. The last playoff game showed the best and worst of the QB from Boston College.  In the first half he led them to a 20 point lead, followed by a lackluster showing in the 2nd half that featured a turnover and drives that were completely ineffective. Still, that last second drive with the weight of the city and previous poor playoff performances weighing on him was huge and gave me the ultimate respect for the signal-caller.

The Defense played a high-wire act all game last week vs the Seahawks, giving up long drives and lots of yards but no points in the first half.  Those small things that bounced their way (be it a poor coaching decision or bad clock management by the Seahawks) came crashing down on them in the second half.  Wilson and the Seahawk defense got everything they wanted out of the game as the contest drew to a close.  They were able to hold on, but gave up 28 unanswered points during the stretch run of the game. 

Matchup:  It’s hard not to see Kaepernick and think of another tall, evasive QB that the Falcons had trouble with this year—Cam Newton.  In the two games (split 1-1) that the Panthers and Falcons played, Newton was 38-59 compiling 502 yards with four TDs through the air with another 202 yards and 2 TDs on the ground running a similar style offense.  It’s arguable that without that weary, jet-lagged performance the Seahawks put up in the 1st half, the Falcons wouldn’t be in the NFC Championship game.  Regardless, they found a way to win and deserve to be here.  I hope they enjoy it, because their run ends in Atlanta. 27-17 San Francisco 49ers. Over/Under 49.

Baltimore Ravens (-8.5)

I didn’t believe.  I thought that the Ray Lewis’ swan song was sung.  And with about a minute left, I looked to be right.  Then this happened and I had picked the team on the wrong side of destiny once again. The Ravens found a way to win, despite their defense and special teams giving up 35 points, the offense overcame with more of Joe Flacco’s patented deep ball throwing.  I’m concerned that the Ravens won’t be able to sustain a drive, but their ability to stretch the field has proven to put a huge amount of pressure on the opposing defense.

Despite the large number of points the Broncos scored, late in the game the Special teams provided Peyton Manning with some short fields.  The actual defense played well late, holding the Broncos to one touchdown in the second half.  Again, while giving up yards, the defense has been good a minimizing the opponents points.  Ray Lewis has been racking up tackles and stopping gaps in the run game, while being somewhat exposed in coverage. A lot has been made of his emotional leadership that he provides; I don’t know how much there is to it, but I know the defense as a whole is playing well and the secondary has been (specifically Cary Williams) better than advertised.


New England Patriots

Tom Brady was Tom Brady last week.  He was effective and relentless all game.  Moreover, he has more playoff wins than anyone in NFL history.  That said, he has some teams that give him trouble.  The NY Giants have been consistent annoyances to him, as have the Ravens.  The Pats also lost Gronkowski, but to be fair he had been hurt for several weeks and they should be able to bounce back. Shane Vereen replaced another injured Patriot (Danny Woodhead who is expected to be available this week), and had a phenomenal game.  The weapons keep coming off the assembly line for the Pats offense.

The defense was 25th in yards allowed this year, but top 10 in points allowed.  In this way, it is a lot like the ravens defense; they bend, but don’t break.  Vince Wilfork has been overlooked all season for the great work he does.  He keys the attack at the line of scrimmage, and is an uncompromising hurdle for every team’s run game.

Matchup: How great is it that we get Ray Lewis against Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in successive weeks? It’s tough to pick against the Pats, but it’s impossible not to think of the Ravens as a team destined for the Super Bowl after that improbable Jones TD reception late last week. Maybe I’m picking with my heart, but I won’t pick against Ray Lewis as long as there is an NFL breath in his body. 24-20 Ravens. Over/Under 51.5

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