I went out on a limb last week, picking the underdog in all cases. Technically Atlanta was not an underdog, but they might as well have been. I managed to get 50% of the results right.
The reality is I could have gone 0-4. If it hadn’t been for last second great plays and screw ups, I would have.
What can we learn from last week? One thing we can garner is that if a team keeps the game close until the end, they have a shot.
Both Atlanta and Baltimore looked done. However, two Atlanta “Matts” and Tony Gonzalez saved the Falcons in the end. In addition, Broncos mistakes and Ravens heroics gained Baltimore a win in two overtimes.
This prognostication business is not an exact science. This is because in the game of football you are dealing with human glory and foibles.
Who could have guessed streaky Joe Flacco would have hit on a Hail Mary? Would any of us have bet that Peyton Manning would throw a costly interception in the final minutes that would result in the Ravens moving on?
As I view this week’s conference championship games, I am tempted to walk away. I could go either way. However, I will make an attempt here.
I keep hearing the term “storylines” from the sports pundits. They say that there are a lot of them. One is that the Ravens are feeding on the emotion of this being the last run for linebacker Ray Lewis.
However, there are other just as glaring stories out there. Tom Brady wants to match the four Super Bowl victories of his hero Joe Montana, for instance.
(The 49ers connection in these playoffs blow my mind by the way. In addition to the aformentioned Montana link, there is the desire of Adrian Rogers and Colin Kaepernick both wanting to play for San Francisco as kids.)
Furthermore, Atlanta is looking to win its first Super Bowl. Yesterday I read an article in Sports Illustrated written by an Atlanta-based writer concerning the thrills and trials of being a Falcons fan over the years.
He mentioned that his experience was nothing special, though. The author noted that there were fans in places like Chicago (Cubs) with similar youths.
One interesting tidbit I learned from reading his piece is once again related to the 49ers. I have no idea if the the rivalry still continues, but apparently Atlanta and San Francisco used to be archenemies.
Does all this karma about San Francisco make them a team of destiny? I doubt it. Baltimore, Atlanta and New England could all make that claim for the reasons I stated above.
One interesting issue I see in these conference championships is the types of quarterbacks left standing.
Like Seattle, San Francisco adapted their offense over time to the pistol used by the Redskins with Robert Griffin III. Thus, last week we had their quarterback running amok and setting an all-time record for rushing in an NFL game.
Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan are all drop back passers. What does this tell us about the type of offense that is most effective in the NFL?
Right now Mike Nolan, the Atlanta defensive coordinator, is probably looking at old film of Darrel Royal’s Texas Longhorns. Defensive coaches will spend all winter and spring trying to figure out how to stop what was once a college offense. Although they have something of an idea (assign a man to each potential ball carrier says Bill Parcells) they’re players don’t seem to be able to change from the pro style of defense.
Within there is this nagging suspicion that at least one of these games will include some play where the miraculous happens. I took a look at “The Immaculate Reception” on YouTube yesterday and read about it on Wikipedia.
This kind of extraordinary event could very well decide a close game. Define “close game” I tell myself. In modern football, 20 point leads aren’t safe anymore, which was attested to by the Seahawks comeback last week.
Then there is the “don’t touch me” aspect of the NFL in 2013. In this day and age of wide-open offenses and wimpy officiating, Jack Tatum would have been called for a personal foul on the hit he gave “Frenchy” Fuqua in the Steelers-Raiders match in 1972. It would have been declined, however, as Franco Harris scooped the ball up and ran into legend.
In any event, my gut is telling me there is going to be an Immaculate something in one of these games.
So, with all these issues on the table, as one popular commercial states,”Here we go!”:
NFC San Francisco at Atlanta
My vague memories of conference championships past (usually with the Washington Redskins playing) conjure up images of iron curtain defenses and brutal hitting. If any team left in this weekend’s foursome can produce that kind of game, it is the 49ers. If one of my teams were up against them, I would be afraid. Very afraid.
Atlanta on the other hand has a lot of dangerous weapons. Every time I watch them Tony Gonzalez straddles the end line of the end zone and catches a pass from Matt Ryan for a touchdown.
Combined with their defense and the fact that I think they want to avenge last year’s loss in the same game, I have to go with San Fran. Now that Atlanta has the “can’t win a playoff game” monkey off their back, I don’t think they’ll have the same intensity.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 42 Atlanta 28
AFC Baltimore at New England
When I think of this game, the image that pops up in front of me is Tom Brady. He is no doubt the best QB in the game.
He and Joe Flacco have one thing in common. They can both throw the deep ball.
The once maligned Bill Belichik is now one of the greatest coaches ever. One of the little things that he does every off season is bring on someone else’s malcontent.
This year’s bad boy is cornerback Aqib Talib. He could play the way Champ Bailey was supposed to for the Broncos last week and negate the deep ball.
The Ravens defense is overrated. They are living on their past laurels.
However, if they have one leg up it is that their current defensive coordinator Dean Pees used to hold the same position for the Patriots (2004-2009). He might be able to give Balmer an edge since he knows Billy B and Tommy Brady’s tendencies.
I am worried as a Baltimoron, however, that Ray Lewis and fellow future Hall of Famer Ed Reed have lost not just a step, but a leap. Ray looked slow against the Broncos and Reed disappeared.
Having said all this, there is no one better than the Ravens to match up with the Patriots. Baltimore players aren’t intimidated by the Yankees from NE, probably because they have had the same experience I have had: being lost in the middle of the night driving in downtown Baltimore and ending up on Light Street. (Think HBO’s “The Wire”). Nothing will scare you after that.
Also in the Ravens’ minds will be last season’s debacle ending in the same matchup. Lee Evans drop in the end zone and Billy Cundiff’s botched field goal cost them a shot against the New York Football Giants in the Super Bowl.
Finally, the Ravens went into New England two years ago and plowed the Patriots in the playoffs. They can do it again, but I don’t think it will be a blowout.
It’ll be more like the game in New England won by a point by Balmer earlier this season. In a fitting result, the Ravens will gain a razor’s edge win in Gillette stadium. Most likely, there will be due to some divine intervention.
Prediction: Ravens 37 Patriots 34
Yes. We’ll have ourselves a Super Har-bowl!