San Francisco (-4) at Atlanta
The 49ers are red-hot with Colin
Kaepernick at quarterback. But the spotlight will be on the two
defenses in this one after the divisional round had an average of 69
points a game between the two teams. San Francisco was in this
position last year and came up just short, while Atlanta finally got
its first playoff win in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. Ryan should be
able to find Roddy White and Julio Jones some, but Kaepernick could
run wild along with Frank Gore and that will open up passing lanes to
find Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.
Still, the pressure is on San
Francisco now more so than Atlanta now that the Falcons have gotten
that proverbial monkey off their back of winning a playoff game. I
harken back to a couple of mid-2000’s NFC teams that found themselves
in similar positions as No. 1 seeds with significant playoff droughts
and can’t help but wonder if Atlanta will follow suit.
In 2005, the Seahawks were facing the
prospects of another playoff loss as the franchise had not tasted
postseason success since 1984. In their division round opener, they
struggled in the rain to beat a pesky Redskins team, 20-10, to
finally remove that albatross from around their collective necks.
Once they did that, they were loose and limber, and it showed the
following week as they clobbered a savvy, veteran Panthers team,
34-14, in the NFC championship game.
Then there’s the 2006 Bears. Chicago
hadn’t won a playoff game since 1985 when they took the field against
those same Seahawks, who entered as defending NFC champs. Rex
Grossman and Co. had to grind out an overtime, 27-24 win to clear
that vaunted playoff hurdle and earn an NFC title game date with the
With the noose loosened, the Bears
whooped up on the Saints, 39-14, and earned a trip to Super Bowl XLI.
So will the Falcons follow suit? Well,
they don’t figure to clobber San Francisco, but my sense is that the
49ers have more to prove after falling just short last year, and the
dome crowd noise could rattle young Kaepernick as St. Louis’ Edward
Jones Dome did in Week 13, when the Rams earned a 16-13 overtime win.
The Falcons, who match up poorly with New England, should advance to
Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. FALCONS 31, 49ERS 24.
Baltimore at New
Last year I was
convinced the writing was on the wall that the Patriots would be
world champions, but this year I am more sure than ever. This is New
England’s best and deepest team yet, even without the services of one
Rob Gronkowski. Even the much-maligned defense is rounding into
Winners of 10 of
their last 11, the Patriots are out for revenge after a controversial
loss to the Ravens in Week 3, 31-30. New England is 12-4 but is
essentially three plays away from being 15-1, and the Ravens battered
and bruised defense will have much trouble containing Tom Brady and
his many weapons.
said all that, this series is almost always close. In fact, five of
the last six meetings, including two playoff games, have been decided
by six points or less. The Ravens put up 503 yards of total offense
in the first meeting, and despite some shaky play on defense, it
could actually be the offense that decides whether they pull off the
upset and earn a trip to Super Bowl XLVII.
Joe Flacco has
played well in the playoffs, at least at times when it has counted,
but the problem is, Tom Brady has played well at all times, and
unless the Ravens can rattle his cage a little bit, they will fall
short again. The sense here is that the Ravens will hang close, but
that once again, John Harbaugh and Flacco have taken the team as far
as it can go in the AFC. PATRIOTS 27, RAVENS 20.