NFL: Conference Championships Sunday Playbook

FLEXING HIS MUSCLE: Colin Kaepernick put on an impressive quarterbacking clinic last week against the Packers and looks to do the same in Atlanta

BY THOMAS DRANCE

Well I took my lumps last week, going two for four in my NFL postseason picks after nailing the wild card round perfectly. I suppose it wasn’t so bad, the two games I got wrong were one score contests that required unlikely last minute comebacks from the winning team, but still, being wrong is the worst.

I was certain, nearly all year, that the Falcons were a soft-dome team fated for a round two exit at the hands of a club with a stellar running game and a decent defense. The Seahawks ultimately couldn’t capitalize on their natural advantages until too late in the game, and were dinged by some tough fumble luck to boot. I’m still bearish on the Falcons chances, but not because Matt Ryan is a “choker” or anything stupid like that, but because I don’t buy that their team can handle good clubs at the line of scrimmage (on either side of the ball) and I think it’ll cost them. It didn’t last week thanks to Matt Ryan’s brilliance and their home-field advantage, but I think the dirty birds will struggle against the 49ers this weekend.

As for the Ravens, man, I’d left them for dead against the Broncos. But that game wasn’t as close as the score might have indicated, as the Broncos needed two long kick return touchdowns to stay in it and were generally flayed by the Baltimore passing attack (what?) especially on the game-tying touchdown late in the game. Just atrocious coverage from a Broncos secondary that had been serviceable or better all season long. The Ravens are getting some key contributions from some very unlikely defensive players and may prove to be a tougher opponent for the Patriots than the Texans were. I’m still not buying this Joe Flacco nonsense though, but boy oh boy did he answer some of his critics with his performance last weekend.

San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons (+3.5, 48)
The Falcons managed to do several things I didn’t think they could manage in last weeks victory over the Seahawks. First of all they managed to contain Marshawn Lynch, and in doing so forced him to give-up the ball multiple times. They also managed to get their running game back on track against a pretty competent (certainly above-average) run defense. That bodes well for a team that struggled to run and stop the run during the regular season (even while amassing a ridiculous win/loss record).

Of course running on the Seahawks, who were the 12th best rushing defense in the NFL by Football Outsiders efficiency rankings, and running on the 49ers, who were the second best rushing defense behind only the Chicago Bears, are two very different things indeed. Stopping the run against the 49ers might prove to be a more difficult task as well, because though the Seahawks were the better rushing team by Football Outsiders efficiency rankings, they played the majority of their season without the human gazelle known as Colin Kapernick. And in case you missed it last weekend Colin Kapernick can run:

Frank Gore isn’t too bad himself either, and the 49ers had the best offensive line to run behind in the entire NFL this year too.

All of that said, it’ll come down to whether or not the 49ers can contain the Falcons receivers and clamp down on the big-play ability of Atlanta’s dome team. The Seahawks actually did a reasonably good job in that area a week ago and still lost, and the 49ers are arguably not quite as good in the secondary as the Seahawks were this past season, so this outcome is far from certain. If the 49ers can get an early lead, control the clock and gas the Falcons defense with their overwhelming team speed this Sunday – I really like their chances. But count on Atlanta to keep it close and to make some key plays. I’ll take the 49ers to win in a squeaker.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (-8.5, 51)
The Ravens’ banged up secondary, and banged up offensive line has held up extraordinarily well (to my astonishment, frankly) throughout this postseason so far. Their secondary will be tested in a big way against the best offense in football this Sunday, their offensive line however might not be. The Patriots front seven isn’t particularly formidable when it comes to rushing the passer, and Flacco – for all his lack of arm-strength – will make some plays if the Patriots can’t make him sweat a bit. I really don’t think they’ll have much success pressuring the quarterback this weekend, which is the major reason I give the Falcons a shot in this game.

Ultimately, however, this Patriots offense is just too lethal and the Ravens are just too banged up to contain them. If the weather is bad expect Stevan Ridley to get a lot of touches (the Ravens run defense is very good, but they looked unduly dominant thanks to the early injury to Broncos featured back Knowshawn Moreno) and if it’s good, well the Patriots have a lot of options. The injury to Gronkowski hurts, but Aaron Hernandez isn’t the sort of weapon to sniff at, and of course the Patriots still have Wes Welker who thoroughly destroyed the Texans celebrated secondary a week ago.

The Ravens earned some respect last week, no doubt about it, but I think the Patriots are going to win by a couple of scores this weekend. Tom Brady and company are just too good for the Ravens, even if Baltimore’s club is beginning to accrue a certain “team of destiny” aura…