This week turns out to be one of those inevitable confrontations between what your heart wants to see happen and what your head tells you to be prepared for.
I want the Falcons and the Ravens in the Super Bowl, but I expect the Patriots and 49ers to be playing on.
49ers at Falcons – Atlanta’s a good, solid team and deserves their shot at this one, despite their best efforts to choke yet another playoff game away. One lesson gleaned from last week’s NFC contests is that San Francisco’s defense is fast and strong enough to win this one without a major boost from the rookie legend of Colin Kaepernick.
As long as he doesn’t make any typical away-game-indoor-noise game management mistakes, his skill at getting around the corner and piling up yardage downfield should be plenty. An indoor game on clean carpet helps the team best built for speed. In this case it’s as good for the visitors as for the homers.
If Atlanta cannot contain the San Francisco offense any better than they did the Seattle offense last weekend, then it sure won’t come down to a kicker deciding the outcome. Atlanta must control the ball and the clock, and not have critical penalties. That’s not really their identity as a team.
San Francisco just has too strong a defense for Atlanta’s spotty running game to have much chance to get going. So the Falcons’ reliance on out routes to Roddy White or hash mark routes to Tony Gonzales will be too little a threat to make the game highly competitive.
It bums me out a bit, but that’s the way it looks.
Ravens at Patriots – This could very well come down to the same situation as last year, with the potential game-winning touchdown pass being knocked from the hands of the receiver in the end zone, followed by a missed field goal that could have tied it.
You recall who won, of course, because New England seems to have this maddening ability to keep all the history on its side, built on the broad shoulders of a quarterback in Tom Brady who has the touch of a surgeon and the guts of a commodity broker in the Chicago exchange pit.
They always seem to find the missing piece on offense when they need it. Wes Welker could be the difference, or the inevitable Shane Vereen, of course. (Who’d you say?) Then there are those defensive moves they keep making week after week that add up to solutions by Week 14, post-season berths by Week 17, and playoff runs in January.
Certainly many experts don’t give Baltimore much chance of keeping the Patriots from reaching their sixth Super Bowl since their legendary win in 2000 over Kurt Warner’s Rams.
Keep in mind that, except for two amazing plays by the New York Giants – the “Velcro Helmet” catch by David Tyree and Eli Manning’ s perfect pass to Mario Manningham (and his just-as-perfect catch) on a sideline route – the Patriots would be looking for gaudy ring space on their other hand now.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but New England finished the year with the top rated offense, first in yards gained and, more importantly, in points scored. They led the league in turnover margin at plus-25. Brady’s post season winning percentage of .739 now is better than that of Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman. He’s 11-2 in home playoff games, including a perfect 4-0 in AFC title games in Foxboro.
Like I said, they seem to own this slice of history.
If you play a strong and tight man defense against Brady, he speeds things up and wears you down. If you play zone instead, he takes his time and picks you apart. If the defense can handle the zone coverage, which should be a bit easier in the absence of Rob Gronkowski, and can get a decent pass rush from the front four (plus occasional strategic blitzer), you’ve got a formula for success.
So far Baltimore’s defensive execution has been inspired, and you can’t help but believe they’ve got as good as chance as ever. Offensively, the Ravens’ late season changes have been highly successful, transforming a predictable and sputtering offense into a much more dangerous attack.
A slightly reworked offensive line has improved the running game substantially and that has given Joe Flacco more time and options down the field, and he’s been taking advantage of some of them and gotten lucky on a few more (like last week’s 70-yard score from a flailing duck of a pass that should never have made it but for Denver’s defensive ineptitude on the play).
For all of New England’s defensive improvement the second half of the season, the unit still needing to prove itself is the secondary, particularly against the deep ball.
Baltimore won the first round earlier this year at their home field. Now it’s time for the rematch and, while I can’t imagine it will be anything but close again, I just have to give the nod to New England and muffle the disappointment screaming from my heart.