Archive for the ‘2012-2013 Season’ Category

Baltimore Ravens 34, San Francisco 49ers 31

 

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The 2012-2013 NFL season has come to an end and the season belongs to one team: the Baltimore Ravens. In Super Bowl XLVII the Ravens pounced on the Niners early, breaking the game open to a 28-6 lead. It was a Super Bowl no fan, except Baltimore fans of course, had hoped for.

Half the lights go out in the Superdome.

Then the lights went out.

The first power outage in Super Bowl history brought the Ravens’ momentum to a screeching halt. When the lights finally came back on after a 34 minute delay, the Super Bowl started. The one we hoped for, at least. Almost as if it was scripted, San Francisco scored one touchdown, forced a three-and-out, and scored another. 28-20.

The script didn’t end there. It couldn’t have without a timely turnover. In Ravens’ territory, Tarell Brown poked the ball from Ray Rice’s arm and fell on it. A quick field goal later and it’s 28-23. This is officially a game.

Soon after the 4th quarter, Baltimore manages to stretch their lead slightly with a field goal. But once again, in a flash, Colin Kaepernick led his team down for another touchdown. A failed two-point conversion and it’s 31-29. Baltimore’s smallest lead of the game.

With too much time left to kill, Baltimore knew they had to score. A touchdown would’ve been nice, but so would’ve hanging on to a 22-point lead. Another field goal is good and the Baltimore begrudgingly gives the ball back to San Francisco. The Niners’ entire rally had been working towards this point; it was finally time to take the lead. There they were, at Baltimore’s 7-yard line. Their entire season, preparation, hard work, hopes, dreams, and sleepless nights all hinged on putting the ball in the endzone in four tries.

2-yard run. Incomplete pass. Incomplete pass. Incomplete pass. Ravens’ ball. Game.

Not yet. Not for any Baltimore fan, anyway. Not after watching a 28-6 lead slip away like clockwork. One San Francisco timeout and a few kneel-downs later, it was fourth down. Time to punt. Sam Koch takes the long snap and covers it, looking around frantically for any 49er looking to knock a punishing blow. 7….6….5….and time to run out of bounds for the intentional safety. 34-29. Four seconds on the clock. A punt, thousands of held breaths in Baltimore, a tackle, and exhale.

Game.

Baltimore wins the Super Bowl, Ray Lewis ends his career with a win, Joe Flacco gets a ring,Baltimore wins its second Super Bowl,JohnHarbaughwinstheHarbowl,KapernicklosesJimHarbaugharguesrefereescontroversyRavensparadeEdReedcommercialshalftimeshowasfdsdlkvasgldskgn.

There are too many emotions, too many storylines, too many angles, too many quotes, and too many questions to comprehend after a game like this. The real question?

When does the 2013 NFL preseason start?

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With just a few hours until Super Bowl XLVII kicks off, I think it’s about time I make a pick. As I said yesterday, this is one of the toughest picks I’ve had to make and I wouldn’t be surprised if the game went the other way. This will be a short post, because I’ve spent the past few posts saying as much as I could about these teams. Media day is over, the speculation is over, and the analysis is over. It’s finally time to play. Now, on to my pick.

Both of these teams are far different and far better than they were in the regular season. Joe Flacco is having the best games of his life along with a defense that shut down Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, and Peyton Manning (for the most part). I’ve picked against this team twice already in the postseason and have paid for it. They’ve proven me and every doubter in America wrong, so far. They have no reason to not be taken seriously in this game. On the San Francisco side, Jim Harbaugh is finding explosive ways to win, whether it’s through the air or on the ground, controlling the game or coming from behind. Young college players are coming into the NFL more prepared than ever and I fully expect Colin Kaepernick to handle the spotlight.

Who knows, this game could end up being a blowout. But I just don’t see it. I expect a thrilling game that comes down to the very last drives. Joe Flacco has done it before against Denver and the Niners’ defense has held tough to win a game against Atlanta. When it comes right down to it, I am picking the team that can win in different ways and this is the San Francisco 49ers. If they can cause trouble for a red-hot Joe Flacco, they can take a lot of pressure off their offense. From Kaepernick to Gore to Smith to Bowman, the Niners have too many fantastic playmakers on the field. Their versatility and ability to adapt to the situation will allow them to win this game. And if the Ravens prove me wrong a third time, then so be it. I feel ready to be proven wrong. Let’s play.

San Francisco 49ers 24, Baltimore Ravens 23

 

 

 

 

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I can’t remember the last time I had such a difficult time predicting a winner in any football game. Both of these teams have shown me so much and given me so many reasons to pick them. With a little more than 24 hours until kickoff, I still have yet to make a pick. I can assure you that I will make a prediction before the game starts and I can also assure you that I will not be confident with it either way. For today, I am focusing on who has the edge in six major departments.

Flacco has done everything right this postseason. Will Kaepernick rain on his parade?

Flacco has done everything right this postseason. Will Kaepernick rain on his parade?

Passing game: It’s fitting that the two QBs having the best postseasons are meeting in the Super Bowl. Joe Flacco is playing better than he ever has and Colin Kaepernick is a red-hot dual threat. Both QBs have a solid receiving corp, though Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have the better stats. At the tight end position, Dennis Pitta is being targeted more, but Fred Davis picks up more yards when he gets the ball. I believe both can be a legitimate threat in the middle of the field. Neither of these teams have a huge edge passing-wise, but in a tight game where I need a QB to throw, I’ll take the veteran who’s done it time and time again in the clutch. Joe Flacco is really coming into his own. Edge: Ravens

Running game: Ray Rice has rushed for more yards than anyone in the playoffs. This is impressive, but less impressive when you consider that the Ravens have played more playoff games than anyone this year. However, the Ravens have a very underrated threat in Bernard Pierce. Baltimore is starting to utilize him in the running game more and he is making the best of every carry. He is averaging 6.3 yards a carry when Rice is on the sideline. On the San Francisco side, there are two running threats as well. Everyone loves to talk about Kaep’s running ability, but don’t forget that he only had 21 yards on a couple runs in the NFC Championship. The Niners’ real weapon is Frank Gore, who is averaging 4.8 yards a carry, with 3 TDs and no fumbles. Gore is an overlooked asset for the Niners but he was integral in their win over Atlanta. Just like the passing game, this is an incredibly close matchup. Near the goal line, San Francisco’s pistol formation is lethal. They have scored seven touchdowns on the ground and touchdowns win games. Edge: Niners

Passing defense: San Francisco was known for their defense in the regular season, but it’s Baltimore who has shown up in the playoffs big time. Imagine telling a Ravens fan, “First you take on Andrew Luck, a spectacular rookie. If you manage to beat him, you face legend Peyton Manning. If you are lucky enough to get out of Denver with a win, you then have to face Tom Brady. Good luck!” It sounds like an impossible feat for any defense, but it’s the Ravens that have done it. After virtually shutting down Tom Brady, they earned their spot in the Super Bowl in every sense of the word. Don’t be mistaken, the Niners have a great passing defense as well. They beat Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, but not before giving up a few passing TDs. In a game as close as this, the smallest of details make the difference and the Ravens know what their doing when a QB drops back. Edge: Ravens

Win or loss, it will be a special day for Ray Lewis.

Win or loss, it will be a special day for Ray Lewis.

Run defense: Both run defenses have allowed moderate yardage and not very many touchdowns. With two powerful running games going head-to-head, this may change in the Super Bowl. It will be up to the playmakers on the line and in the box to prevent the big 20+ runs and third down scrapers. Baltimore has some big names that love to punish running backs, including Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, and Ray Lewis (ever heard of him?). San Francisco has no shortage of big hitters either, with Justin Smith on the line and Patrick Willis, NaVarro Bowman, and Aldon Smith at linebacker. Although the Ravens have a knack for popping the ball loose, the Niners’ consistent performance against the run has me convinced that they can have a big day. Edge: Niners

Special teams: Setting up great field position for the offense can make the difference in any game, so special teams should never be overlooked as a factor. Baltimore loves Jacoby Jones returning kicks and punts for them. He did great in the regular season and is continuing that success in the postseason. He’s yet to score on a return, but he’s had a few big runs. San Francisco has had mild success in this department, though they have had less attempts to show us anything worth noting. It’s been awhile since a Super Bowl has been decided by a missed or made field goal, but it is always a possibility. If it does come down to it, Baltimore has the clear edge. Neither team has kicked many field goals in the playoffs, but the regular season shows us enough. Justin Tucker had a really special year, making over 90% of his kicks, including making all four of his 50+ attempts. On the other side, David Akers is having a nightmare season. He’s made an ugly 69% of his kicks while missing the most field goals of his career. San Francisco better hope this game doesn’t come down to the better leg. Edge: Ravens

After the dust settles, one brother will be a ring above the other.

After the dust settles, one brother will be a ring above the other.

Coach: These are a couple coaches that seem to breed success. John has won a playoff game in each of his five seasons and Jim has an NFC Championship and Super Bowl birth under his belt in under two years! Some are inclined to label Jim as the better coach because of his quick success but his small sample size has me hesitant to make that assertion. With two brothers born 15 months apart, it’s impossible to give someone the edge in this one. Edge: Push

X-factor: What’s the X-factor? It’s the intangible aspect of a team that gives them an extra dimension. You could point to a number of these in Sunday’s big game. You can point to Baltimore’s resiliency that they showed in their win over Denver. They showed how hard they are to put away when the game is close. I love this about the Ravens and it’s what makes the prediction that more difficult. San Francisco, however, has the scariest weapon of all: unpredictability. Kaepernick runs for 181 yards in one game and 21 in the next? Now that is scary. Their pistol formation has defenses guessing all night, which can be infuriating. They can win in so many different ways as they showed in the second half of the season. They also have the ability to adjust and tweak their game during a game. Down 17 against Atlanta, the Niners didn’t panic. They merely adjusted to the situation and attacked. Edge: Niners

Overall: If you’re keeping score, the Ravens and Niners both have three “edges.” Before writing this, I imagined this would make my prediction a little easier to make. Somehow, after all this, I am even more split than I was before. I feel like I’ve said all I can say about these two teams. They both deserve to be here and both can win the game. That may sound obvious, but it’s not the case for all Super Bowls. We can only hope that this one lives up to the hype. Edge: Push

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The world will get to watch Ray Lewis play one more time.

The world will get to watch Ray Lewis play one more time.

1. Ray Lewis’s last ride: Love him or hate him, all eyes will be on Ray Lewis in this game. Last year, he faced a heartbreaking loss to New England, losing his best chance at a second Super Bowl. Lewis, one of the best defenders in NFL history, decided to give it one more try. Needless to say, it was worth it. He is a leader and inspiration for the Ravens, emotionally and physically. His mere presence on the field has elevated Baltimore this season and because of it, he can end his legendary career with a Super Bowl win. This walk-off-into-the-sunset ending is what every player dreams of, but players know how rare the opportunity is. Lewis has at least guaranteed he will be ending his career playing in a Super Bowl, but I doubt that is enough to satisfy him. Even more impressive than his leadership is his play on the field. At kickoff, it will be full ferocity from Lewis. He will try to pick up where he left off after collecting 14 tackles in the AFC Championship. In his last hurrah, you better bet he will be hitting as hard and fast as he possibly can. This should be a fun game for everyone, but most of all Ray Lewis. And no matter what the outcome, you can bet that there will be tears.

2. Brother battle: As you know by now, this game features a sibling coaching rivalry between younger bro Jim Harbaugh (Niners) and older brother John Harbaugh (Ravens). Fans, players, and the media alike have come to call this game the HarBowl. Super Bowl 47, otherwise a number with little memorability, will now be forever remembered as the HarBowl. When we finally get past the quirky name, we can actually see that this coaching matchup is very intriguing. These are two very successful coaches. Similar to Joe Flacco, John has won at least

The Harbaughs are quickly becoming two of the best coaches in the NFL.

The Harbaughs are quickly becoming two of the best coaches in the NFL.

one playoff game in each of his first five seasons with Baltimore. Jim is following that same trend, taking his 2011 Niners, from 6 wins in 2010, to the NFC Championship and now the 2012 Niners to the Super Bowl. The brothers have shared game strategy with each other in the past but will be on their own in this one. This game will be a chess match between two different personalities, but very like minds. So next time you call the game the HarBowl, remember it’s much more than a gimmick. This game will be won on the sidelines.

3. Unfinished business: Before the Super Bowl, I wrote about the Ravens’ chance to redeem last year’s nightmare. It’s the dream of any conference championship loser, but one that very rarely comes to fruition. Baltimore has that opportunity now, right in front of them. They are one win away from completing the dream season. A loss wouldn’t be totally devastating, but it would be one of the tougher ones to swallow. If they lose, it will become the story of Baltimore’s heartbreak, Ray’s career ending with a loss, and Ed Reed missing another chance to win his first Super Bowl. At this point, it almost seems like Baltimore needs to win this game, but this isn’t true either. Baltimore is not a city aching for a Super Bowl and they will have Joe Flacco under center for years to come. The Ravens just need to treat this game like any other and let the game come to them. Can they handle the pressure?

4. Super Bowl perfection: Nobody questions San Francisco’s place among the NFL’s greatest franchises. They belong right on top, next to the Steelers and Cowboys. But they have something going for them that those two franchises don’t. They are undefeated in Super Bowls and have a legitimate chance to put themselves a head above the competition. A 6-0 record could be arguably the best Super Bowl record ever. Win percentage wise, 6-0 is obviously the best there is. But Pittsburgh has eight appearances and two losses. Do the two more appearances make a difference in the eyes of the public? The Niners will put their unblemished record on the line on Sunday. If San Francisco wins, let the debate begin.

How will Joe Flacco handle the most defining game of his career?

How will Joe Flacco handle the most defining game of his career?

5. Can Flacco be elite? If you ask any NFL fan who the elite QBs were this year, almost all of them would answer Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. Many would also include Big Ben and Eli Manning. Besides their incredible stats, what do these QBs all have in common? They all have won at least one Super Bowl. Super Bowls put QBs on another level unlike any other position. In addition to that, consistent performance in the playoffs is what great QBs are known for. Flacco has already got that checked off the list. He’s 8-4 in the playoffs and is the only QB in history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. All he needs now is that Super Bowl. If he wins, what else do we need to consider him elite? I say nothing.

Super Bowl XLVII set

Posted: January 21, 2013 in 2012-2013 Season, Super Bowl

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Here we are again. Another Super Bowl matchup is set. The Baltimore Ravens will play the San Francisco 49ers in the 47th Super Bowl. Baltimore will become only the 5th different team since 2001 to represent the AFC in the big game. The Niners are the 11th different team from the NFC in that same span. Overall, I am surprised this is the matchup. In the beginning of the regular season, I predicted the Texans and Packers. In the beginning of the postseason, I predicted the Pats and Niners. I knew Baltimore was a good team, but I had no idea that they could play at the level they are now. I even had my doubts about San Francisco. I’m done doubting either of these teams now. Both teams showed they were clearly the better team in their championship games and deserve to be here. The next two weeks will be ample time to analyze all the angles and story lines this great game has to offer. And yes, it has more to offer than two brothers in a Super Bowl. Much more.

In January 2012, we watched two thrilling championship games. One was decided in the final seconds of regulation while the other needed OT. The Pats escaped the Ravens and the Giants squeezed by the Niners. Those memories are still fresh now, but as time goes on we tend to forget the losers in the championship games. Remember who the Steelers and Packers beat to get to Super Bowl XLV? Or how about who the Saints and Colts beat before XLIV? If we are lucky enough to remember the Super Bowl loser after a few years, the conference championship losers are almost impossible to remember after enough time.

A year later and three teams who made it this far in 2012 are back. The one different team is the Atlanta Falcons, who (in a way) are replacing the champion New York Giants, thus guaranteeing we will have a new Super Bowl champ. For as different as these four teams’ seasons have been, they have a lot in common this weekend. Their toughest test this season will be Sunday and they all know that losing this game will mean being forgotten in a matter of 2-3 years. I could spend a lot of time talking about all the minute details of the game, like matchups, weather, home field advantage, playmakers, x-factors, etc. While I’ll still cover those briefly in my predictions, I feel that these games are more about what it would mean for each team if they could just win a couple more games.

NFL 49ers-logo291611px-Nfc_championship_logo-svgAtlanta_Falcons_logo

NFC Championship Game, San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) at Atlanta Falcons (14-3)

January 20 2013, 3:00 PM ET, FOX

A new era: From 2003 through 2010, the San Francisco 49ers suffered through an eight-year playoff drought. In this span, they had seasons ranging from sub-par to positively dreadful. By the end of 2010, they hadn’t won the NFC West for as long as they could remember and talk of a Super Bowl was laughable. It was finally enough when they fired Mike Singletary and hired Jim Harbaugh from Stanford. For a 6-win team in 2010, Harbaugh couldn’t have asked for a better first year. They cruised to the NFC West title and a spectacular 13-3 year. Their magical season ended at the hands of the Giants in the NFC Championship. That season didn’t look like a fluke then and it certainly doesn’t now, because here are the 49ers right back where they were last year. The Giants are out and the Falcons are in. Alex Smith is out and Colin Kaepernick is in. Could Kaepernick be the QB the Niners have been longing for? San Francisco has a golden opportunity to take it a step further this year and continue what looks to be the start of a new and exciting era for the San Francisco 49ers.

Super Bowl victories change the way we look at QBs.

Super Bowl victories change the way we look at QBs.

First Super Bowl? Out of the 32 NFL teams that exist now, only a little more than half (18) have won Super Bowls. Atlanta is one of those 14 teams remaining who are without the ultimate prize. Where they find themselves now is the closest they have been to winning a Super Bowl since 2004, when they lost to the Eagles in the conference championship. Since then, Atlanta has become infamous for its impressive regular seasons but lack of playoff success. Last Sunday, they finally got over that hump but a loss to San Francisco would simply become the “fourth playoff loss in five games.” They would return to that same team we’ve known; the team who can’t get it done. A lot of pressure hangs on Matt Ryan, a quarterback who knows how to win and put up great stats, but whose lack of playoff production has prevented him from being considered one of the NFL’s elite QBs. A win this Sunday would mean new hope for a hurting franchise, one that has seen its playoff competition use Atlanta as a path to the Super Bowl.

Prediction: While I don’t expect Atlanta to play like they did in the second half against Seattle, I still feel the San Francisco is too hot to stop. You can point to the defense, Kaepernick, Harbaugh, or whoever, but it’s the combination of San Francisco’s threats that will stop the Atlanta Falcons. If Atlanta wants to stop San Fran, they absolutely cannot turn the ball over and need to find a way to stop Kaepernick from running wild. I don’t see Kaepernick having as good a game as he did against Green Bay, but surely a good enough performance to win. I predict he passes for over 200 and runs for over 70 as San Francisco pulls away late. 49ers win, 34-24

Baltimore_Ravens_Logo NFL_AFC-Championship-logonew-england-patriots-logo

AFC Championship Game, Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4)

January 20 2013, 6:30 PM ET, CBS

Unfinished business: Less than a minute remaining, Baltimore was just a touchdown away from taking the lead over New England and sealing their first Super Bowl birth in a decade. The next 30 seconds went as bad as any Ravens’ fan could have imagined. A Lee Evans drop for the win was bad enough. For a second it looked like they had knocked off the Pats, but then the ball hit the turf in the next second. But hope was not lost, not by a long shot. Billy Cundiff was sent out to kick a 32-yard field goal, not much more than a chip shot, to send the game to overtime. The nightmare continued as Cundiff shanked the kick wide left and sent New England to the Super Bowl. Here we are, a year later, and the Ravens have earned a second chance. The same team, the same quarterback, and the same coach all stand in their way. Cundiff and Evans are no longer a part of the Ravens. Ray Lewis has announced his retirement after the season. Baltimore couldn’t have asked for a better situation to be in. They can only hope that their nightmare from last year doesn’t pick up where it left off.

Tom Brady could join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only QBs with four Super Bowls.

Tom Brady could join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only QBs with four Super Bowls.

Building on the legacy: New England had its share of heartbreak last year, losing its second Super Bowl in five years, both to the Giants. But nobody will think of New England as the team needing that “special” win. This is a team that has been to the playoffs seven times in the 2000s and three times in the 2010s. New England has been the dominant force in the NFL, never mind the AFC. Those last two Super Bowl losses have tainted the Belichick-Brady reign slightly, but a Super Bowl win this year will prompt talks of the greatest coach-QB combo ever and best QB ever, among others. A loss to Baltimore on Sunday could mean the start of New England’s dominance slipping away, making way for rising NFL powers. Whatever happens Sunday, the effect on New England will be significant.

Prediction: As well as the Ravens played at Denver and as well as they defend against Brady, I have to go with New England in this one. Belichick and Brady are just so good in these championship games and as close as this one might be, I find it hard to imagine the Ravens coming out on top. Baltimore will have to pressure Brady effectively to throw him off rhythm. Even with Gronk out, I see Brady finding enough weapons to exploit the Ravens’ secondary. I’m looking forward to another classic as Brady finds another way to escape to the Super Bowl. Patriots win, 24-21

Super-Bowl-XLVII-011

Four teams left and four possible Super Bowl matchups. We’ve seen some great Super Bowls recently, but scattered among them has also been some snoozers. What is the matchup that will have us on the edge of our seat and which one will have us wishing for the commercials to come back? Ok, maybe none of these scenarios will be quite that bad, but some are clearly better than others:

Brady and Kaepernick know how to please a crowd.

Brady and Kaepernick know how to please a crowd.

Patriots vs. 49ers: This is the game we all want to see. It’s the game that will get the best ratings. Why? It features arguably the two best teams remaining, both of which were as close to Super Bowl XLVI as a team can get before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion. We would be treated to two offenses who love to put up big numbers. There would be playmakers all over the field in this game and it would most likely be the closest spread of any other matchup. Both teams not only have long histories, but rich histories with eight Super Bowls between them. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will get a chance to add to their legacy and win their first Super Bowl since spygate. Colin Kaepernick would get a chance to do what Alex Smith never could and undoubtedly win over the rest of the Niners’ fans who believe Smith should be starting. And let’s not forget the possible start of a great NFL coaching career for Jim Harbaugh, who delivered two NFC West titles to a previously abysmal team. Despite seeing these two teams already play, I would be thrilled to see them play again and I don’t think I’m alone. We all love underdogs but let’s not lie to ourselves, we all want to see these two powerhouses go head-to-head. Grade: A

Ravens vs. 49ers: Last year, we were a couple conference championship wins away from getting a sibling coaching matchup. We are that close again this year with John Harbaugh leading Baltimore in his 5th year and Jim Harbaugh in his sophomore year with the Niners. It could the Harbaugh brothers in what would be called either the Harbaugh Bowl or “Harbowl”. Which brother will prevail? It’s a fun concept for awhile, but the matchup between the players is what truly matters. After beating Green Bay and Atlanta, Colin Kaepernick would face his toughest test yet against Baltimore’s defense. Can the Niners stop Joe Flacco’s lethal long ball? San Francisco would be favored, but who knows what the Ravens are capable of after knocking out the top two seeds in the AFC. This wouldn’t be the best matchup we could get, but I wouldn’t complain either. Grade: B

In his final year, Ray Lewis is two wins away from the best ending a player can ask for.

In his final year, Ray Lewis is two wins away from the best ending a player can ask for.

Ravens vs. Falcons: In what some are calling the “Retirement Bowl,” we would see two players, Ray Lewis and Tony Gonzalez, trying to end their careers in the best way possible. Lewis will go down as one of the best defenders ever as well as an outspoken leader. Most of the headlines will be focused on his story and the chance to complete last year’s unfinished business. Despite how it ends, Tony Gonzalez has earned a place in the Hall of Fame and will be considered one of the greatest tight ends to play the game. He just won his first ever playoff game last Sunday and what a story it would be if he could go 3-0 in his playoff career. As far as the game goes, the spread would be very close and it would be the season’s first meeting between the two. However, these are still the two underdogs and the quality of play would be less than the best scenario, relatively speaking. In the grand scheme of things, this would be a good game that I would be happy to watch. Grade: B-

Patriots vs. Falcons: Out of all the four scenarios, this matchup would be the biggest David vs. Goliath game. Despite Atlanta being the top-seeded NFC team, they would be fairly heavy underdogs against a team who is known for its recent Super Bowl appearances. Sometimes mismatches have given us some classic Super Bowl games (III, XLII), but more often than not they have come up short (XXI, XXX, XLII). Outside of New England and Atlanta fans, very few people will be rooting for this game. All we would hear for the next two weeks is “How can Atlanta stun New England?” or “Is there anything the Falcons can do to stop Tom Brady and all his weapons?” Of course there is always a chance that any game can be close, but the chances are lowest in this matchup. Grade: C

389px-NFL_playoffs_logo_new.svg

After a rather underwhelming weekend of opening-round playoff games, the NFL playoffs redeemed itself with the highest scoring playoff weekend in history. We saw some eye-opening individual performances, some from players we knew and some from names we’ve never heard of. The field was cut in half once more and just like that, we are down to just four teams. Three games remain and the stakes are higher than ever; two conference championships and the Super Bowl. All three games lived up to the hype last year. Will we be treated to another thrilling round this weekend? Last weekend’s divisional round is surely a tough act to follow.

With 5 TDs and no picks, Joe Flacco leads all playoff quarterbacks.

With 5 TDs and no picks, Joe Flacco leads all playoff quarterbacks.

BAL vs. DEN: By the end of this electrifying game, I was absolutely confident that it would end up being the weekend’s best. I had no idea what kind of competition it had coming its way. Having said that, I am still sure this game was the best of the weekend and perhaps the entire year. I could spend an entire blog post talking about this game and all of its different angles. I could talk about Denver’s hot start, Baltimore’s hotter start, Trindon Holliday’s two special teams touchdowns, Joe Flacco’s magnificent passes, Denver’s horrible pass coverage, the lack of both defenses in regulation, the strength of both defenses in overtime, the refs’ questionable calls, John Fox’s questionable coaching decisions, what this means for Baltimore, what this means for Denver, or even what this means for Tim Tebow. There is just too much to cover in this game. I will say, however, that Baltimore did what very few thought it could, including me. They pulled off a legitimate upset. Even as the ball was leaving Justin Tucker’s foot, I still didn’t truly believe Baltimore could pull it off. They made me quite nervous for my pick in the AFC Championship game.

Score: 38-35 Baltimore

GB vs. SF: For a large portion of this game, it looked like we would be in for another late thriller. Green Bay and San Francisco were trading scores back and forth and no team had a two-score lead until the 4th quarter. San Francisco simply took over and made it clear that the better team won. The story of this game is about one guy: Colin Kaepernick. He made sure everyone knew that he was the right choice at the QB position and he did it as much with his arm as he did with his legs. He outplayed Aaron Rodgers in the air and outplayed every playoff running back with 181 rushing yards. This was by far his best performance of the year. He is a true threat to all defenses and I would not be surprised if he carried the Niners all the way to a Super Bowl.

Score: 45-31 San Francisco

The weight of Atlanta's Super Bowl hopes rest on the shoulders of Matt Ryan.

The weight of Atlanta’s Super Bowl hopes rest on the shoulders of Matt Ryan.

SEA vs. ATL: All eyes were on the Falcons to see if they could win their first playoff game in years. Leading 27-7 late in the third, it looked like they were a changed team. These were the Falcons that could take it all the way. But one quarter later, the game had taken a 180 degree turn. Atlanta was now down one with 31 seconds left. I wouldn’t blame Falcons fans for thinking their team was cursed. But despite a 4th quarter pick and zero 4th quarter touchdowns, Matt Ryan knew he had one more shot. After two long complete passes, Ryan had taken the Falcons into field goal range. Again on the brink of a playoff win, Atlanta did not blink this time. It was ugly, but Ryan and the Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship despite an incredible comeback by Russell Wilson and Seattle. So what does this mean going forward for the Falcons? We at least know that they’ll be at home and that is huge for them. But my honest feeling is that they’ll need one heck of a game to knock out the 49ers on any field. Maybe all they needed was that one playoff win. Who knows? We will find out this Sunday.

Score: 30-28 Atlanta

TEX vs. NE: Perhaps the least exciting of all four games, this game went how most expected it would: a multiple score Patriots win in which the Pats put up a lot of points. But there are still plenty of story lines from this game that pertain to the future of both teams. How will the Texans get better? Perhaps they need to reevaluate the QB position and determine if Matt Schaub is the guy who can take them all the way. What do the injuries to Gronk and Woodhead mean? Will they make the difference against a defense that Tom Brady has struggled against? This AFC Championship could be a lot closer than we would have imagined. Also, who is this Shane Vereen guy? Leave it up to New England to give us new names to talk about.

Score: 41-28 New England

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Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

January 13 2013, 1:00 PM ET, FOX

After thwarting RG3 and the Redskins last week, the Seahawks travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. This will be the first meeting between these two and it should be an interesting one. On one side you’ve got the pass-heavy Falcons who can strike with big plays when the defense is off-guard. Then you’ve got the Seahawks, known for their strong defense and effective running game. Two very different teams but only one will advance to the NFC Championship.

After three failed attempts, will Matt Ryan finally get his first playoff win?

After three failed attempts, will Matt Ryan finally get his first playoff win?

Playoff hump: The big story heading into this one will be the Falcons’ history of playoff losses. Atlanta has had excellent regular seasons in the past few years. They have reached the postseason in three of the past four seasons with 10+ win seasons. But in those three seasons they have lost in their first playoff game. That’s the story. Will it continue this weekend? Atlanta is coming off one of the best regular seasons they have had in a decade, but it will all be for naught if they lose on Sunday.

Prediction: With Seattle on a hot streak and Atlanta trying to get over the hump, the odds seem surprisingly stacked against the top seeded Falcons. Call me crazy, but I like the Falcons to shock in this one. Matt Ryan and his offense will figure out the tough Seattle defense and win with some huge passing plays. Falcons win, 24-21

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Houston Texans (12-4) at New England Patriots (12-4)

January 13 2013, 4:30 PM ET, CBS

Two 12-win teams but one is the clear favorite. New England is favored by nine points at home. These teams met in week 14 but it was hardly the matchup we expected. New England dominated in a 42-14 rout. After Denver’s loss Saturday, New England is now the highest seed in the AFC. How can Houston stop the Pats’ incredible offense?

Don't overlook Stevan Ridley, one of the most underrated backs in the league.

Don’t overlook Stevan Ridley, one of the most underrated backs in the league.

Offensive powerIf you ask me, there is no question who had the best offense this season. Down the stretch, New England simply scored at will, putting up scores like 45, 37, 59, 49, 42, and 34. They had a great offense last year as well, but this time they come with a double threat. This is no longer an offense relying solely on its passing game. Their running game, led by Stevan Ridley, ranks in the top 10 of the NFL. Houston better figure out a way to make New England one-dimensional or it will be another high-scoring affair for New England.

PredictionAt the beginning of the postseason, I picked New England to take it all the way. There is no reason for me to stop now. I will say, however, that Denver was in the same position yesterday against Baltimore and lost. New England has the coaching and talent to avoid a disaster like Denver’s and I like them to win in a big way. Patriots win, 31-17

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Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

January 12 2013, 4:30 PM ET, CBS

The second round of the playoffs opens in Denver, where Baltimore will try to clinch their second straight AFC Championship birth. They have a tough task ahead of them against the Broncos, a team that hasn’t lost since early October. To make matters tougher, Baltimore will have to beat the Broncos in Mile High, something that hasn’t been done since week 3.

Rematch: This playoff matchup will be these teams’ second meeting in about a month. Their first game in week 15 ended in a 34-17 Denver victory, a score that didn’t indicate how bad it actually was. Denver led 31-3 at the end of the 3rd via a couple rushing touchdowns and a defensive TD, among others. Perhaps the scariest part of this game was that Peyton Manning did not have a great day. He had a good day, throwing for 1 TD and no picks but his passer rating fell below 100 for just the sixth time all season. It is crazy to imagine what a great Peyton Manning might do in his own stadium. The Ravens better have a good defensive game plan or it’s going to be another long day.

Von Miller has been the leader of a great Denver defense.

Von Miller has been the leader of a great Denver defense.

Defense prevails: With Peyton Manning grabbing all the headlines, it might be easy to overlook Denver’s amazing defense. They have one of the best defenses in the NFL, ranking 3rd in both passing and rushing yards allowed (199.6, 91.1). They have allowed over 24 points only three times all season. Interestingly enough, those three games were the only three losses on Denver’s schedule. If Baltimore’s offense needs a guideline, they might want to aim around the 24-27 area. But based on the way Denver has been playing late, it may need to be even higher. Denver has scored over 30 points in their last three games and one of those games was against Baltimore.

Prediction: The odds are stacked pretty high against Baltimore in this one. To even have a shot, it looks like they’ll need to put up some big points like they did in their 33-14 victory over the Giants in week 16. Denver just needs to play the game they’ve been playing all season and they’ll advance to the AFC Championship. I like Denver in this one, but in a closer game than many may expect. Baltimore’s defense will play well early but once Peyton gets going, it will be almost impossible to slow him down. Ray Lewis’ last game ends in a loss to Denver. Broncos win, 27-20

 

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Green Bay Packers (11-5) at San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)

January 12 2013, 8:00 PM ET, FOX

In perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, the 49ers host the Packers in another rematch. These teams met back in week 1, but both teams have changed since then. Green Bay is arguably a much better team than they were in the opening weeks and San Francisco has a new QB altogether. It’s hard to believe one of these teams will be gone this early but that is a great example of the cruelty of the NFL playoffs.

Road woesAs good as Green Bay has been at home this season, their road play has been pretty bad at times. Their most recent four road games have featured some shaky performances. Their loss at Giants Stadium was the worst of them, giving up over 30 points in a 38-10 rout. They lost their most recent road game at Minnesota in a close game, but a loss nonetheless. The other two games were wins, but only by one-score margins to non-playoff teams. I’m not saying Green Bay is horrible on the road, because they’re not, but my point is that they are a different team without Lambeau around them. To knock out San Francisco, they’ll need a strong road performance.

Can Colin Kaepernick send the Packers packing?

Can Colin Kaepernick send the Packers packing?

Stopping Kaepernick: The switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick was a gutsy one but one that Jim Harbaugh is sticking with. At this point in the season, we can now properly compare the two QBs. Both QBs have thrown the exact same number of passes (218). Out of these 218 attempts, Smith has been more accurate, thrown more TDs, and has a higher passer rating. So why Kaepernick? It’s simple. Defenses must prepare for his ability to run and pass. Kaepernick is accurate enough passing that he is a legitimate threat regardless of what he decides to do with the ball. He’s still young, but he may be the missing factor the 49ers have been looking for on offense. To stop him, Green Bay will have to contain his running ability. In five of his last six games, Kaepernick has rushed for an average of four or more yards per run. These four yards are enough to be a factor in Saturday’s game if he can get going.

PredictionBoth of these teams have the ability to be great and this may be the most exciting playoff game this postseason. Rodgers will face one of the toughest defenses in the league and will need his O-line to be great. This is why I am going with the 49ers. Green Bay’s offensive line has been anything but great this season and Rodgers will feel the pressure big time. With Rodgers under duress and a poor running game, the Packers will have a difficult time moving the ball like they did last week. San Francisco will get their second consecutive shot at a Super Bowl birth as they advance to the NFC Championship. 49ers win, 21-17