2012 NFL Playoffs: Conference championship games
San Francisco 49ers (-3 1/2) at Atlanta Falcons: Last week, the Falcons finally got the proverbial monkey off their collective backs with their first playoff win in the five year tenure of QB Matt Ryan and head coach Mike Smith. Their reward? They must now face a very poised and hungry San Francisco 49ers team, fresh off hanging 45 points and nearly 600 yards total offense on the Green Bay Packers.
After throwing an early interception that was returned for a touchdown last week, Niners QB Colin Kaepernick recovered quite nicely by throwing for two touchdowns, running for another pair and accumulating 444 yards total offense (263 passing, 181 rushing). Before the postseason, it was pretty apparent that the physical tools were there for Kaepernick. However, what impressed me was how quickly he brushed off the early "pick six."
Ryan and Co. had a solid game offensively against Seattle last week, including RB Michael Turner rushing for nearly 100 yards. As a team, Atlanta accumulated 167 yards on the ground against a stingy Seahawks run defense. A similar effort would benefit them greatly, in that it would keep Kaepernick off the field. However, that will be a tall task as the 49ers defense allowed only 3.7 yards per carry, good for third in the NFL. Further hampering Atlanta is their top pass rusher, John Abraham, sat out the entire second half last week due to aggravating his ankle injury. He'll likely give it a go but how effective he'll be is anybody's guess. Add to the fact that the Falcons run defense allows nearly five yards per rush, it could be yet another offensive explosion for San Francisco.
San Francisco 35 Atlanta 24
Baltimore Ravens (+9) at New England Patriots: The last time I saw a Ravens team this focused and determined (not to mention having a few bounces going their way), Ray Lewis was a year removed from being charged with obstructing justice in a double murder investigation. It was also 12 years ago when Lewis, from day one of training camp of the 2000 season, willed his team to a Super Bowl championship with the Ravens displaying one of the more awesome displays of team defense ever seen over an entire season. Lewis announced just a few weeks ago that he will be retiring from the NFL after this his 17th season.
Despite playing on pure guts and guile with a torn triceps muscle, Lewis hasn't necessarily been the catalyst for the Ravens' recent resurgence. QB Joe Flacco has really stepped up his game after Baltimore fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with Jim Caldwell late in the regular season. What seemed like a move of desperation at the time has worked like charm as Flacco has averaged more than 300 yards passing per game over three of his four starts with Caldwell at the helm. One intangible is the Ravens aren't the least bit intimidated about the prospects going into Gillette Stadium. Despite the Pats being 10-2 all time in the postseason at Gillette, one of those losses was in the '09 postseason, a 33-14 thumping at the hands of Baltimore. Then in last season's AFC title game, the Ravens were a dropped touchdown pass away from going to the Super Bowl.
In this era of the salary cap in the NFL, it's stupefying the level of success the New England Patriots have had over the past 12 seasons. In that span, New England has missed the postseason only twice (including 2008 when QB Tom Brady threw only 11 passes before a season-ending knee injury), while making five trips to the Super Bowl, winning of three of them. And they've accomplished this incredible run of success with so many interchangeable offensive parts. Pro Bowl TE Rob Gronkowski and multi purpose back Danny Woodhead get hurt last week? No problem. Just plug in Aaron Hernandez (6 catches for 85 yards last week vs Houston) and Shane Vereen (124 all purpose yards and 2 TDs scored). Oh, and remember how the Patriots were going to start phasing out WR Wes Welker? 118 receptions and 1,354 yards in the regular season showed how committed they were to that plan. New England also let go of the player who led the squad in rushing each of the previous two seasons (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) in favor of unheralded Stevan Ridley, who ended up rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in the 2012 regular season. But the one constant of this Patriots squad over the years? Brady. Even at 35 years old, Brady still put together a remarkable statistical season, throwing for 4,827 yards (second best total of his career), 34 TDs (fourth best) and a mere 8 INTs (second lowest total of his career). Brady could be in a class all by himself if he could get a fourth Super Bowl ring. Although that would only tie him with Terry Bradshaw and his idol Joe Montana for most Super Bowl titles as a starting QB, what would set Brady apart is an unprecedented six Super Bowl appearances (he already holds the record for starting QBs with five). I'm rooting for him but, alas, I just feel the Baltimore Ravens have that aura about them.
Baltimore 27 New England 23.
2012 Postseason record
Straight up: 6-2
Against the point spread: 6-2