Friday, January 18, 2013
Flacco's career has come with good and bad moments, but you have to give credit where credit is due. While he hasn't had the most jaw-dropping of stats, he's the winningest quarterback in the NFL since 2008, he's won at least one playoff game in each of his five season, and he's been absolutely money in these playoffs. Passing for 613 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions in two games against the Colts and Broncos is extremely impressive, but maybe not as impressive as his clutch play and will to win against Denver. I understand that Flacco has had his ugly moments, but with the way he's been playing and what he's shown us, there's no reason he can't keep it up against a New England secondary that's ranked 29th in the league against the pass. And we can't just talk about Flacco without giving credit to his receivers. Torrey Smith has outrun any and every corner back he's been matched up against, Anquan Boldin continues to make impossible grabs that extend drives, and Dennis Pitta has come up with some tough catches in big spots. All of these guys have helped evolve the Baltimore passing game. The pass rush for New England will need to get to Flacco in hopes of rattling him.
You can't gush about the Ravens' aerial attack without talking about Mr. Hey Diddle Diddle. Ray Rice is one of the best running backs in the NFL, and showed it this year, as well as against Denver last week. Topping 131 yards on 30 carries, it's clear that new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is committed to getting Rice the ball more. He's a powerful back who will have a fight against Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and the rest of the Pats' front seven. But this guy is the real deal, and all jokes aside, he should come up big. Plus, he's ability to catch balls out of the backfield cannot be undervalued. Rice is a big threat on offense, and all of the sudden, the Patriots have a lot of guys to take account for.
On the other side of the ball, what more can you say about Tom Brady that hasn't already been said? He's a complete stud (344 yards, 3 TD's against a tough Houston secondary last week), he has a ton of targets (Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and now apparently Shane Vereen), and he's the all-time winningest playoff quarterback in NFL history. I know the Ravens generally play Brady tough, but expect Brady to get his. Baltimore's defense should rise to the occasion, but they'll be lucky if they can slow down Brady, let alone stop him. The injury to Rob Gronkowski certainly hurts and makes the offense a bit less explosive, but the Raven's pass rush is not what it used to be, and will have a tough time against the Pats' offensive line.
The last time these two teams met, Stevan Ridley ran for 37 yards on 13 carries against a stout Ravens' defense. Since then, injuries have depleted Baltimore, leaving teams to gash them on the ground. However, in two playoff games, the team has held Vick Ballard, Ronnie Hillman, and Knowshon Moreno to a mere 3.8 yards per carry. Yes, Ridley is better than all of them, but he'll have to prove it in order for the Patriots to win. This is the battle to watch in the game, and with Ray Lewis playing inspired football (30 tackles in two games), the yards will not come easy for Ridley, or Vereen for that matter.
Speaking of Lewis, a New England billboard was put up a few days ago with a countdown to Lewis' retirement party, with the countdown set to end when these two teams play, implying the Patriots are going to win. Why do these New Englanders keep doing this? First, a columnist pisses off Arian Foster, and now this? Of all people, you do not want to anger Lewis. He's a player who doesn't need extra motivation, but will gladly take it. The Patriots and their fans have been known for being too cocky for their own good (Welker's foot comments about Rex Ryan leading to his suspension and a New England loss a few years ago), so it will be interesting to see how they react if the Pats do lose.
In the end, I've got to go with the Patriots. I think both quarterbacks will have success in the air, and both running backs will run the ball well, but when push comes to shove, you have to pick Brady over Flacco. This game is going to be a lot closer than many people expect, and I think Flacco will be able to match Brady for most of the game, but I feel like this one will come down to an end of the game field goal drive. Flacco had his shot last year. I think it's Brady's turn.
Patriots 30, Ravens 27
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
It's important not to overreact too much to Kaepernick's symphony of destruction over Green Bay, but I'm just not sure how Atlanta's going to stop him. Sure, the Falcons are definitely preparing for him extra, but their defense is average, and I expect the quarterback to throw and run the ball comfortably. The Falcons' pass rush really needs to get going, and it won't be easy to because of a very talented San Francisco offensive line, so look for breakout receiver Michael Crabtree to have his way with the Atlanta defense. I also wouldn't be surprised if Vernon Davis and even Randy Moss got involved in the action. Sean Witherspoon, Asante Samuel, and Dunta Robinson are going to need to have big games to contain this offense.
As for the run game, Frank Gore dominated the Packers with 119 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown. Atlanta was 21st against the run this year, and Gore has been running wild all season, so it's hard to expect that to change. The home crowd will definitely give the Falcons defense some help, but running behind a strong offensive line, Gore should have a day. Once again, look for LaMichael James to get involved as well. Whether it's Gore, James, or Kaepernick running the ball, I don't trust the Falcons defense. They also have to look out for Bruce Miller, who has been a factor.
What do you take more out of Matt Ryan's performance against the Seahawks, his two picks or his three touchdowns? Ryan has been both painfully good and painfully bad all year, hooking up with Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Julio Jones for highlight bombs, but also throwing some pretty ugly interceptions. For Ryan, it's key for him to limit the turnovers. The Niners have a very talented and physical secondary with Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson. I think due to the talent of the Atlanta offense, Ryan will have success. But if he turns the ball over, that could be it. Also, the key for the San Fran defensive backs is to hit the Falcons hard. Jones and White didn't have trouble against Seattle, but they may be a little out of their comfort zone if the 49er players can deliver some big hits. The San Francisco pass rush is a key to forcing turnovers. Justin and Aldon Smith have to generate pressure against a solid Atlanta offensive line if they want to make Ryan make mistakes. This is one of the biggest battles of the game, and if the o-line can hold up for the Falcons, that could be the difference maker.
Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers had a fantastic day against a tough Seattle defense, combining for 162 yards on 24 carries. Mike Smith developed a game plan that would deploy the two backs to their fullest abilities, and he'll have to do the same against San Franciso. Give him credit for what he did against the Seahawks, and it gives you confidence in his ability to do it again, but the Niners were fourth against the rush this year, and ever since Jim Harbaugh took over, they've been nearly impossible to run on. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman can be thanked for that.
One interesting thing to take from last week's game against Seattle is how the Atlanta defense was exposed in the second half. Not only do they need to play a full 60 minutes, but it also may not bode well if the Falcons jump out to a big lead again. They can score with anyone, and a lead may cause them to play more conservative, even though they have an explosive offense. I trust Ryan at the end of the game, but if he doesn't get the opportunity, I don't trust the defense.
In the end, I have to pick the 49ers. They have the edge on defense, running the ball, and coaching, and now with Kaepernick, they have a whole new element to their game. Ryan should get his big guns involved, but will also turn the ball over and not get the help from his running game like he did last week. Meanwhile, Kaepernick doesn't repeat his performance, but he plays pretty well, and Gore and the defense salt away the clock in the fourth quarter. I expect the Niners to head to New Orleans.
49ers 31, Falcons 20
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Foster has been a monster this year, especially in the red zone. He's piled up 16 touchdowns and 1,564 yards in 17 games this season. Yes, many may point to his somewhat low YPC (4.1 in the regular season) and his heavy amount of carries (383 in the regular season and playoffs combined), he's still been a workhorse and is the focal point of the Texans' offense. In the last meeting with New England, the Patriots took a 21-0 lead into the half and it was all over by then. When a team like Houston goes down big, it's hard for them to come back. I expect them to deploy Foster early and often in an attempt to control the game flow.
The injury to Matt Schaub last year was what many believed was the reason why Houston didn't advance. They had a rookie quarterback who hadn't played all season nearly lead them to a victory over the Ravens. Now, Schaub's experience and skills in the play action should be a big factor. While he's not an elite quarterback and this is only his second playoff start, Schaub should be capable of throwing to Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels on the league's 29th ranked pass defense.
The Texans' pass rush will have the daunting task of putting pressure under Tom Brady. If they can, they may just win the game. J. J. Watt, a candidate for defense player of the year, has gotten 20.5 sacks this year and has constantly been a disruptive force, deflecting 16 passes with his phenomenal awareness. While Brady is one of, if not the best QB in the NFL, the one thing he struggles with is pressure. If Watt and company can get to him, it could change the landscape of the game and help a secondary that has been beaten up pretty bad as of late.
Over the years, the Patriots have always been a top team, but have lacked something recently: a running game. Stevan Ridley has been the best back New England arguably since Corey Dillon. He rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns this season as the bell cow. Throw in Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen and you have a multi-dimensional running attack that opens things up for Brady like never before. The Texans are 7th against the run, but there are a lot of players they have to account for in the passing game (Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez), that they may just not be able to stop everyone.
While I think Foster will help Houston have more success than the previous meeting between these two teams, the Patriots should get the victory. There's just so much to stop in Brady's offense, and Gronk wasn't even on the field when these two teams met last. I expect it to be somewhat close throughout the game, with the Patriots pulling away late and making it to yet another AFC championship game.
Patriots 30, Texans 21
Friday, January 11, 2013
Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has never won a playoff game, but this year is different. Ryan has broken out and is a true MVP candidate, throwing for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. While it remains to be seen if that can correlate to postseason success, it's safe to say that Ryan has a new feel to the game now. He has three of the deadliest targets in the league in Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez, and is living up to his nickname of "Matty Ice" by winning clutch games. Speaking of Gonzalez, as arguably the most decorated tight end in NFL history, he is still looking for his first playoff win. In his final season, Gonzalez, as well as the Falcons, would love to lift the Lombardi trophy as he rides of into the sunset. The injury to Chris Clemons will be a big blow, but it will still be a war in the trenches as a solid Falcons' offensive line battle the brutal Seattle pass rush.
This high-powered offense will go up against a dominating Seattle secondary (6th in the league against the pass) in what is truly the matchup of the game. Corner backs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner as well as safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor make up one of the best secondaries in the game. They have been physical all year and excel at shutting down the competition, no matter how talented. In the battle between Seattle's secondary and Atlanta's passing game, the winner of that will likely win the game.
Seattle has a pretty strong rush defense too, so it could be a long day for Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. However, if head coach Mike Smith is able to deploy them strategically enough like he has at some times this year, they could have some success. Turner has had a handful of good games this season, but more often than not, he's looked like he's out of gas. Rodgers is the change of pace back and can provide a spark. This is Smith's job to run the right back at the right time, and he's under a bit of pressure; he too has not won a playoff game for Atlanta.
Despite being 3rd in rushing offense and 27th in passing offense, the story for the Seahawks starts with quarterback Russell Wilson. In my mind, Wilson should be the rookie of the year. Despite Luck's yards and Griffin's efficiency, Wilson has truly looked more poised than both of them and is playing like an experienced quarterback. Here are Wilson's stats for both halves of the season:
First eight games: 129 for 210, 1,466 yards, 10 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 128 rushing yards, 0 rushing touchdowns.
Last eight games: 123 for 183, 1,652 yards, 16 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 361 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns.
Wilson has morphed into a new player, and that's not even mentioning his 92.9 QBR against Washington last week. I expect him to have success both rushing and passing, even in the Georgia Dome.
The defense for the Falcons is solid but not spectacular. Marshawn Lynch should have a field day. The Skittles-devouring running back just piled up 132 rushing yards against the Redskins and has been one of the best and most physical backs in the NFL since joining the Seahawks last year. While Beast Mode has a bum foot, he's not going to be stopped.
This is one of the toughest games to call, but I have to go with Atlanta. I think the Seahawks will get theirs on offense, but won't be able to hold off Ryan and his receivers. Ryan is a different quarterback this year, and I think this marks his first playoff win and his jump to elite status. Seattle is a step slower on the road, and an elite QB should be able to outmatch an elite secondary. The pressure is high in Atlanta, but I think it's time they deliver.
Falcons 27, Seahawks 21
Thursday, January 10, 2013
The biggest change is obviously Colin Kaepernick being the starting quarterback as opposed to Alex Smith. Smith plays a very neat and clean game, but the move to Kaepernick gives the 49ers' offense a new element, and one that could get them a Super Bowl. Kaepernick, like Smith, has been good at not turning the ball over, getting picked off only three times in seven starts. Yes, this is his first year as a starter and yes, he has made mistakes, most notably his muffed handoff against the Rams, but his ability to run and throw on the run are something that teams have a lot of trouble preparing for. Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have thrived as dual threat QB's and Kaepernick hasn't been too far behind them. His numbers aren't gaudy due to the Niners having big leads often, but his play has spoken for itself, most notably in San Fran's battle with the Patriots. He'll have his hands full with the Green Bay pass rush featuring Clay Matthews, but the San Fran offensive line is one of the best.
The running game has obviously benefited Kaepernick and it's thanks in a big part to Frank Gore who has had a monster season while staying healthy. Unfortunately for the Niners, Kendall Hunter is hurt and Brandon Jacobs didn't pan out, so their depth at the position is a little thin, but it will be interesting to see what LaMichael James, the former Oregon speedster, does with increased touches. The Packer defense has struggled a lot against the run this year, and I don't see that changing in this one. If Gore can keep churning out first downs, it will keep the game at the pace the 49ers want to play at.
Two pass catchers could play a big part in this game, both currently on opposite ends of the Kaepernick spectrum. Michael Crabtree seems to have finally broken out into the player everyone thought he would be, catching five touchdown passes in Kaepernick's seven starts, while piling up 595 yards. Vernon Davis, on the other hand, has disappeared, catching only six passes in the past six games. This may be alarming to some, but it's worth noting that Davis was quiet near the end of last season, only to be a huge weapon in the Niners' two playoff games. It would be wise for head coach Jim Harbaugh to incorporate him more in this game.
I understand that San Francisco has a very talented defense even with Justin Smith out, but Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. I expect him to have a lot of success through the air. He has been on a tear for Green Bay and has that fire in his game that was similar to when the Packers won the Super Bowl two years ago. What Rodgers must do is limit mistakes and protect his receivers. Against New Orleans in last year's playoff game, the Niner defenders routinely lit up multiple Saints' players with bone-jarring hits. That really set the tone for the game, and it's not the kind of game the Packers will want to play. Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings have been bothered by injuries all year, but they should be good to go in this one. Add that to the emergence of James Jones and Randall Cobb and Rodgers has four rock-solid targets to throw to. It's going to be interesting to see how Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, and the rest of the defense match up against these talented players.
The Packers haven't had a running game all year, but that may have changed now. DuJuan Harris has stepped in as the lead back, and while he hasn't been spectacular, he's been good enough to contribute. Harris is a hard-nosed runner who will look to try and pound away at the fourth-ranked run defense of the Niners, which is much easier said than done.
It would be a shame if a game as great as this one should be comes down to a missed field goal, but it certainly would not be a shock. Both teams have had issues with their kickers. Mason Crosby has only made 21 of his 33 field goal attempts for the Packers, while San Francisco has to decide between a shaky David Akers (29 of 42 field goals this year) or last year's AFC championship game goat, Billy Cundiff. Let's hope these boys can "kick" the problems to the curb. And if they can't, they'll likely be kicked to the curb themselves.
This game is eerily similar to last year's Niners-Saints playoff game. There's an MVP caliber quarterback going against one of the best defenses in football. Last year, I thought that the Saints would win, but the Niners proved people wrong and showed they can beat a big time QB. However, I'm going to have to bet against San Fran again. Rodgers just seems like he's in another world right now and that nothing will stop him. I think the 49ers will be able to provide enough offense and limit Rodgers enough to keep the game close, but in the end, it's Green Bay going to the NFC championship game.
Packers 34, 49ers 30
Monday, January 7, 2013
The obvious way to start is with Manning, who has truly been remarkable after coming back from multiple neck surgeries. He has eclipsed 4,600 yards and has thrown for 37 touchdown passes. This, of course, has come from the help of special receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but also from lesser known guys that Manning has helped turn into key parts of the offense like Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, and Joel Dreessen. Let's face it; the Broncos' offense is looking eerily similar to the Colts' offense when Manning was in Indianapolis, and that's scary for the Ravens.
Baltimore has been known for its hard-nosed defense, but with injuries to players like Lardarius Webb as well as players like Lewis growing older and becoming less effective, that is a thing of the past. The Ravens rank in the bottom half of the league in both rushing and passing defense, but that doesn't even tell the whole story. The Ravens have been repeatedly gashed by running backs in the second half of the season, but they may have fixed things at the right time. They were able to hold the New York Giants to just 186 yards of total offense in Week 16, and controlled the Colts in the Wild Card round. It's looking like the defense is starting to regain its mojo, and they'll certainly need it against Manning.
It almost seems as if Joe Flacco is finally starting to hit his stride as well, and just at the right time. There's been a lot of debate about Flacco as a quarterback. In Baltimore's first four games of the season, he averaged 317 yards with seven touchdowns and only three interceptions. However, as the season went on, Flacco began to play less and less spectacular and the Ravens endured a three-game losing streak. Flacco rebounded against the Giants and threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions against the Colts. This week, he will have a lot more difficulty with Champ Bailey taking away Torrey Smith, but with players like Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta stepping up, along with the ever reliable Ray Rice, expect Flacco to see some success in the passing game. Remember, this is the guy who got the Ravens within a missed field goal of the Super Bowl just a year ago.
Speaking of Rice, the most exciting battle of the game will be him against Denver's third ranked rushing defense. Rice has been a monster this year, both running the ball and catching passes (hay-diddle-diddle). He's also seen more looks with Cam Cameron out as offensive coordinator, so it appears that new OC Jim Caldwell is committed to giving him the ball. Rookie running back Bernard Pierce is also appearing to be quite the player, topping the century mark against the Colts last week. The Ravens need to establish the run early and not get away from it, because if they do, it will be a passing duel between Flacco and Manning, and I can't see Flacco winning that one.
One thing that does worry me a bit about the Broncos is the running back position. Knowshon Moreno has provided blocking and experience in the absence of Willis McGahee, but the guy just worries me. He was supposed to be a stud, but has really showed nothing in his NFL career and is basically thriving only because Manning is his quarterback. He's averaged a solid 85 yards per game with three scores since taking over as the lead back, but I would be much more confident if Denver had McGahee running the ball.
These two teams met not too long ago in Denver and the Broncos routed the Ravens. Of course, the Chris Harris pick-six was a game changer, and something that the Ravens cannot afford. They need to keep the game close and not turn the ball over. The gameplan is much easier for Manning and co. They need to play their game and beat up on the Ravens' defense. Neither Manning nor Rice were stellar in the previous meeting, but I expect both to be on top of their games in this one. In the end, The Broncos will win by a slightly closer score than last time. I just don't see Flacco being able to keep up with Manning against a tougher defense.
Broncos 28, Ravens 17