By Jeff Risdon
Last Week: 2-2, missing both Saturday games and nailing both Sunday games. I was 3-1 in Wild Card Weekend.
We’re down to four teams, with the winners this weekend advancing to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots:
This is a rematch of last year’s AFC championship gam that New England won because Baltimore couldn’t kick a gimmie field goal. The Ravens had done enough to win the game, including superlative play from enigmatic QB Joe Flacco. Coming off a week where he was clearly the better quarterback to Peyton Manning, Flacco now gets another shot at besting Tom Brady.
Don’t think he can’t pull it off. In their earlier meeting this season, Flacco once again torched the Patriots, going 28-for-39 for 385 yards and three touchdowns in the Ravens’ Week 3 victory. In the playoff game last year he put up 306 yards and two touchdowns, with one INT per game mixed in. He thrives against the Patriots in no small part because he is patient in holding the ball and letting downfield routes develop, while the Patriots primary coverage scheme is to bring safeties up and rely on the corners to handle the receivers down the field. Flacco has an outstanding deep arm and a keen sense of timing with Torrey Smith, who is markedly faster than any DB the Patriots can stick on him. Because Ray Rice holds those safeties as both a runner and a receiver, Flacco and Smith will get some opportunities to attack down the field. Commit that safety high, and Rice and the increasingly useful Bernard Pierce will find success in the run game.
Going a little deeper, look at the teams that have given the Patriots trouble the last couple of seasons. The 49ers, Cardinals, and these same Ravens have active and aggressive defensive fronts, strong inside linebacker play, and safeties that patrol the intermediate middle quite adeptly. Controlling the middle of the field is imperative to beating Tom Brady and their rhythmic passing attack. It will be incumbent upon the Ravens safeties, Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, to keep firm to their responsibilities. Both are eminently capable of making big plays, but both also tend to guess and get suckered. Both are also prone to “defenseless receiver” and blow-to-helmet penalties. They cannot give New England extra plays, and they cannot give up more than a couple of big plays.
Baltimore won the first game because they stayed aggressive in their defensive approach even when the Patriots had the ball late with a chance to win. They stayed in attack mode on offense with a lead as well. In order to best Belichick and Brady, the Ravens must once again play 60 full minutes of regular football. It’s okay to mix in the occasional trickeration on offense, but relenting on pressuring Brady is a death sentence.
I’m probably going to deeply regret this, but I think the Ravens go into Foxboro and pull it off. Flacco is playing great and so are his weapons. Lee Evans isn’t here to drop a potential game-winning pass. New kicker Justin Tucker is not going to miss any field goals from inside 55 yards, even if it’s unbearably cold. I like the ongoing narrative of winning for Ray Lewis and for the all-time great to go out a champion. New England could very well win this game 43-17, but I’m forecasting a close game where Baltimore’s superior special teams and more dynamic run game make the difference.
Baltimore 30, New England 28
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons:
The Falcons are the only team that wasn’t in this round a year ago, and that seems to be breeding far more skepticism about Atlanta than is merited. Even though they are the No. 1 seed and the hosts of this game, they are 3.5 point underdogs…and that number has gone up at most books this week.
I get the rationale. Atlanta has struggled with defending Cam Newton, and with similarly mobile Aaron Rodgers and even Josh Freeman. Colin Kaepernick is faster than any of those guys, and he gets to top speed faster as well. San Francisco has Frank Gore, an excellent inside/out runner to hammer and keep the LBs honest. Kaepernick’s emergence has breathed new life into Michael Crabtree as a dynamic receiving weapon. Atlanta has a talented secondary but they do have occasional communication and coordination gaffes. The San Francisco OL is as good as any, though Joe Staley’s right arm issue bears watching.
And that doesn’t even get to the strength of the 49ers, the defense. Navorro Bowman has usurped teammate Patrick Willis as the best inside 3-4 backer in the game, but Willis didn’t really slip. Their corners play with confidence and aggression, and their safeties are as fundamentally sound as any pairing in the league. Aldon Smith is a sack threat on every single snap, and they get solid contributions from the inside. If Justin Smith can go, it’s even stronger. Atlanta’s pass rush is still essentially just John Abraham, and he’s walking wounded.
It’s that last bit that really bothers me. I want to pick Atlanta to win. I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for the historical narrative with Tony Gonzalez. I would love to see the bold, dramatic trade maneuver to get Julio Jones get rewarded if only to encourage more of those types of deals (it worked for Washington too with RG3. Just sayin’…)
The crux is this: Kaepernick will fumble when hit and make mistakes when throwing under pressure, but if Abraham can’t beat Staley without drawing inside help, nobody else in the Atlanta front is going to hit or scare him. Babineaux, Biermann, and even the blitzing Weatherspoon and Dent are not enough to overcome not having a dynamic rushing presence. The way Abraham was limping around after the win over Seattle is indicative of the type of injury that isn’t going to heal rapidly.
That makes me buy into the alternate scenario of which I am a believer. This is the one where teams take steps in the playoffs from year to year. Some teams blow that out of the water, but it is so fitting here. Atlanta made it one round further than last year by winning last week. San Francisco does the same thing this week on the legs of Kaepernick and the strength of their defensive back eight.
San Francisco 32, Atlanta 27
I’ll be travelling to Mobile for the Senior Bowl this Sunday, so this week’s $.10 will be cut in half. Sorry, but it’s hard to write when driving for 6.5 hours. Look for my thoughts on the hiring of Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman, the strange saga of Manti Te’o, as well as thoughts on these games. If you have questions you would like me to ask any Senior Bowlers, Tweet them to me @JeffRisdon or send me an email at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com and I’ll do my best to get them answered.
San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots