Last weekends NFL’s Divisional Round was one of the most exciting football weekends in recent memory. On Saturday, the 49ers sent the cheese heads back to Green Bay with outstanding play from Colin Kaepernick, while the Ravens sent the Broncos to the glue factory with a Hail Mary and a late Manning interception. On Sunday, the Falcons clipped the Seahawks and withstood their ferocious rally,and the Patriots finished off the weekend by crushing the horse wranglers from Houston.
The only thing that didn’t show up last weekend was the defense. The average combined score of the games was 69 points, a huge jump compared to 38 points back in 2009. Now that the NFL has become such a pass friendly league it has become so important to have an elite quarterback, or at least have a quarterback playing at an elite level. This weeks Conference Championships offer very interesting match-ups and all of these teams deserve to be here based on last weeks performance.
Atlanta Falcons vs San Francisco 49ers
The Falcons game last weekend was a tale of two halves. In the first half, they were the powerhouse that they have been all season, which lead them to a NFL best record of 13-3. They built a commanding 20 point lead and the Seahawks looked out of it early. When the second half began, the Seahawks and the Falcons were different teams. The Seahawks went on a 28-7 run to take a late lead. Falcon’s quarterback Matt Ryan, the QB that had failed to win any “important” games, stepped up and was able to drive down the field in less than a minute and help secure the victory. The 49ers game was more back and forth until they were able to take complete control by the forth quarter. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s running ability baffled Green Bay and will present similar problems for the Falcons 21st ranked run defense.
The Niners have an explosive ground game with Frank Gore and Kaepernick. And when the read-option is working it allows for the play-action to be effective. If the Falcons are unable to stop the ground game, they don’t stand a chance. Michael Crabtree is playing like a pro-bowler and Vernon Davis offers Kaepernick a safety valve when he’s under pressure. While San Francisco’s defense kept Aaron Rodgers and the Packers generally contained, the Falcons do present a different set of problems for the 49er defense. Matt Ryan might not be as explosive as Green Bay’s Rodgers, but he has a better receiving core with Julio Jones, Roddy White and the reliable Tony Gonzalez. The Niners do have a potent pass rush lead by Aldon Smith and his 19.5 sacks, however, the biggest difference this week is the Falcons run game. The Niners beat a Packers team that had no true running back, but Atlanta posses a quality RB in Michael Turner. Turner had an off-season in regards to stats, only 800 yards rushing, but has scored over 10 touchdowns for the past 5 years and is always dangerous to break off long runs if the defense focuses to much on Jones, White and Gonzalez. These two offenses should continue their hot streak and this might turn into a shootout. It might take the 49ers a quarter or two to get into the game with their young quarterback, and that should be Atlanta’s time to strike first. If the Falcons are unable to score first, the game will still be exciting, but the Niners should come away with a double-digit victory.
San Francisco 49ers 38 Atlanta Falcons 31
New England Patriots vs Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens escaped Denver last weekend by the skin of their teeth. But when the game was on the line they got one last interception out of their aging legendary defense, and were able to book their ticket to New England. The Ravens shouldn’t need any more motivation, but facing the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year makes this game all the more tantalizing. Baltimore is going to need a big game from their offense to pull this one out. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had an impressive game last week (18/34, 331 yards, and 3 touchdowns) and will need to have a similar one to keep up with the Patriots and Tom Brady. If Flacco can throw for a percentage closer to 65%, as opposed to the 53% last weekend, the Ravens will be set up to control the ball and be put in more manageable distance downs. Ray Rice ran for 131 yards on the ground last week against Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing defense, and he should be able to continue that dominance against the Patriots 9th ranked rushing defense. Rice’s success on the ground keeps New England’s defense on the field and takes pressure of Flacco. Baltimore is going to have their backs against the wall this week in one of the most hostile stadiums in the league.
The Patriots continued their current form and were able to handle Houston’s early attempts to make it a game last weekend. But as the game went on, it was clear that Houston was just not there yet, although you can’t help but wonder if Brian Cushing were back it would of been a different story. The Patriots once again relied heavily on the arm of Tom Brady to carry them and he didn’t disappoint. They will follow the same formula this week with their short yardage passes to open up deeper passing lanes later in the game. Any team would miss the presence of record setting tight end Rob Gronkowski, but Aaron Hernandez has shown that he is more than capable. The Pats running game isn’t anything to boast about, but Stevan Ridley has the ability to gash any defense. They shouldn’t be able to get to 41 in this game, and if Baltimore is able to hold onto the ball and keep the Pats under 30 points, they should be able to pull this one off. The Ravens will be lead by their emotional leader Ray Lewis, and should pull off the upset in this one.
Baltimore Ravens 34 New England Patriots 28
The Conference Championships should follow the same script as the Divisional Round, an ample amount of offense and the defense making game changing plays at the end. All of these teams deserve a spot in the Super Bowl, but there’s only space for two.