This is the weekend where legends are formed. Every paper and sports blog in America, and many across the globe will run stories about lesser-known players like Stephen Nicholas, Robert McClain, Rob Ninkovich, Bernard Pierce, or Alex Boone over the next two weeks should their teams win on Sunday. When your team is in the Super Bowl, suddenly every aspect of your team becomes interesting. When your team is not, no one cares. Regardless of how much success you’ve had this season up to this point, if you lose this weekend, the storyline becomes about why you weren’t good enough as opposed to being pretty darn good to make it this far in the first place. People tend to become only focused on all the things that are missing for you to taste and experience that glorification that comes from two weeks of Super Bowl coverage.
The beauty of this year’s conference championship matchups, is that you’re going to get a fairly compelling Super Bowl matchup no matter what. If it’s Patriots-49ers, then you get that Belichick vs. Harbaugh hype. You also get the connection between Kaepernick and Brady, where Kaepernick’s usurption of an injured Alex Smith’s job in his second season and coming from virtually out of nowhere is so similar to Brady’s beginning back in 2001 with Drew Bledsoe.
If it’s Patriots-Falcons, you can get the Master vs. the Student hype with Belichick and Dimitroff. You also solidify those comparisons that people like myself have made with Matt Ryan and Tom Brady.
If it’s Ravens-49ers, you obviously get the Harbaugh Bros. storyline. You get the Flacco-Kaepernick storyline that centers around the fact that 2 months ago no one would have believed they’d be squaring off in New Orleans.
If it’s Ravens-Falcons, then you get the Flacco vs. Ryan storyline that has been brewing since both emerged as dynamite rookies in 2008, and kicking off this mini-run of successful rookie quarterbacks (and yes, I’m purposefully forgetting Roethlisberger).
I picked the Broncos over the Ravens straight up last week, and should’ve gone with my heart and taken the Ravens. I have an aunt that lives in Baltimore that is a die-hard Ravens fan, so if my picks are right this week, it should make the next two weeks very interesting.
Last week, I went 3-1 both against the spread and straight picks, bringin my playoff record to 6-2 against the spread and 5-3 straight up. I picked the Ravens to go to the Super Bowl in my preseason predictions, and if they do, that will mark two years in a row where I have successfully picked the AFC representative. A trifle, but it makes me feel at least semi-competent in terms of my prognostication skills. But here are my picks:
Ravens over Patriots
Falcons over 49ers
For more detailed analysis of why I picked the teams I did, keep on reading after the jump.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) at Atlanta Falcons (14-3)
Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm ET on FOX
*Line: Falcons (+4)
I’m not going to lie, I’m biased on this one. I admitted as much in my game preview that I believe the 49ers are the better team, but I don’t think that will be the case on Sunday. If an old guy with a cane in a DeLorean showed up and told me that the 49ers won this game 40-14, I wouldn’t be completely shocked. On a neutral field on any given Sunday, that would probably be the outcome I would honestly expect. But in the Georgia Dome on this particular Sunday, I don’t think that is going to be the case. Maybe that still is my bias because I will in fact be on hand for this game, taking in my first Falcon home game since 2005. And in my delusional mind, I have some silly notion that my presence alone will be the tipping point.
But my reasoning for picking the Falcons in this game has some basis in football. I think the 49ers are the exact type of team that the Falcons match up very poorly against: a team that can control things in the trenches. That has been the biggest weakness of the Falcons this year, and it has led to their one-dimensional offense and lacking pass rush. The 49ers can shorten the game by pounding the rock and keeping that formidable Falcons passing attack off the field, and then get after the quarterback if/when the Falcons do decide to throw the ball.
But I don’t think the 49ers pass rush is as formidable as it was earlier in the season. Justin Smith has primarily become a run defender at this point in his career, and his injured triceps hasn’t helped matters when it comes to pressuring quarterbacks. And Aldon Smith just hasn’t been the same the past month. Maybe Aldon gets a fire lit under his butt this week and looks more like the guy he was back in September through November, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. And I think that 49ers secondary is extremely vulnerable to the Falcons passing attack.
And while the Falcons defense I think will have issues slowing down the 49ers offense, particularly with John Abraham nursing a bum ankle, if the offense plays the way they are capable of playing, then they don’t need to be great. They just need to be good enough. Which they were a week ago, and have been consistently so at home this year. This season has always been about the Falcons offense’s ability to carry this team. And that high premium the Falcons paid for Julio Jones 20 months ago has now come to a head and I think pays off this week.
And I also like the fact that the Falcons kicker Matt Bryant is clutch, and the 49ers kickers (David Akers and Billy Cundiff) are not. And I believe in the end, that advantage will be the difference in the game.
Spread Pick: Falcons
Straight Pick: Falcons
Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4)
Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 6:30 pm ET on CBS
*Line: Patriots (-9)
I’m picking the Ravens, and not just because I picked them way back in September to go all the way. But again, there are legit football reasons to take them. They have played the Patriots extremely well over the years, beating them earlier this year and being within a play of possibly beating them last year in the AFC Championship.
What’s interesting about that is we know for sure that if the Falcons lose this weekend, it’ll be the fourth time in four tries that the Falcons playoff exit has come at the hands at the eventual NFC Champion. Well, what many Falcon fans may not know is the Ravens have already hit that benchmark, as they have lost to the eventual AFC Champion four straight years. Actually, it’s five straight playoff exits at the hands of the AFC Champion, as you can also include their loss in 2006 to the Colts. I hope for the sake of Ravens fans it doesn’t become six in a row.
The weakness of the Patriots defense is their ability to defend the big play in the passing game. And guess what? The strength of the Ravens passing game is the big play. Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith form a deadly combination. And if Ray Rice can give them a steady diet on the ground, they have the capacity to win this game. I think the injury to Rob Gronkowski is a much bigger deal than most. Yes, I realize the Patriots haven’t really skipped a beat with him out of the lineup this year. I thought a year ago that if Gronk was healthy, the Pats would have won against the Giants in the Super Bowl. I think those same words will be spoken Monday about Sunday night’s game. The Ravens defense hasn’t been great this year, but they’ve stepped up in January thanks mainly due to the inspirational presence of Ray Lewis. That unit is playing above their level, and without Gronk the Patriots will be playing below their level. And given how close these games have been before, that I believe will be the difference in this game.
Under Flacco, the Ravens are 1-3 against the Patriots in Gillette Stadium. But all of those losses have come by a single score. Twice the Ravens have lost when they were on the doorstep in the final seconds of the game. Both instances involved a Ravens receiver (Mark Clayton in 2009 and Lee Evans in 2011) dropping a pass. Clayton dropped a 4th down pass at the Patriots’ 10-yard line, and Evans famously had Sterling Moore knocking the ball out of his hands in the endzone in last year’s AFC Championship Game. That Evans drop of course led to Billy Cundiff’s missed 32-yard field goal. The other loss came when Brady mounted a 6-play, 45-yard drive in overtime that set up a 35-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
Justin Tucker is the Ravens current kicker and has been outstanding this year as a rookie, and it would not surprise me one bit if both of this weekend’s games end on a field goal to lift one team over the other.
Spread Pick: Ravens
Straight Pick: Ravens
* Lines come from ESPN.