The Glass Eye: NFL Conference Championships Preview
We’ll get to the NFL in a minute, but first…HOCKEY IS BACK! The season starts this Saturday and as such I do not have the time to preview this week, but I’ll be back with an Eastern Conference preview next week that focuses primarily on the Pens and Flyers
This week, though, let’s take a look back at an incredible weekend of NFL football. Two games had unbelievable finishes, while two games were dominated by high-powered offenses. The only game that really went the way I expected was the Pats’ methodical demolition of the Texans. New England appears to be Super Bowl-bound, but then I underestimated the Ravens last week as well…and as I so often say, anything is possible in the NFL playoffs.
Despite a relatively shaky performance all around, Denver appeared to have victory in hand Saturday – the Ravens were down seven, they had 30 seconds, no timeouts, and 70 yards to gain. Then, I saw the single worst defensive play I can remember – Denver’s safety made about three critical errors on the same play and gave up a 70-yard TD! Baltimore finally won in double OT after an ill-advised Manning interception, but the 70 yard pass TD was really the play of the game.
Baltimore has had strong special teams all season, but they gave up two return TDs and it almost cost them the game. Their defense played as it has most of the year – average to slightly above, certainly they did not dominate the Broncos in any way. The real difference for the Ravens this week was much-maligned Joe Flacco, who torched the Denver secondary all game with deep throws and finished with 331 yards and 3 TDs. Baltimore FINALLY played to their strengths – they gave Ray Rice 30 carries, then went deep.
I thought that game couldn’t be topped, but the Seattle-Atlanta might have been even better because it involved a HUGE comeback and two lead changes in the last minute of the game. Atlanta barely held on, and let’s give them credit for getting the winning score after blowing a 20-point lead…but I don’t think we really learned all that much in this game. Had their kicker missed that field goal, we’d be discussing these Falcons as all-time chokers, and I don’t let them off the hook for blowing that big lead. They gave up almost 500 yards on defense at a whopping 7.4 yards per play! The only bright spot was their surprising success rushing the ball, which will be critical for Atlanta again this week.
As for the 49ers, I thought that they would win but I was stunned by how Kaepernick dominated the game. After an early pick-six, SF’s offense turned up the heat and even Aaron Rodgers could not keep up – the 9ers rushed for 323 yards with Kaepernick recording a record 181 himself! On to the predictions:
SF at ATLANTA
I think this game comes down to two factors: can Atlanta run the ball even somewhat effectively, and can Kaepernick keep avoiding turnovers? The Falcons won last week in large part because they were able to run the ball against Seattle. The 9ers have been stout against the run all season, much more so than the Seahawks, and I think it’s far more likely that they can make Atlanta pass the ball most of the game. If Atlanta IS able to run, however, they should open up some real opportunities for their aerial attack.
As for Kaepernick, we all keep waiting for him to show his inexperience – but at this point, I think that’s unlikely. If throwing a pick-six in the first two minutes last weekend didn’t rattle him (and it clearly didn’t), it’s hard to imagine what will – aside from sustained pocket pressure. Unfortunately, Atlanta does not pressure the QB effectively whatsoever, and they struggle against the run as well.
San Francisco has been installed as a 4-5 point favorite, and it’s hard to quibble with that. Atlanta was able to exploit Seattle’s run defense, but San Francisco is far less apt to give up rushing yards. I think Atlanta will work hard to limit WR Michael Crabtree, but that should allow the 9ers to (finally) unleash TE Vernon Davis. I think this should be a fairly close game, and Kaepernick won’t run for 100 yards again – but I think the 49ERS WIN BY SEVEN.
BALTIMORE AT NEW ENGLAND
For all of New England’s success, Baltimore has given them fits since 2010. The teams have split 2-2 in that time frame, and the last three games have been decided by three points or less, including a 31-30 Baltimore win this season. Interestingly, Joe Flacco has outplayed Tom Brady in each of those games - Belichick really hasn’t been able to stop the Ravens’ passing attack in that time. Baltimore is also coming off a VERY impressive performance in Denver, winning despite allowing TWO kick-return TDs. Given all these facts, one might reasonably expect the game’s line to be 3-5 points in New England’s favor – but the line opened at NINE, which really surprises me.
New England can make that line look smart by forcing Flacco to throw to his left – CBS did a great job last weekend illustrating Flacco’s relative struggles when he cannot throw to the right side of the field. Pressure always helps too of course, but New England isn’t a great pressure defense. The Pats have forced at least one turnover in every single game this season, and I think to blow out the Ravens they will need to once again win the turnover battle. Finally, New England has run the ball very well most of the season, including last week, and if they can rush for 120+ yards again I think they should win easily.
Baltimore can keep the game close, or even win, if they can flip the turnover battle in their favor. New England’s defense is frankly quite mediocre when they don’t generate more than one turnover in a game – if Baltimore can take care of the ball, there’s no reason that they cannot score 25-35 points in this game. Baltimore also gets in trouble when they get ‘pass-wacky’ and forget about using Ray Rice, although given Rice’s success last week and against the Pats earlier this year I don’t think this is a huge concern. Finally, with Gronkowski out for the season the Ravens should do everything in their power to neutralize Wes Welker and make Brady find Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez more often. Welker is such a safety blanket for Brady, and the fact is that Hernandez is inferior to Gronkowski both as a blocker and a receiver.
I understand the respect for New England – their offense is brutally efficient – but I’m still not at all sold on their defense, and Flacco has shown he can play big in big games, especially against this team. I’ll say NEW ENGLAND BY THREE, but an upset is definitely possible – I’d say a Patriot blowout is less likely than a Raven win.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.