Super Bowl XLVII Preview (It’s 47. Drop the gladiatoresque numerals, already.)

Blair Miller > Super Bowl XLVII Preview, 2012 Season  (47. It’s 47. Drop the gladiatoresque numerals, already.)

We searched long and hard through our staff, and decided to elect our only staff member to take a look at some factors that could play a role in the game’s outcome. 

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Oh, baby!  After 21 weeks of fist pumping, tears shed, elation, defeat, a referee lockout, beds shat, amazing comebacks, broken records, youth movements, memorable retirements, broken records and all other manner of NFL-brewed craziness the big game is finally here!

Has there been a more difficult Super Bowl to predict in recent years?  (Keeping in mind that with upsets the outcome seems easy to predict.)  Let’s hope that means that we get a good game, because we’ve been spoiled as of late.  (See below.)

I’m gonna be happy to avoid making too much of a concrete prediction, because this is a great, compelling matchup.  I’ll say this: I like the Niners.  I almost always like the chances of the team league with the two most physical lines in football  – not to mention the best linebackers.  But I’ve only predicted two games wrong in these playoffs: I picked the Ravens to lose to the Broncos and Patriots.  I may be as slow a learner as Rain Man when it comes to some things, but I’ve learnt one in January.

rain man

If you pick against Baltimore again, we’re not going to K-Mart!

With this in mind, I’m going to move on, and just give you a headfirst dive into the Super Bowl rabbit hole – with stats, perspectives and thoughts.  This game is full of them.  I’m going to avoid the Ray Lewis PED drama and his retirement until the offseason, and downplay the Brothers Harbaugh angle to take a look at some things that are more directly related to the on-field action that we’ll be drooling over because well, whoops, this Super Bowl starts late in the day and we’re already drunk, aren’t we?

Make of the thoughts what you may.  After all, isn’t one of the best parts of the Super Bowl the debates that build up to a good matchup?

Hopes for a non-blowout

Let’s take a look at the 16-year period starting with arguably the first true whooping in Super Bowl history that ended the 1985 season when the Bears beat the Patriots 46-10, up until the last time the Ravens won the Super Bowl, during the 2000 season by trouncing the Giants by a score of 34-7.  Those games were decided by an average margin of 19 points, the winning teams put up three 40-burgers and two fitty-burgers.  Close games were like a mirage.  Only four Super Bowls during that span were won by single digits, and just two of those – Niners over Bengals (20-16 during 1988) and Giants over Bills (20-19 during 1990) – were decided by less than a touchdown.

I blame this period – which took up much of my own childhood – for the silly state of Super Bowl parties today.  It became habitual to become disinterested in the game by halftime and find one’s attention span wandering.

Now, consider the eleven Super Bowls since that period – the Patriots’ first title that closed the 2001 season until present day.  That span saw only one true blowout, when he Buccaneers undressed the Raiders to the tune of 48-21.  There were only four games decided by double-digit points, and an awesome six out of the elven came down to less than five points.  Even better: Four of the last five Super Bowls have been decided on the final drive.

Hindsight can affect one’s memory, but amongst the ritualistic Super Bowl media buildup that tries to pit each and every matchup as decent or better, I recall an unspoken understanding between the lines that a blowout was lurking during that earlier period.  In recent years, there hasn’t been that same sense.  This season, the game looks great.  Fingers crossed….

To rock the house you need the rock

According to NFL Gameday, playoff teams that win the turnover battle by two or more are 110-2.  During the regular season the Niners and Ravens tied in turnover differential at +9.  Neither teams have dropped off in that department in the postseason, but Baltimore has been more opportunistic, albeit with an extra game played: They have a +5 differential.  San Francisco has a +2 mark.

Okay – a bit about the Harbaughs…

Discussing the head coaching prowess of Jim and John Harbaugh is now an exercise in pointing out the obvious.  As mentioned last week in What I Saw, Conference Championships, John has coached the Ravens to as many wins since he’s taken over the team as the Pats’ Bill Belichick has over that span, with a league-leading 63.

John’s younger brother Jim has made quite the impact himself, going 27-8-1 in just two seasons.  As mentioned on NFL Network’s Total Access, the only two head coaches with more wins in their first two seasons are George Siefert (32) and Barry Switzer (28).  Harbaugh’s record is much more impressive, considering that he took over a team mired in a streak of losing seasons, whereas we all know that Siefert and Switzer were handed already-proven championship teams in San Francisco and Dallas, respectively.

If history is any indication, expect John’s Ravens to give Jim’s Niners fits on Sunday.  On Thanksgiving Day in 2011, Baltimore beat San Francisco 16-6 in a slugfest.  The Ravens amassed nine sacks in that game – the most sacks given up in a game by a Harbaugh-coached Niners team.

I know it’s not What I Saw, but let’s give PROPS to brothers John and Jim Harbaugh for doing their last press conference prior to the big game together.  And more PROPS to both of them for crediting their mother for their competitive nature.  Are these guys are wound too tight before Super Sunday?  I think not.

…And a dash of Sugar

This Sunday’s Super Bowl will take place twelve years and six days after Ravens LB Ray Lewis was the MVP of Super Bowl 35.  According to NFL Media, only the late Junior Seau had a longer span between Super Bowls.

And, in an ironic (and metaphorical) sense, Lewis could leave the pro game the way he entered it: by nailing Jim Harbaugh.  That’s right – the first of Lewis’ 41.5 career sacks came in 1996 against the Colts when he took the current Niners head coach – and former NFL quarterback – to the turf.

In a sign of both mens’ longevity – and Harbaugh’s youth as a pro coach – Harbaugh was actually a teammate of Lewis’ in 1998, in Baltimore.

Because it’s the most reliable single stat to explain wins and losses this side of points scored

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick (105.9) and his counterpart Joe Flacco (114.7) of the Ravens have been the highest-rated passer in the 2012 playoffs.

Weighing in at 245 pounds, from University of Delaware…

Sometimes Ravens QB Joe Flacco is overrated, sometimes not.  But his success in these playoffs is impossible to deny.  Through three games he has 8 TDs and 0 INTs.  According to NFL.com, only five other quarterbacks have finished the playoffs with a mark that impressive: Drew Brees, Troy Aikman, Phil Simms, Steve Young and Joe Montana.  Each of those players not only won the Super Bowl – they were all named MVP.

There’s little doubt that Flacco needs to put up good numbers if Baltimore is going to win the game.  It’s possible that his team’s defense could nullify the San Francisco offense like it did New England’s a game ago, but the Ravens haven’t faced an option/pistol offense this season, and they were highly familiar with the Patriots.  If the Ravens can keep Niners LB Aldon Smith and the pass rush at bay, and their receivers can get space against San Fran’s defensive backs – two HUGE ifs – it will be up to Flacco to complete passes.  If he can’t, or doesn’t get a chance to, he’ll be doing the sad version of the postgame speech.

Weighing in at 230 pounds, from University of Nevada…

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick is only the fourth quarterback to start a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter.  The other three: Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Vince Ferragamo.  Warner and Brady both won the big one that year.

It’s easy to argue that Kaepernick could be the key to the game because he can influence it in so many ways.  Obviously his dual threat capability gives defenses headaches, but the read-option offense puts him in a position to decide when and where many rushing plays occur, so he can directly affect the productivity of the running backs.  If he can control the clock with long drives it will gas the Ravens defense and take the opposing offense out of rhythm.  And, Kaepernick can beat you the old school way too – by cutting up defenses with long precision passes.

But the main threat Kaep poses – and the one that will dictate the mindset of Baltimore’s defense – is his speed to the outside edges, be it on designed runs or scrambles.  San Francisco’s last two games illustrated the damned if you do, damned if you don’t effect that the second-year pro can have on defensive schemes.  After running roughshod over the Packers for a QB-record 181 yards, the Falcons took that dimension away from Kaepernick’s game by favoring a containment strategy – which opened up passing windows due to zone coverage.  The kid responded with an impressive passing day in leading his team to the biggest comeback win in NFC Championship history.

With a superlative talent like Kaepernick, it might just be the case that the Ravens are relegated to hoping the QB beats himself.  We’ll see – so far he’s proven to be an exceptional student of the game, and unflappable.  What I like most about the guy – along with his gazelle-like grace and speed in the open field – is his mental approach.  He’s said numerous times (since, according to Sports Illustrated, he said it to his father when he got dropped off at the Manning Passing Academy as a young unknown) that there’s no reason to feel pressure or hope for good luck because preparation and hard work take care of those factors.  Still, Kaepernick is human; he’ll feel something different at the start of this game.  But if he’s true to his word, no one will have prepared more than he.

He’s got a tall order to live up to: During their 5-0 run in the Super Bowl, San Francisco quarterbacks have thrown 17 touchdowns and no interceptions.  Wow.

One last thought on Kaepernick’s rushing ability: As pointed out by NFL Media, Michael Vick has three rushes of 50-plus yards in his decade-long NFL career.  Kaep has had that many since Week 13.

Ace up the sleeve?

rounders ace tattoo

(Miramax Films)

(Still the best tattoo ever.  Unless you suck at cards.)

One of the fun parts of the Super Bowl minutiae is to find X-factors, underappreciated and unique potential keys to victory.

I mentioned above that the Ravens haven’t faced a dual threat QB like Niners QB Colin Kaepernick this season…. But they have seen one this week in practice.

Baltimore’s backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, was taken in the 2011 draft – the same one as Kaepernick, and as luck would have it, his 40-yard dash time (4.51 seconds) was the only time ran by a QB in that year’s scouting combine which was faster than Kaepernick’s.  Taylor rushed for over 650 yards in two separate seasons at Virginia Tech, but never ran much read-option, the scheme that Kaepernick and the Niners run so efficiently.  In that case, he obviously won’t be able to execute plays for the scout team with the same crispness that Kaepernick will on Sunday, but at least the Ravens know that they’ve gotten some good looks in practice to get them acclimatized to the speed that the San Fran pivot will bring to the game.

Screw getting fancy with the ace – the house wins with 20

In the last 23 games during which the Niners have scored 20 points or more they are 22-0-1.  (NFL.com) In fact, during the Jim Harbaugh era, San Francisco has lost only one game when scoring 20-plus – including the playoffs.  (That happened in Week 2 of last season, when the Cowboys and Tony Romo’s busted-up chest won 27-24 in overtime.)

Ball Yoda – influence the game, he will

Anyone familiar with TFQ’s What I Saw knows that I refer to Ravens S Ed Reed as Ball Yoda because he’s always around the football, as if he’s some sort of Jedi.

The playoffs are no exception.  Reed has eight career playoff interceptions – the most among active players (Atlanta’s Asante Samuel has seven), and one behind the NFL record shared by Ronnie Lott and three other players.  He’s also gone home for Super Sunday – he grew up in St. Rose, Louisiana, approximately 17 miles away from the Superdome – and even though Reed has stated publicly that he’s playing next year he has to know that this could be his last chance at that elusive ring.  His A-game should be in full effect.

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick had better not believe everything he sees when he looks downfield and sees open receivers, because Ball Yoda is one of the best baiters of QBs ever, and the ball just finds the future Hall Of Famer.  Even if Reed doesn’t pick off a pass, his presence downfield could serve to make Kaepernick hesitate ever so slightly and thus throw the offense off its rhythm.

The ground battle

I don’t think much needs to be said about Niners RB Frank Gore, because his head coach Jim Harbaugh and his teammates have been showering the 8-year pro with praise all season.  It feels like Gore is Robocop – held together by numerous repairs after serious injuries and surgeries dating back to a torn knee during his days at the University of Miami.  This year Gore is healthy, and he’s a huge factor for Sunday.  Read-option or not, the NFC Championship win against Atlanta was a reminder that when times get tough San Francisco won’t hesitate to stack the line of scrimmage and pound the rock with The Inconvenient Truth.

Keep an eye out for RB LaMichael James as well.  The rookie was held out of games until Week 13, but has shown incredible speed as a change-of-pace back for the Niners.

One last note on the San Fran ground game: Even if they don’t run the read-option out of the pistol, that formation presents problems for a defense because the tailback never lines up directly behind the quarterback with that much space behind the line of scrimmage to establish a running angle.  Defenders don’t like the formation because it’s almost impossible to anticipate which side a running play will go to, and the back is hard to spot after the snap, because the QB obscures the view.

On the other side, there’s Ravens RB Ray Rice, whose talents and increased impact since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator speak for themselves.

But the Niners have to worry about another guy now too.  In fact, according to NFL.com, RB Bernard Pierce has more rushing yards (401) than Rice does (397) since Caldwell started calling the plays.  I’ve wondered before if fired coordinator Cam Cameron didn’t give Rice the ball enough because of concerns about his durability and/or keeping him fresh.   Whether that’s true or not, with the emergence of Pierce Baltimore can give Rice a breather while still staying faithful to the game plan.  They’ll need fresh legs against the best front seven in football.

Damnit, Jim, I’m not a miracle worker!

Injuries often play a significant role in the Super Bowl.  Niners DL Justin Smith is the most significant injury concern for both teams, but his much-publicized triceps/elbow injury didn’t really diminish his impact against the Falcons as far as I could tell.  Beyond that, each team is hoping for solid play out of two banged-up linebackers in particular:

Ahmad Brooks, Niners – The most underrated of San Francisco’s four A-list ’backers missed the whole week of practice after the NFC Championship game due to an injured AC joint in his shoulder.  He’s practiced all week this week, and is apparently good to go.  If you don’t think that Brooks is a key player for the Niners (think Lance Briggs in Chicago as a comparison), consider what head coach Jim Harbaugh said about him when commenting to the San Francisco Chronicle about the 6-year, $44.5 million contract extension he received after last season:

Vic [Fangio, Niners defensive coordinator] made the comment the other day that the smartest thing we did as an organization was pay Ahmad.  We would all concur with that.  He’s done it [all] with very little fanfare.

Dannell Ellerbe, Ravens – Ellerbe is pretty banged-up, with a bad ankle and back that caused him to sit out two practices last week and take a cortisone shot.  He says he’s ready for Super Sunday.  Let’s hope so.  Baltimore’s second-leading tackler this season and Ray Lewis play critical roles as inside linebackers against the dreaded read-option fake.  It’s their job to slow-pursue the flow of each running play, follow the ball as best they can, and ideally make initial contact with the ballcarrier after teammates have forced QB Colin Kaepernick to decide to keep/give the ball away by favoring certain angles.  If Ellerbe is hobbled at all, it could be a long day for the Ravens watching the Niners run to that (weak) side.

It’s not child-proof, but it’s tough to open…right?

The performance of Falcons WR Julio Jones notwithstanding, the Niners defense is very tough to pass deep against.  On the other hand, Ravens WR Torrey Smith has been taking the top off of defenses throughout the playoffs.  It will be up to San Fran’s cornerbacks to keep Smith in front of them – something perennial All-Pro CB Champ Bailey couldn’t do in Denver.  (At all.)

Keep in mind that the Niners defense hasn’t been nearly as dominant in the passing game as they were for much of the season:

Niners Defense, 2012 Season – Including Playoffs

Weeks 1-14 Weeks 15-Conf. Final
PPG 14.2 28.8
YPG 275.5 391.4
Pass YPG 184.7 289.2
Third Down % 31.4 42.6

(NFL Network)

Note that a huge majority of the increased yardage allowed is attributed to the passing game…. They had better shore that up for Super Sunday, because Joe Flacco is white-hot.

If it’s up to the D, is it meant to be?

The Niners come into Sunday sporting the NFL’s number two scoring defense this season, giving up just 17.1 points per game.  The Ravens, on the other hand, were ranked 12th in that department, with 21.5.  According to NFL.com, teams with a top-two scoring defense have gone 16-5 when facing a non-top-two scoring defense.

They should have gone to the quad for some streaking

According to ESPN Stats & Information, no team has ever won the Super Bowl without at least three straight wins during the regular season.  Though the Niners won two in a row five times, they never pulled off the hat trick. old school-streaking

(DreamWorks)

Everybody’s doing it…

God, please don’t let it come down to this…

Much has been made of the struggles that Niners K David Akers has had this season – one season removed from setting the NFL single-season scoring record, no less.  Last week’s doink off of the upright against the Falcons didn’t exactly help to ease the nerves of San Francisco fans.  According to NFL Media, Akers is tied with a certain other kicker for the third-worst regular season FG percentage for a kicker playing in a Super Bowl that same season, with 69.0 percent.  That other kicker?  Scott Norwood for the Bills.  Eeek.

Scott Norwood

(Chris O’Meara, AP)

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, SUPER BOWL EDITION – HERE AT TFQ.  IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK.

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What I Saw, Conference Championships, 2012 Season

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – 2012 Conference Championships

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.

(A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.

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Away from the game(s)

I SAW both the road teams – Baltimore and San Francisco – win the Conference Championships.

Next stop: The Big Easy, New Orleans for the Super Bowl.

’Nawlins is the party capital of America – the perfect location for bro-on-bro action and Ray Lewis’ retirement celebration.

Yes, as if you didn’t already know, it’s the Harbowl, the Super Baugh, the Bro Bowl.  Ravens coach (and older, more conciliatory brother) John Harbaugh will take on the Niners, coached by his younger (and the bigger, more casual bully) brother, Jim.

TFQ will post a Super Bowl preview in the next few days, but for now a few thoughts:

I SAW an improbable matchup for Super Sunday, between a quarterback from University of Nevada (Niner Colin Kaepernick) and a QB from University of Delaware (Raven Joe Flacco).  It’s the weirdest alum matchup at the position in the big game since a guy from U of Northern Iowa lost to a product of U of Miami (Ohio).  (Kurt Warner v. Ben Roethlisberger)

While both players were darlings of their respective draft classes in the eyes of pro scouts, it’s safe to say that they both came in under the radar when their careers as starting pivots in the NFL got under way.  Hell, Kaepernick wasn’t even supposed to start at all until some time in the future, but here he is on the biggest stage in North American sports in what will be just his tenth start as a pro.  There is a boatload of juicy story angles for this season’s Super Bowl, but the two QBs have taken complex – and very different – paths to get here.

Trivia Bomb:

It sure sounds weird to hear of a University of Delaware alum quarterbacking a team to the Super Bowl, but it’s not the first time.  Former Raiders QB Rich Gannon also went to the school.

I SAW a crazy run of dominance come to an end – or at least take a 1-year break.  I was thinking, and checked up on QBs to have played in the Super Bowl in recent years….

Trivia Bomb:

I just mentioned Raiders QB Rich Gannon’s Super Bowl appearance.  That was at the end of the 2001 season, against the Buccaneers and QB Brad Johnson.  In the twelve years since, every Super Bowl has had a Manning brother, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger play in it.  Those four quarterbacks have gone 8-4 in those chances.  (Peyton lost to the Saints, Brady has lost to Eli and the Giants twice, and Big Ben was beaten by the Packers.)

I SAW that a separate post will follow in the weeks to come giving him his fair due, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the career of the most prolific tight end in history, Tony Gonzalez, who has likely played his last game after his Falcons lost to the Niners.

1,242 career receptions (second only in NFL history to Jerry Rice).

14,268 career receiving yards (seventh in NFL history, and 4,208 more than the next-highest tight end, Shannon Sharpe).

103 career TD receptions (6th all-time, and 20 more than the next-highest tight end, Antonio Gates).

6 Fumbles over 16 seasons and 254 games played.

He also completed the lone pass attempt of his pro career, for 40 yards, as a Chief in 2001.  He retires with a sterling passer rating of 118.7.

What a career.  Another Hall Of Fame career will end on Sunday, when Ravens LB Ray Lewis takes the field.

For now, let’s take a look at the last multi-game day of the 2012 NFL season.

(2) San Francisco wins @ (1) Atlanta, 28-24

I SAW that we should start this baby with a bomb.

Trivia Bomb:

According to Elias Sports Bureau, when the Niners came back to win after being down 17-0 to the Falcons, it was the biggest comeback win in NFC Championship history.  Ironically, the previous NFC record was when the Falcons made it to their only Super Bowl appearance by overcoming a 13-point deficit against the Vikings in the playoffs to the 1998 season.  So, one could argue that Atlanta got Karma Sutra.  (When life comes back to screw you in the rear.)

(The comeback record in the AFC Championship happened during the 2006 season when the Colts came back after trailing the Patriots by 18 points.)

The end result: The Niners are back where they used to belong, heading to their first Super Bowl since 1995 – which was their fifth such appearance in the 15 years prior.

I SAW that falling in an early hole didn’t phase the Niners one bit.  After going down 10-0 to Atlanta in the first quarter, San Fran head coach Jim Harbaugh and his offensive coordinator Greg Roman started to put an extra offensive lineman out on the field, and San Fran made like Olivia Newton-John and got physical, which is what they do best.

The Falcons defense came out ready to try and contain the running ability of Niners QB Colin Kaepernick and the read-option fake that tore the Packers a new one the week before.  Atlanta’s defensive ends and ’backers came at plays slowly – in a good way.  They held the outside edges and didn’t over pursue any angles, essentially forcing San Fran to beat them another way.  However, though slow pursuit and holding ground generally fares well against ball-fake-oriented schemes, it puts the front seven in more flat-footed positions.  Advantage: The road graders on the Niners O-line and RB Frank Gore.  After being put under the knife throughout his career as often as a med school cadaver, the man they call The Inconvenient Truth continues to be the unsung heart of the offense, and on Sunday he had 21 carries as San Francisco took control of the line of scrimmage, and Gore put the game away with the last two touchdowns of the season in the Georgia Dome.

But, as we all know, it takes two teams to make up a final score, and though Atlanta blew up the first half, well….

I SAW, for the second time in the last two games, the Falcons fail to show enough stamina to hold up all game.  Against Seattle in the Divisional Round, Atlanta came mere seconds and a failed Hail Mary attempt away from blowing a 20-0 lead after the Seahawks surged back to take a 28-27 lead with under a minute left in the game.

On Sunday, the Falcons blew a 17-0 lead – and paid dearly for it this time around.  As mentioned above, their defense began to wear down under the Niners’ oft-overlooked power style of offense that employs old-school formations with trios of tight ends, multiple fullbacks and the like.  But this loss isn’t just on the defense, either.  Look at how the offense floundered after halftime:

Falcons In Either Half, NFC Championship

First Half Second Half
Points 24 0
Plays 33 33
Yards 297 180
Pass Yards 271 125
First Downs 17 10

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Clearly the points were the killer, but note that Atlanta gained about half as many yards in the second half compared to the first half – with the same amount of plays.

The collapse was punctuated by small mistakes writ huger than John Holmes.  On the Falcons’ first possession of the third quarter WR Roddy White slipped running a route and QB Matt Ryan’s pass was intercepted by CB Chris Culliver (that guy who doesn’t like the gays).  Then, with one minute left in the quarter, Ryan took his eyes off the ball for just one split second to survey the field.  Unfortunately, that moment was when the shotgun snap hit his hands, and Atlanta turned the ball over again.

Neither of those plays resulted directly in Niners points, but they did put an offense with a fragile confidence further out of sorts.  In the end, the Falcons gained 477 yards, but lost the game.  According to Elias Sports Bureau, that sets a record for most yards gained by a team in a playoff home loss.  (Super Bowls aren’t counted, as it is played at a neutral site.)

I SAW Falcons QB Matt Ryan set a franchise playoff record with 396 passing yards in Sunday’s game.  The problem was that, like his team, Ryan had a great start and a bad finish.  His first half numbers: 18-of-24 for 271 yards, 3 TDs and a 151.2 passer rating.  That means the Falcons QB had just 125 yards after halftime, which generally won’t cut it against a surging team the likes of San Francisco.

Obviously the easiest explanation would be to credit the Niners defense – arguably the best all-around unit in the NFL.  But Ryan & Co. didn’t keep their collective heel on San Fran’s throat in the second half.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the first half alone Ryan equaled his full-game career high for completions on throws deeper than 10 yards downfield, with 11.  However, his aggressiveness (or the play calling) waned as the game went on:

Matt Ryan, Throws Deeper Than 10 Yards Downfield, Sunday vs. Niners

  First Half Second Half
Comp-Att 11-12 4-6
Yards per Att 18.2 12.2
TD 2 0

(ESPN Sports & Information)

One direct result of this was a serious decline in the impact of second-year WR Julio Jones.  After catching five throws out of 6 that were deeper than 10 yards downfield in the first half for 121 yards and two touchdowns, Jones was thrown at just three times in those situations in the second half, for just one reception and 37 yards.

More on Jones in a moment, but first let’s lay another bombonyall:

Trivia Bomb:

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Falcons aren’t new to losing playoff games while their quarterback goes off.  Of the four postseason game during which Atlanta’s QB has surpassed 300 passing yards – Ryan, Chris Chandler in 1998, Jeff George in 1995, and Steve Bartkowski in 1980 – the franchise only has one win to show for it.  (Bartkowski’s game.)

I SAW Falcons WR Julio Jones do more than prove he’s worth the blockbuster draft day trade the team pulled to select him two years ago.  In the first four minutes of the game, Jones had four receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown.  His second TD catch came in the second quarter, when he did a great job of keeping his feet inbounds at the back of the end zone and hauled the pass in despite some uncalled pass interference on Niners CB Tarell Brown.

By halftime Jones had gouged San Francisco’s secondary for 7 catches, 135 yards and 2 TDs.  His team lost the game, but the blame is hardly on his shoulders.  The second-year wideout has the size-speed combination to become an elite receiver in the mold of Calvin Johnson or Brandon Marshall; he just needs to round his game out by running better short and intermediate routes.

I SAW a dirty defensive move that is becoming more popular as the rulebook further protects NFL quarterbacks.  The play in question was the one late in the game that injured Falcons QB Matt Ryan’s non-throwing shoulder.  Reports from Atlanta claimed that Ryan could have played in the Super Bowl had his team won the game, but he put up several errant throws while in obvious pain – especially the one that was thrown behind WR Roddy White on a 4th-and-4 in the red zone with under a minute to play in the game.

Niners LB Ahmad Brooks committed the cheap part of the play, and he is by no means the first defender to do it.  In fact, the move is starting to become popular:  A defender with a clear shot on a QB wraps him up high, and on the way to the ground, stretches his hands out above his head.  It looks like an innocent “I’m not driving him into the ground” gesture, but what it accomplishes is a belly flop onto a quarterback’s shoulders and/or ribs.  Any defender that claims innocence on this move is full of shit.  These players analyze every move they make, and seldom is something so recurring an accident.  Sadly, it just goes to show that many players will find ways to try and hurt the passer, no matter what changes are made to the rulebook.

I SAW Niners QB Colin Kaepernick continue his unexpected rise to stardom by leading his team to Super Sunday – and he did it from the pocket.

One could argue that the Falcons overreacted from his performance last week against the Packers.  Either defensive end drastically shaded the outside edge, forcing Kaepernick to give the rock to his tailbacks.  (And, giving him numerous looks at zone coverage on pass plays – see above below, with respect to Vernon Davis.)  The second-year pivot showed his (thus far) underappreciated versatility.  Had just 2 rushes, the least in any of his starts, but he tore apart the Falcons with his passes in the second half, finishing with a very efficient 16-of-21 for 233 yards, a touchdown and a 127.7 passer rating.

Kaepernick was kept in the pocket on 21 of his 23 dropbacks Sunday – his highest rate of the season.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Until Sunday, most analysts would have expected that to be the way to beat the kid.  But Kaepernick’s arm is top-notch, as was demonstrated each time he unfurled it and sent a whistling pinpoint spiral into the appropriate window of the defense.

Bottom line: So far in his brief career as an NFL starter, Kaep is showing that if he is on his game, defenses are at a loss at what to do to stop him.

I SAW Niners TE Vernon Davis show up for first time in a while.

Credit goes in part to QB Colin Kaepernick’s play last week.  The Falcons played a lot of zone on Sunday, so that their defensive backs and linebackers didn’t play with their backs to the quarterback, as they would in man-to-man coverage (and as the Packers did en route to getting schooled by Kaepernick in the previous round).  However, zone coverage tends to favour tight ends, who, given the nature of their placement on the field, run more crossing and seam routes.  Giving a TE with the size and speed of Davis such gaps in the defense to exploit is doubly problematic.

Kaepernick and offensive coordinator Greg Roman made a great adjustment by looking for Davis downfield.  Until Sunday, Davis had been the forgotten man in the San Fran offense since Kaepernick took over as starter, but that was far from the case against Atlanta:

Vernon Davis With Colin Kaepernick As Starting QB

First 8 Games NFC Championship
Targets Per Game 3.0 6
Receptions Per Game 1.6 5
Yards 23.5 106
TD 1 1

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Trivia Bomb:

According to the NFL Network ticker, Vernon Davis is the first player with 100 receiving yards in consecutive Conference Championships since Michael Irvin did it with the Cowboys.

I SAW PROPS to the Niners organization for allowing ousted former team owner, Eddie DeBartolo present the NFC Champs trophy to the team after the game.

If you haven’t watched the NFL Network episode of A Football Life that details DeBartolo’s life, understand that his team was taken from him after he and his sister, Denise, feuded over his association with a gambling project.  Eddie was given the rest of the family business (with which he remains one of Forbes’ 400 richest Americans), and Denise took over the team, which her son, Jed York, oversees as team president.  It was heartwarming to hear Denise all but announce reconciliation to the TV audience, saying, “We’ve come full circle, and the dynasty will prevail.”

Make no mistake: DeBartolo was an all-around businessman, but he loved his football team, and treated his players like family members.  Super Bowl win or not, it was heartwarming to see Eddie DeBartolo holding back tears of joy from being back in a victorious Niners locker room after a playoff victory.

(4) Baltimore wins @ (2) New England, 28-13

I SAW the Ravens reach their first Super Bowl in a dozen years.  Fittingly enough, the only holdover from that Championship roster is LB Ray Lewis, who, by announcing his retirement before these playoffs started, breathed life into a team that lost four of its last five games to end the regular season.

“This is our time.  This is our time.” Lewis told the Associated Press after Sunday’s game – in which he had 14 tackles.

It’s certainly Lewis’ time.  He leads the NFL in playoff tackles this season with 44 – fresh off of a 10-game absence due to a torn triceps.  (I know, I know, maybe he used PEDs.  The problem right now is that his accuser, Mitch Ross, seems more eccentric and confusing than Lewis’ in-game rants do.  It’s too murky a quagmire to touch at this point.)

Baltimore gained just 130 yards on offense in the first half, and a pedestrian 356 all game.  No Raven rushed for more than 52 yards, or had more than 69 yards receiving.  But QB Joe Flacco threw three touchdowns – all of them in the second half – and the defense shut down Patriots QB Tom Brady and their colossus of an offense, further tarnishing a team with one foot in dynasty territory and another in disappointment….

As Ravens LB Terrell Suggs told the Associated Press leading up to the game: “We are probably the only team in the AFC that matches up good with the boy, No. 12 over there and his coach.”

I SAW the Patriots lose their first of five home AFC Championship games in franchise history, denying head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady a historic sixth trip to the Super Bowl together.

Unfortunately for New England, they found another way to be historic.  Until Sunday’s loss to Baltimore, Belichick had been 72-1 as coach of the Pats in home games during which his team held a lead at halftime.  Brady had been 67-0 in such situations.  (NFL Network’s NFL Gameday)

There’s never one single way to explain a loss (more will follow below), but fact that Brady and the offense couldn’t score when it truly mattered.

The highest scoring offense in the NFL regular season by more than 100 points was shut out in the second half.  New England didn’t so much slump on offense as it did fail to capitalize: On five trips inside the Ravens’ 25-yard line, they came away with just seven points – and that same with 6:49 left in the game.  Brady threw two interceptions in the second half, and another fumble by RB Stevan Ridley ultimately sealed the game (see below).

The offensive lapse evokes some concerns about the legacy of the Patriots, but first another blammo:

Trivia Bomb:

As pointed out by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, if Ravens head coach John Harbaugh wins the Super Bowl, he’ll have an NFL-best 63 wins since he was hired in 2008 – the same amount of wins over than span as the revered Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

I SAW – not to take away from the achievement(s) of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh just mentioned above, but his equal-footedness with Pats counterpart Bill Belichick serves as a reminder that the latter and his team aren’t enjoying the untouchable success that they used to.

I pointed out after New England’s close loss to Seattle in Week 6 that the Patriots are quietly becoming soft in the clutch.  I also said this, with the stats updated to include this season’s playoffs:

Every playoff game is clutch time, and that’s where the potential decline really starts to rear its head for the Pats – close games or not.  Look at the change in postseason W-L from 2001-06 (Brady’s first five years as a starter in New England) to 2007-now (the 16-0 regular season and beyond):

Seasons                       Playoff W-L (incl. SB)                      Super Bowl W-L

2001-2006                   12-2                                                     3-0

2007-present               3-4                                                       0-2

To make matters worse, Belichick’s team is 3-4 in the postseason since going 18-0 to start the season en route to the Super Bowl for the ’07 season.  We all know what happened then, and one could argue that this team hasn’t been the same since.

There can be extended debate as to why New England is losing close games and/or giving up leads late but the fact is that they somehow do.  We can lavish their offense with all sorts of stats that hail their historical production over recent years, but one of the things that always distinguished the Pats since Tom Brady took over is the way in which they somehow found ways to win those big, close games more often than not.  After looking at the stats above and remembering that NE failed to close out their last two Super Bowls – and only made it to last year’s because of a shanked short field goal attempt by the Ravens – it’s worth asking if this team has lost some of its edge.  Based on the way that Seahawks CB Richard Sherman fearlessly twitter-hounded Brady after the loss, the Pats certainly don’t intimidate every opponent the way they used to.  What’s more, the once-refreshing realist perspective that Brady or Belichick have shown after a loss when they opine that any team can lose to anyone is sounding more and more like two men without the answers for problems they used to be able to solve.  One could argue that it’s a tad early to appraise this decline in the Patriots, but the stats for close games and playoff losses over the last 5 years say otherwise.

There’s been more questioning what’s wrong with the Patriots in recent weeks than I can recall ever happening in the past – but that’s not to say that there’s been a whole lot of it.  But former head coach Dennis Green brought up a good point on NFL Network’s The Coaches Show.  New England doesn’t play with the physicality that it used to when it won all those Super Bowls, and they lost because they ran into a more physical team than them – the Ravens.

There’s some truth to that claim.  In the early 2000’s, Belichick’s teams were easily seen as the offspring of teams he helped coach during his days as a defensive coordinator with Bill Parcells with the Giants – tough and immovable at the point of attack.  Honestly – does anyone think of the Patriots as a smash-mouth team anymore?  Which player apart from DL Vince Wilfork is viewed as more “powerful” than “athletic”?  There was a time about a decade ago when the New England roster was replete with the former.  This can help to explain the recent playoff struggles that the Pats have experienced.  Everything gets more physical in the playoffs, and it’s worth noting that the Patriots lost twice in the Super Bowl to a team that once thrived on physicality themselves – the Giants.

(As an aside, consider those same Giants and another team, the Steelers.  I’d argue that the most direct explanation for the recent decline of either team is that they’ve dropped off in terms of physicality.)

I SAW that after this most recent postseason disappointment, it’s also worth looking at the statistical success of Brady throughout his playoff career.  I checked them out, and the mirror effect in relation to his team’s success is striking:

Tom Brady In Playoffs, By Season

Season # Of Games Comp % Yards Per Attempt TD-INT Passer Rating
2001 3* 61.9 5.6 1-1 77.3
2003 3* 59.5 6.3 5-2 84.5
2004 3* 67.9 7.3 2-0 109.4
2005 2 55.6 8.6 4-2 92.2
2006 3 58.8 6.1 5-4 76.5
2007 3^ 70.6 6.76 6-3 96.0
2009 1 54.8 3.67 2-3 49.1
2010 1 64.4 6.6 2-1 89.0
2011 3^ 67.6 7.91 8-4 100.4
2012 2 57.4 7.06 4-2 84.7

*- Won Super Bowl

^- Lost Super Bowl

Overall, Brady’s career playoff numbers are, well, average.

Tom Brady In Playoffs, Career

# Of Games Comp% Yards Per Attempt TD-INT Rating
24 62.3 6.7 42-22 87.4

So, the division isn’t like night and day, but it’s worth noting that Brady’s production in terms of scoring and yardage rose dramatically after New England’s run of three Championships in a four-season span.  I don’t want to be heavy-handed, but ONE touchdown pass in his storybook first playoff run?  One?!  And yet once the Super Bowl success dies off, his TD production per game almost doubles.  Apart from the debacle against Baltimore to end the 2009 season, his passer rating is arguably more consistent as well.

The stats are tough to appraise, because the earlier periods of Brady’s career were defined by leading a talent-deficient offense. (Was Troy Brown his best receiver? Kevin Faulk his most consistent RB before Dillon?) So, he went from a QB that was mostly judged by wins alone, like Roethlisberger was judged early in his career, to one that was able to make use of a myriad of options once the front office started to add talent to the offensive side of the ball. (Note how during that transition the defense got worse and worse.) It’s the latter years when that those middling statistics betray a QB that has struggled much more than most tend to admit, because by then Brady had already been saddled with the wunderkind, 3-ring stage he’d had earlier. He basically hasn’t been able to combine statistical success with winning.

I SAW vintage Bill Belichick during one particular play on Sunday.  On fourth down during their first possession, the Patriots lined up in a punt formation, with backup QB Ryan Mallet as the upback.  Before the snap, New England shifted into an offensive formation with Mallet under canter, forcing the Ravens to call a timeout.

I love it.  New England hasn’t converted a fake punt since 1999.  (CBS Broadcast)  It’s amazing how much every coach thinks their ass off to prepare for Belichick, and then he nails them to the wall with the simplest of situational surprises.  He doesn’t so much outsmart opponents as he does out-simples them.  It’s like his whole attitude is, well if you’re not going to do it, I will, and if you haven’t prepared your players for it, you’re fucked.

I SAW the Patriots’ chance to win this game dissipate when CB Aqib Talib left the game for good after tweaking his thigh muscle in the first quarter.  I detailed the positive impact Talib has had on the pass rush of the Pats defense by allowing them to play more man-to-man coverage on the edges (see: What I Saw, Wk 17), but once he left the game the downfield coverage took a big hit.  To make matters worse, S Patrick Chung got hurt in the second quarter as well.      

Halftime adjustments are a bog deal in the NFL, and once the Ravens offense was able to regroup and discuss the Patriots personnel shortage in the defensive backfield during the break, lo and behold Ravens QB Joe Flacco’s production went up.  In the first half, Flacco was just 6-of-12 for 77 yards and no TDs.  In the second half, he completed 15 out of 24 for 163 yards and three touchdowns.  A lot of that had to do with the absence of Talib (and, to a lesser extent, Chung).

Before some more thoughts about Flacco and the dreaded E word, an exchange with a friend of mine about Talib’s injury proved to be an amusing – and strangely apt – statement about the roster strategies employed by New England:

Friend: Why not just put [wide receiver] Brandon Lloyd back there to cover Ravens?

Me: Well, he’s no Troy Brown. [The Pats WR who was often forced to play CB due to injuries to other players.]

Friend: Whatever.  Everybody’s Troy Brown.

Kinda like what I’ve always said about WR Wes Welker….

I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco step up again in the playoffs.

Flacco’s game didn’t start too well, though.  His trademark high-arcing deep throws didn’t suit the very windy conditions in Foxboro.  Flacco didn’t adjust, and several throws fluttered ever so slightly off-target, as his 50 percent completion rate in the first half would suggest.  As mentioned above, the injuries suffered by Patriots CB Aqib Talib and S Patrick Chung contributed to Flacco’s second half success, but his throws also became noticeable more accurate, hence the 62.5 percent completion rate in the second half.  That’s not sexy, but while the Baltimore defense shut out New England for the last 30 minutes, it was more than enough.

Flacco’s six career rod victories in the playoffs are the most in NFL history.  Overall, that’s more than the total for 19 separate franchises.

We have ourselves another Eli Manning quandary here.  Both men started off a successful trip to the Super Bowl with offseason talk about being an elite quarterback, and both pivots shine in January while doing a seesaw act in their regular seasons.

I grow so tired of the elite QB debates.   Can we leave it for now that Eli and Flacco are good examples of the difference between a franchise quarterback (which they are), and an elite quarterback (which they aren’t)?  When you come to expect stints of three-and-outs from a quarterback at any point during any season, that’s not elite.  SI.com’s Peter King put it well when describing Flacco:

It’s not the only way to win, but it’s a way to win, and it’s Flacco’s way. The Ravens’ offense is suited for him for a couple of reasons. Baltimore can live with the three-and-outs that Flacco’s going to have because he’s not the classic short-passing, chains-moving quarterback. As with the Niners, Flacco’s not a stat guy. Never has been. He’s not going to be a very highly rated quarterback because he’ll throw downfield a lot, and downfield throwers don’t have great completion percentages. But, obviously, it’s good enough.

Sounds like Eli Manning to me.  On Gameday Final NFL Network’s Rich Eisen asked this question: Does Joe Flacco need to win the Super Bowl to be elite?

I would say yes – and he needs to do more than that.

I SAW the Patriots’ kryptonite.  I mean, S Bernard Pollard should have come out of the tunnel in Nate Robinson’s green body suit that he used to beat “Superman” Dwight Howard.

(NBA sidebar: I doubt Superman would bitch about not getting the ball.)

As a player for the Chief, Pollard made the infamous hit on Pats QB Tom Brady’s knee in 2008 that knocked the superstar out for the season.  The season after that, Pollard joined the Texans, and was the defender that was squaring up to hit WR Wes Welker when the wideout juked, blew out his knee and missed the playoffs.  Last year, as a Raven, he was the defender that inured TE Rob Gronkowski’s ankle in last year’s AFC Championship, leaving Gronk somewhat hobbled in New England’s Super Bowl loss.

But Pollard’s biggest impact for his team – literally – against the Patriots came on Sunday, when, late in the game, he blasted RB Stevan Ridley at the end of a running play.  The crushing hit clearly knocked Ridley unconscious for a moment, and as a result he fumbled the ball.  New England could have tied the game on that drive, but instead Baltimore scored off of the turnover and increased their lead to 14 points.  A two-touchdown swing in a Conference Championship.

Pollard had nine tackles and a deflected pass on Sunday, but the wood he laid on Ridley was, in one man’s opinion, the biggest play of the day.  After the game, head coach John Harbaugh was on the field, and during the CBS broadcast one could have seen him bang his index finger into Pollard’s chest, and tell him, “What a season we’ve had…you won that game.”

Apart from that moment, the Patriots need to start figuring out how to avoid being their own kryptonite….

nate robinson kryptonite

(http://www.men-access.com)

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What I Saw, Divisional Round, 2012 Season

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – 2012 Divisional Round

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.

(A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.)

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Away from the game(s)

I SAW an amazing playoff weekend, one of the better ones in memory.  But before we get into that action, let’s look at two highly controversial matters – one that is hopefully going to be put to bed, and one that is just getting legs….

I SAW a federal judge dismiss the defamation lawsuit filed by Saints LB Jonathan Vilma against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Keep in mind that the ruling in no way says anything conclusive about the details of the bounty scandal apart from showing that the actions of Goodell and the league were not defamatory against Vilma.  In other words, the “truth” of the scandal remains just as cloudy as it did prior, and Vilma’s name has not been fully cleared of involvement.

One way or another, this scandal isn’t done reverberating.  But at least the bureaucratic quagmire is behind us…right?

I SAW a scandal develop around Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o that is about as weird and confusing as a make-believe dead girlfriend.  (Forgive my lack of creativity.  There is no real comparison.)

I remember reading about Te’o’s girlfriend, who had reportedly died of leukemia last year, in Sports Illustrated. Sure, it was moving.  Now it has been announced that this girl didn’t exist.  The speculation abounds, especially at this early stage.  (The news was broken on Wednesday.)  I’ll leave the current information to this transcript of an interview Te’o conducted with SI’s Pete Thamel.  There’s a very fishy vibe to it all; that’s about all I can say as far as the facts are concerned.

Whatever Te’o’s involvement has been, it’s embarrassing for him.  He’s stated as much publicly.  And new evidence has surfaced from an anonymous informant that the linebacker was unaware of the hoax until December 2012.  However, that doesn’t explain what appears to be embellishment of the story by Te’o.  But who cares?  Leave him alone.

To those who feel upset and/or manipulated by the story being a hoax: How much should it really matter to you?  Maybe you shouldn’t have placed so much importance upon the personal lives and loss of others in the first place.  After all, the whole sports world shouldn’t be a playground for the likes of tear-meister Rick Reilly, or, as I like to call him, the head writer for Bart’s People.  The fact that Reilly has won so many Sportswriter Of The Year awards for milking the most personal, cry-worthy, privacy-mangling stories is a good indication of how horny the public has become for celebrity’s private lives – even in sports.  And to think that Te’o hasn’t even been drafted to the pros yet.

Bart's People

(20th Century Fox)

One last note on Te’o: Any speculation about his draft status and/or reputation at this point is pointless.  In the end, if the average sports fan’s memory can forget about a guy torturing and killing dogs, he or she will forget about this too.  Te’o’s going in this draft, he’ll be selected in a high round, and any team in the NFL that is interested in drafting him will have their chance to interview him and grill him about what really went down.

I SAW what was arguably the most exciting Divisional Round in NFL playoff history.

276 points were scored – the most in a four-game weekend in NFL history.  There were two nail-biters, and two dominant wins that were nonetheless exciting.  What’s more, the two close scores extended the final seasons of two surefire Hall Of Famers.  Analysis of those games can be found below, but first let’s take a look at the overall playoff and early off-season vibe.

And keep in mind: We are on the doorstep of a possibly mind-numbing week of Harbaugh Bowl coverage.

I SAW a bullshit scheduling move last Sunday.  SI.com’s Don Banks brought up a good point – one I’d like to add to:

“I know the thirst for larger TV ratings dictates most everything in the NFL, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to play Sunday’s Seattle at Atlanta game in the late-afternoon slot, thereby not forcing the Seahawks to play a game at 10 a.m. by their body clocks? Seattle had the late Sunday game last week in the first round, winning at Washington.

The Houston at New England matchup didn’t have any such time zone consequences, since the Texans are in the Central time zone and wouldn’t have had much of a struggle starting a game at noon their time. In the first half, the Seahawks fell behind 20-0 and played as if they weren’t quite awake yet.”

Moreover, Seattle’s home fans have to watch their team kickoff at 10 in the morning their time.  I know there’s revenue sharing in the NFL, so the best game in the most valuable TV spot helps everyone, but honestly.  Would Houston and/or New England fans/viewers not watch the game in as large numbers because it was at 1 o’clock?  Please.  I read last week in Sports Illustrated that of the 32 most-watched television shows last fall in the US, 31 of those were NFL games.  Logic should dictate that some of those were at one o’clock on Sundays – and that a top playoff game will get boffo ratings no matter where it is scheduled.  The league should be more accommodating to home fans and those local economies instead of trying to bean count.

I SAW the events of the past round make up for an exciting pair of conference championships.  Let’s consider how the remaining teams might fare….

(P.S. – I’m 7-1 so far in these playoffs, with Denver-Baltimore my only boo-boo.)

(1) Atlanta vs. (2) San Francisco – Sunday, 3:00 EST

The Falcons finally did it – they won a playoff game in their fourth try under head coach Mike Smith.  As a result, QB Matt Ryan (who was also 0-3 in the postseason until Sunday) leads his team to their first NFC Championship game since they lost to the Eagles during the 2004 season, and the first home game in the conference final in the franchise’s history.

There might never have been more pressure on a team to win a Divisional Round game than there was on Atlanta heading into last weekend, and late in the second half it seemed as though the Falcons might do everything they could to give away the game against the Seahawks.  But Ryan found Mr. Swan Song, TE Tony Gonzalez, to set up a game winning field goal.  (See: Atlanta wins vs. Seattle, 30-28.)

Okay – message received, Atlanta.  You’re good enough this season to break your playoff hex, and thus capable of winning the whole thing.  In fact, there might be no better test of the Falcons’ mettle than to have Sunday’s game come as close to slipping through their fingers as it did, and still have them steal away the win.  Now the question is whether or not the Falcons will come out and play a hangover game against the Niners.  San Fran turned mistakes into points with ease against Green Bay on Saturday, and they’ll do it next weekend too, if they’re given the chance.

Atlanta was 7-1 at home this season, and is 33-5 in the regular season there under Smith and Ryan.  But when they’ve lost there – including three more playoff losses – they’ve looked complacent.  Actually, the Falcons looked a lot like that during the second half on Sunday, when they took their foot off of the gas pedal and essentially played not to lose.  Admittedly, it’s quite easy to picture that happening again.

Remember last week when I said that the Packers would have a hard time against the Niners because they hadn’t seen an opponent run the read-fake option this season?  Well, the Falcons have faced off against that scheme several times this season.  And they sucked at defending it.  In two games against Cam Newton and the Panthers, Atlanta gave up 394 yards rushing.  Washington put up 129 yards on the ground, but QB Robert Griffin III left that game with a concussion, and looked pretty good until then.  And then there was last game, against Seattle, when QB Russell Wilson’s dual-threat capability exposed a Falcons defense that lacks lateral coverage skills.

Now that D comes up against QB Colin Kaepernick and the Niners, who are not intimidated in the least by having to play in the Georgia Dome since they’ve already gone into New Orleans, Green Bay, and New England and handed each team their hat.

What’s more, Kaepernick’s confidence couldn’t be higher after tearing Green Bay a new one last weekend.  (See: San Francisco wins @ Green Bay, 45-31.)  RB Frank Gore ran for 119 yards himself.  If Carolina could almost win twice against the Falcons with Cam Newton leading the way, it stands to reason that the best offensive line in football will be able to have their way in Atlanta.

Isn’t that the most convincing – and endearing – part about the Niners?  I’m referring to the fact that they have the best offensive and defensive lines in the NFL.  It’s been a while since one team could both of those distinctions, and the ones that do tend to take trophies home with them at the end of the season.

Add all this up, and Ryan probably has to have a career day for Atlanta to advance to Super Sunday.  And he has to do so against San Francisco’s defense – the heart of a team that still quietly carries a chip on their shoulder after narrowly missing the Super Bowl last year?  Good luck.  Just like last week against the Packers, the Niners are just too big and physical at the points of attack for the Falcons to handle.

I can actually see these two teams meeting in many postseasons to come, now that Smith, Ryan & Co. have that tough first postseason win under their belts.  But this year it’s Harbaugh, Gore & Co.’s turn.

(2) New England vs. (4) Baltimore – Sunday, 6:30 EST

We’ve seen this before, in so many ways.

This coming Sunday marks the Patriots’ seventh appearance in the AFC Championship during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.  That’s seven times in twelve years.  (It’s open to debate, but for me, with that stat and three Super Bowl wins in five chances, that’s as close to a dynasty as we’ll see in a long time.)

If they were playing against history, the Ravens have a tall order – one that extends beyond Brady-Belichick.  Only the Giants (5-0) have a better franchise record in conference championship appearances, albeit with less appearances than the Patriots (7-1; 5-1 under Brady and Belichick).  (ESPN Stats & Information)  New England is also 4-0 all-time at home in AFC Championship (3 of those under the current regime).

However, these two teams know each other well, having gone head-to-head five times in the last five seasons, and only one of those games was decided by more than six points – a 33-14 beat down that Baltimore handed down to New England in Foxborough in the playoffs two years ago.  So it’s safe to say that the Ravens have some first-hand experience at beating the Pats on their own turf.  On top of that there’s last year’s AFC Championship at the same venue that Baltimore lost only because of a shanked chip-shot field goal by Billy Cundiff.  Brady can’t be too horny over the notion of facing LB Ray Lewis and a defense playing hard to keep their leader’s final farewell going.  The quarterback’s 74.1 career passer rating against the Ravens is his worst against any opponent.

One of Brady’s favourite targets, TE Rob Gronkowski, re-broke his arm last weekend and will miss the rest of the postseason.  I don’t put too much stock in that factor.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, on Sunday Brady threw for a season-high 244 yards and tied a season-high with three TDs out of formations with two or more tight ends – after Gronk left the game.  The New England offense never missed a beat when Gronkowski was out during the regular season either.

Should Brady succeed, it will be a result of him doing what he always does, which means I misspoke above, because he does not have a favourite receiver other than the open one.  He’s been seeing more and more open receivers this season thanks to the breakneck pace with which he’s been conducting the offense.  The Patriots ran 1,191 offensive plays from scrimmage in the regular season – second-most in NFL history.  (The number one spot belongs to the 1995 Patriots under QB Drew Bledsoe, which ran 1,199.)  Keep that in mind while I tally up the number of snaps the 37-year old Lewis and the Ravens D has played the last two games: 87 plays against Indianapolis in the Wild Card round + 87 plays against Denver last week = 174 plays in a six-day span.  Can Baltimore keep this up?  One guy’s playing with nothing left to save for tomorrow… at least one guy.  (Part of me wonders if the other shoe will drop in the form of S Ed Reed before next season starts.)

However, the Ravens have been quite the productive squad on offense in recent weeks.  Everyone is talking about Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh’s bold decision to start QB Colin Kaepernick (see: San Francisco wins @ Green Bay, 45-31), but Jim’s brother John seems to have pulled off a rather ballsy move of his own by firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the regular season in favor of then-QB coach Jim Caldwell.  With Caldwell at the helm, BAL has set team records for yardage in a playoff game in back-to-back weeks – in no small part by doing what Cameron didn’t do enough – using RB Ray Rice.  But for me the success of the Ravens’ offense this weekend comes down to the wide receiver position.  Torrey Smith looked deadly on Saturday, albeit against a confounding Champ Bailey in coverage.  (See: Baltimore wins @ Denver, 38-35 – 2OT)  In the Week 3 win against the Pats, Smith played just days after the death of his younger brother and caught 6 balls for 127 yards and two touchdowns.   QB Joe If you think it’s taken a while for Baltimore wideouts to step up in the playoffs, you’re right.  Smith’s three career postseason receiving TDs are already the most in franchise history. QB Joe Flacco will need Smith, and other WRs Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones to find the right passing windows if the Ravens are going to have a chance.  I think they have a great chance – Baltimore really feels like a team of destiny right now.  But the clock can strike midnight at any time….

The main decision-maker for me is the Pats’ running game.  Would you believe that no AFC team ran the ball more this season than New England?  In fact, only the Seahawks ran more rushing plays in the entire league.  Not Houston, not Washington, not San Fran.  The Patriots finished ranked seventh in the NFL this season in rushing yards – tied for the highest ranking in the Belichick era – and demonstrated Sunday against Houston that it can be productive against a big, penetrating front seven.  Still, the Texans’ defense wasn’t good against the run this season (26th in the NFL), and neither was Baltimore’s.  It ranked 20th in the league, the first time it has ranked outside of the top 10 since 2002.  Mind you, Lewis was out for the majority of the season, and now he’s back and clearly helping the defense play beyond itself during these playoffs.  Keep in mind that they benefitted from Broncos RB Knowshown Moreno leaving Saturday’s game with an injury.  They won’t have that advantage this Sunday.  The Ravens also won’t be playing the same middling defense that they faced when they beat the Patriots in Week 3.  New England is a real force on defense right now, gathering momentum every week.  I want the Ravens to keep playing, but New England isn’t going to allow it.

I SAW the final head coaching vacancies get filled.  There was a flurry of action among the general manager and coordinator positions in the NFL this week – all of which I’ll leave for later, when TFQ submits a Report Card for each NFL team before the 2013 draft.  For now, let’s go over the most recent head coaching hires:

Chip Kelly, Eagles – What a head shaker.  Not only did Kelly seem on the verge of becoming the head coach of the Browns less than 14 days ago, but according to high school recruiting target Dontre Wilson, Kelly visited his home on a scouting visit less than 24 hours prior to accepting the Philly job.  Was it all about money for Kelly?  According to the coach himself, no.  NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala spoke to Kelly, and he claims that the initial media frenzy surrounding the various courtships for his services threw off the reputedly private Kelly.  He walked away from the pros as a result, but Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie asked him to keep thinking about it.  Once the deluge of publicity subsided, Kelly claims he had a clearer mind to make his decision, and realized that he wanted to take the Philly job – but not without making sure he was able to tell his Oregon players personally, hence the secrecy until the last minute.  Let’s hope Kelly’s being honest, because coaching a pro football team isn’t for the uncommitted.

Marc Trestman, Bears – At first, my reaction was something like, ????????????????????  As Peter King pointed out in SI.com’s MMQB, the bears conducted more coaching interviews than they had wins this season – 13-10.  Now this?  After all, Trestman has a most unconventional career thus far: He jumped between three teams as an assistant coach before taking five years away from football.  I can’t find documentation of it anywhere in the interweb, but I swear he was an insurance salesman or something before he was then hired by the Niners as offensive coordinator in 1995 in what I remember as a strange decision.  However, Trestman called plays for a deadly offense led by QB Steve Young and WR Jerry Rice – think Bears QB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall – and then was in the booth when Raiders QB Rich Gannon won the MVP in 2002.  More to the point, he even helped Cutler prepare for the 2006 draft, and the current Bears QB seems excited to have Trestman on board.  In fact, this hiring is another indication of how QB-driven the NFL has become.  It’s not like Chicago hired Trestman only because of his acumen for coaching quarterbacks, but his main job will clearly be to maximize Cutler’s talents…aaaand maybe someone else’s once Cutler’s contract is up after next year.

Mike McCoy, Chargers – It’s never easy to shower Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator with praise.  (I used to affectionately call former Colts coordinator Tom Moore a third nipple – though Moore is a talented sidelines man.)  But remember last year, when McCoy turned Denver’s offense from a dink-and-dunk scheme with QB Kyle Orton into the old-school option with Tim Tebow?  That’s no small task, and a versatile, pure football mind is all the rage in coaching these days (thanks again, Belichick).  Other than that, McCoy spent the better part of his NFL career in Carolina trying to corral the undisciplined beast that was QB Jake Delhomme.  That didn’t work so well, and now McCoy has to keep the skittish Philip Rivers in check.  Just sayin’.

Bruce Arians, Cardinals – Arians is a consummate professional who will give any employer 100 percent, 24/7/365.  But I still can’t help but wonder if his illness last week delayed his getting into the unprecedented jostling for jobs with the few viable winners (read: Bears, Eagles, Chargers), and had to settle.  ’Zona doesn’t have a bad roster overall, though, with a good defense and solid special teams.  But the quarterback position is quicksand, and we’ll see if Arians can avoid getting sucked in.  Come hell or high water, he’ll find a way to get WR Larry Fitzgerald the ball.

Gus Bradley, Jaguars – Meh.  Wake me when the Jags relocate.  Seriously, though, Bradley is a decent hire.  But it’s one of those snooze jobs that has me more intrigued about how it affects Seattle for having lost their defensive coordinator.  (The Seahawks’ D embodies the mindset and scheme of their head coach, Pete Carroll, so my guess is that the team will find a way to sustain their success.)

The odd man out is former Bears head coach Lovie Smith, an African American.  The media has been quick to point out that no visible minorities were hired this offseason, lowering the total current head coaches fitting that description at four.  The league has been quick to acknowledge this as an issue, and might consider refining the limits of the Rooney Rule, which mandates affirmative action in job searches for head coaches.  NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal offers a good summary of the situation.

I’ll say this much: Sports are often a mirror of society.

I SAW two fashion statements rock the sports world (okay, maybe not):

First – and most recent – Patriots RB Stevan Ridley thinks he’s Rainbow Brite.  Thumbs up.

Next – I don’t know what to do with my thumbs on this one….

Check out what Niners QB Colin Kaepernick was rocking during Saturday night’s postgame press conference: Kaepernick hooded blazer

(NFL Network)

It might be difficult to tell in this photo, but that is a hooded blazer.  Not a hoodie underneath a blazer, but a blazer with a hood attached since the drawstring even threads through the lapel from the back.

Strangely enough, an energetic debate about the fashion validity of this streets-meets-Wall Street look went down between myself and six other guys watching this.  I consider this garment in the same way with which I consider Kaepernick’s deadly outside rushes: If I tried it, it would look like shit.  But he makes it work.

Enough runway talk.  On to last weekend’s games.

(4) Baltimore wins @ (1) Denver, 38-35 – 2OT    

I SAW Ravens LB Ray Lewis describe Saturday’s game to the Associated Press: “I’ve never been a part of a game so crazy in my life.”

If he’s right, then the best linebacker football has ever seen really has been saving the best for last.  I’m tired of people talking all about how much of a step Lewis has lost, and other negatives.  I don’t remember anyone harping on Michael Jordan’s decreasing vertical while he was winning a second set of three straight NBA championships.  Why?  Because MJ got the job done, albeit in a different way than he used to.  Lewis led the Ravens with 17 tackles in the coldest game in Broncos playoff history – a game that lasted almost 77 minutes.  In fact, this game was the fourth-longest playoff game in league history, and the longest since Jets-Browns in 1987:

Longest OT Games, NFL History

Teams Year Round Amount of Time into OT
Dolphins 27,Chiefs 24 1971 AFC Divisional 22:40
Texans 20,Oilers 17 1962 AFL Championship 17:54
Browns 23, Jets 20 1987 AFC Divisional 17:02
Ravens 38, Broncos 35 2013 AFC Divisional 16:42
Raiders 37, Colts 31 1977 AFC Divisional 15:43
Panthers 29,Rams 23 2004 NFC Divisional 15:10

(Associated Press)

I SAW that overall, Baltimore’s defense has been looking great these playoffs.  Lewis’ impending retirement seems to have breathed new life into a squad that had limped through the regular season, playing inconsistently.  Two weeks ago, they held rookie star QB Andrew Luck in check, next week they have to take on Tom Brady, and last weekend they made Peyton Manning look human….

I SAW the Broncos endure one of their worst upset losses in franchise history, and perhaps the biggest surprise other than the outcome was the play of QB Peyton Manning.  One of the front-runners for this season’s MVP awards played a bad game by Peyton standards: 28-of-43 for 290 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 88.3 rating, and 1 lost fumble.  He accounted for all of his team’s turnovers in a game during which mistakes were magnified.

The worst moment for Manning and Denver came on their second possession of overtime, when the quarterback threw across his body, into the middle of the field.  That’s the type of throw a high school pivot should know not to make, and it was picked off by Broncos CB Corey Graham.  The play set up the game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.

For the whole regular season, Manning deftly answered all the doubters about his arm strength after multiple neck surgeries – only to re-raise other questions with another playoff loss, questions that should dog the QB more than they have throughout the second half of his illustrious career.  The media perception of Manning throughout his pro career is a good example of how winning just one Super Bowl can effectively cover up other playoff failures.  Remember when Manning was labeled as a great regular season quarterback – one of the best ever – who couldn’t win bog playoff games?  Not many people do, because when he finally won the big one against the Bears six years ago, everyone let him off the hook.  Well, consider yourself back on that hook, Peyton.

Trivia Bomb:

Peyton Manning has now lost his first start of the playoffs an amazing eight times.  Eight!  That’s twice as many as the next-worst QBs since 1970:

Most Losses By QB In First Start Of Playoffs, Super Bowl Era

PLAYER LOSSES
Peyton Manning 8
Dave Krieg 4
Joe Montana 4
Billy Kilmer 4
Warren Moon 4
Bob Griese 4

(ESPN Stats & Information)

It’s weird to see Griese up there – and Montana!  Joe Clutch’s playoff career must have been more up and down than I remember…but I guess that further makes my point.  Imagine how much bad play FOUR Super Bowls can erase.  Hell, just look at what two such wins have done for Peyton’s brother Eli, an above-average QB at best if you look at the rest of his career.

Among those eight early exits, four of them came after a bye week.  In other words, Manning’s regular season success tends to get offset by eggs being laid in January.  Also, Manning has nine career playoff wins, but six of them happened in 2006 and 2009, the only times he has made it to the Super Bowl.

So, Peyton Manning is a shoe-in for the Hall Of Fame.  He’s been hugely productive in the regular season, with a metronome-like consistency.  But as far as the playoffs are concerned, he’s just one hour away from being the next Dan Marino – an amazing QB that fell short each time in the playoffs, having never won the big one.  Maybe what Saturday’s poor showing by Manning did was bring some proper perspective to his career – so far.

Speaking of so far, one last thought about Manning’s past postseason struggles: I tallied the numbers, and he is now 0-4 in playoff games in which the temperature is less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff.  Look at his line in those four games combined:

Peyton Manning In 4 Playoff Games With Temperature Below 40 Degrees

COMP ATT COMP% YDS YPG TD INT RATING
92 163 56.4 902 225.5 4 9 57.3

For those of you scoring at home, that’s shit.

I really makes me wonder if Manning made the right decision to sign with Denver during last offseason, seeing as how he can be almost guaranteed to play in cold games at home whenever he has a home playoff game from now on.  I’m not saying that this factor should have been a make-or-break factor in the decision-making process, but we’re talking about a southern boy who played in a dome for the first thirteen years of his pro career.  I mean, Jeez….

Another thing: Quit it with this Manning vs. Brady argument.  Just stop.

I SAW that, in order to be fair to Broncos QB Peyton Manning – who played a bad game on Saturday – the quarterback was not the reason Denver lost this game.  That dubious distinction should go to two of Denver’s defensive backs:

CB Champ Bailey – The Bronco is set to appear on NFL Network’s NFL Gameday this Sunday.  I hope one of the other studio personalities brings some marmalade to spread on Bailey, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a longstanding Pro-Bowl corner get toasted as badly as he was during the first half on Saturday by Ravens WR Torrey Smith.  The Baltimore wideout blew by Bailey on three deep routes – two of which were touchdowns of 91 yards combined, and QB Joe Flacco overthrew a brutally open Smith on the other.  In the replays, Bailey was bailing out with his hips turned, seemingly before the snap.  Even if he had safety help deep, there would have been no way that help could have been there on time, given how easily and quickly Bailey got beaten on each of those plays.  When this kind of collapse happens, it can throw the whole defensive backfield into disarray….

S Rahim Moore – When you’re the deep safety in Cover 2, you have one job: Do NOT let the deepest receiver on your side of the field get past you, no matter what.  Moore ignored this rule and tried to make a play on a desperate deep ball thrown by Ravens QB Joe Flacco during the last minute of regulation.  Even worse, Moore misjudged the throw at the last second, allowing WR Jacoby Jones to make a TD catch that tied the game and forced overtime in a game Denver eventually lost.  Not only did Moore commit a cardinal sin in general, but trying to make a hero-interception when you should just be knocking passes down to protect a lead makes his gaffe all the more embarrassing.

I SAW a very under-recognized factor in Saturday’s game: the injury of Broncos RB Knowshown Moreno, who left the game in the third quarter after hurting his knee.  Not only was Denver hugely reliant upon Moreno after an injury to RB Willis McGahee earlier in the season, but Moreno was dominant against Baltimore in Week 15, and without him on the field the play-action fakes that QB Peyton Manning loves to run weren’t nearly as effective in the second half.

I SAW that, at the end of the day, the Broncos might have simply been worse than we all thought they were.  Denver came into Saturday riding an 11-game win streak, during which all victories cam by seven points or more.  One reason for this was that the team’s schedule was challenging in September, and then quite forgiving for the rest of the regular season.  Maybe wins came too easily for the Broncos, and when the going got tough against the Ravens, they weren’t able to shift gears.

Denver certainly didn’t show much of a sense of urgency at times during the Divisional Round.  Lots of people have been critical of head coach John Fox’s decision to take a knee with time left at the end of the first half instead of trying to score.  I tend not to be one to criticize those decisions too much, since they depend on a hypothetical outcome, so I’ll leave that one alone.  My biggest issue with Fox’s decision-making Saturday was when, with the ball near midfield on 3rd-and-7 with over a minute left in the fourth quarter and Baltimore having no timeouts left, he elected to run the ball up the gut with his third-string RB, Ronnie Hillman.  Fail; punt.  That gave Ravens QB Joe Flacco the chance he needed to tie the game – which he did, with the aforementioned bomb to WR Jacoby Jones.  That’s far too tentative an approach for a team with a seven-point lead, and it sends a bad message to the Denver defense: We don’t trust you enough to hold Baltimore back.  Turns out it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, one the guys in burnt orange will be driving themselves nuts about all offseason.

I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco continue to redeem himself after a lackluster regular season.  Hell, he might even have avoided winning TFQ’s Bad Negotiator Award this year, given to the player who struggles the most in the last year of his contract.

Consider how justifiably critical people tend to be of Flacco.  Now consider that if Flacco wins this weekend in New England he will have eight career playoff victories to Manning’s nine – and in almost a third of the time (Manning has played 14 seasons to Flacco’s five).

Flacco is doing something that I keep emphasizing as important in the playoffs: Peaking at the right time.  In his pro career, he has only had ten games with a yards per attempt average higher than Saturday’s 9.74 – and one of those came in this year’s Wild Card round against the Colts (12.26).  Also, his average target depth of 13.4 yards downfield in Denver last weekend was his highest this season.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  According to STATS LLC, Denver came into the weekend having given up only 237.3 total yards and 13.5 points during a six-game win streak at home.  No one told Flacco – he led his team to 479 yards and 38 points (7 of which came on a pick-6 by Corey Graham).

I think it’s safe to say that Flacco will remain a Raven next season, and likely with an expensive new contract.  He might not deserve it due to his regular season performances, but the real money’s in the playoffs anyway, right?  Right, Peyton?

I SAW that some credit should go to the Ravens offensive line as well.  The Broncos tied for the NFL lead in sacks, with 52.  On Saturday Baltimore held them to just one – and it’s not like QB Flacco was getting rid of the ball fast, either.

I SAW KR/PR Trindon Holliday serve as the one silver lining in Denver’s disappointing loss.  The first two times the Broncos touched the ball in each half, Holliday produced a return TD (a punt return in the first half, and the second half kickoff).

Trivia Double-Bomb:

According to Cold Hard Football Facts, Denver became the first team in NFL playoff history with a kick and punt return for a touchdown in the same game – and Holliday had them both.

According to Elias Sports Bureau Holliday’s 248 total kickoff and punt return yards are a record for the most such yards in postseason history, besting Desmond Howard’s 244 in Super Bowl XXXI that earned him the game’s MVP.

(2) San Francisco wins vs. (3) Green Bay, 45-31

I SAW the Niners advance to the NFC Championship game for the second year in a row.  That 40-burger isn’t made of your average grade beef, either.  They ran all over the Packers like they were Manti Te’o’s reputation.  In doing so, San Francisco gained 579 total yards on offense – the most in franchise playoff history.  They also set a team postseason record, with 323.  By the way, the Niners have played a few high-scoring games in January before:

Most Yards Gained In A Game, Niners Playoff History

DATE YARDS OPPONENT
Jan. 12, 2013 579 Packers
Jan. 20, 1985* 537 Dolphins
Jan. 28, 1990* 461 Broncos
Jan. 29, 1995* 455 Chargers
Jan. 22, 1989* 452 Bengals

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Note the asterisk.  It signifies a Super Bowl game – all of which were won by San Francisco.

Is it a sign? …

I SAW that if you’re a Niners fan who believe in signs, you couldn’t have been happy when Sports Illustrated lowered the dreaded cover Jinx on Niners QB Colin Kaepernick this week.

Unless that jinx has unbelievable cover speed, I wouldn’t worry about it after Saturday’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamgame that Kaepernick had against the Packers.

joseph-and-the-amazing-technicolor-dreamcoat_000856_1_MainPicture

The Really Useful Group Limited)

How does he run in that thing?  Pretty damn good, that’s how.

And with PROPS.

Kaepernick had 181 yards rushing, which is a QB record in any NFL game.  He also threw for 261 yards, and scored four total touchdowns.  Not bad for a kid playing in just his eighth pro start – and his first playoff game.

Who doubts head coach Jim Harbaugh now?  He decided to change quarterbacks, sticking with Kaepernick after starter Alex Smith recovered from a concussion.  I’m not saying Smith wouldn’t have been able to beat the Packers.  After all, he did just that in Week 1.  Smith also possesses deceptive speed as a runner.  But Kaepernick’s speed is only deceptive because one might confuse him for a wideout running a deep pattern once he tucks the ball away.

A lot of Kaepernick’s damage on the ground came courtesy of the read-fake option fake out of the pistol formation – a scheme that he’s been executing for years, dating back to his days at University of Nevada.  In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick gained 99 yards with the option.  But what doesn’t bode well for opposing defense for years to come is that he’s able to gouge defenses by scrambling too.  Packers head coach Mike McCarthy pointed out as much in his postgame press conference, saying:

“The execution for the 49ers on the read option was excellent, but our issues were bigger than that… We did not a very good job of keeping [Kaepernick] in the pocket. He was able to get out of the pocket for a number of big conversions.”

The numbers bear this out:

Colin Kaepernick Rushing By Situation, Saturday*

Scrambles Option
Rushes 5 7
Yards 75 99
TD 1 1
First Downs 4 3

(ESPN STATS & Information)

*Doesn’t include two kneel downs, a draw play and an aborted snap

There is one very easy way to explain Kaepernick’s success with the pistol: He has more experience with the formation than anyone else in the NFL right now.  He rushed for 102 yards out of the pistol on Saturday – the most by any rusher out of that formation in the last five NFL seasons.  (I bet it’s been even longer too…that stat is from ESPN.com, and my guess is that they haven’t had the time/manpower to check that stat back farther.  What, you think someone was running the pistol a lot in 2008 or earlier?)

Kaepernick was like an untouchable tattooed gazelle on Saturday.  According to Cold Hard Football Facts, he gained 178 yards before contact!  To put that in perspective, the Packers came into the game having given up no more than 132 yards before contact to any team in a game – during the past four seasons.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

The best part of Kaepernick’s night?  Two things:

He was also very dangerous in the passing game, with his 94-mph fastball arm on full display.  But there’s a Troy Aikman-type of gentle touch to his velocity, which receiver love.

He did all of these amazing things after throwing a pick-6 to Packers S Sam Shields on the Niners’ first possession.  That’s called unflappable.

Trivia Bomb:

According to STATS LLC, Colin Kaepernick joined Jay Cutler (2011) and Otto Graham  (1954 & 1955) as the only players in NFL history with two rushing TDs and two passing TDs in a playoff game.

Cutler?!

I SAW the Packers defense give up the most total yards and rushing yards in team history, letting the Niners amass 579 and 323, respectively.  Translation: San Fran owned the clock like it was a dowry wife, 38:01 – 21:59.  In the first half, the Niners ran 48 plays on offense.  Green Bay?  It got a chance to run just 20 – only 10 pass attempts for reigning league MVP, QB Aaron Rodgers.

Okay.  I know the man has a great reputation, but how much more futility do the Packers need to see from their defense before they show coordinator Dom Capers the door?  Just sayin’.

I SAW a tough season for the Packers come to a close.  In the end, they were victims of playoff seeding, having to play what is arguably the NFC’s best all-around team in the Divisional Round.  Many will point back to the infamous Scabgate verdict against the Seahawks for the blame, but the blame is on Green Bay for getting off to a 2-3 start to the season, and looking sluggish all the while.  Saturday night was basically a return to form, with QB Aaron Rodgers and the offense looking as out of sync as they had in September and early October.

I SAW one concern for the Niners as they head into Atlanta to face QB Matt Ryan, who’s performance is often proportionate to the pass pressure he faces:  LB Aldon Smith is still cold as ice.  Smith had 19.5 sacks after Week 13, but hasn’t had one since.  And last week, DL Justin Smith played all game, so San Fran can’t take solace in the fact that the latter wasn’t on the field to occupy blockers for the former.

I SAW Niners WR Michael Crabtree continue to thrive.  Since the start of December (6 games) he’s caught 44 passes for 657 yards and six touchdowns.  I’ve been supportive of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to play QB Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith.  I’ll tell you one thing:  Crabtree’s been healthy all season, and Smith was never able to connect with him downfield like Kaepernick has.

(1) Atlanta wins vs. (5) Seattle, 30-28

I SAW the Falcons finally get over the playoff hump under head coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan.

Only New England has had more regular season wins than Atlanta’s 56.  However, one seldom hears about that, because of their 0-3 playoff record during that span until last weekend.

But boy, was the voyage to this win ever hairy – as hairy as Dan Hedaya.

Dan Hedaya-hairy

TNT)

That…is cardigan skin.

Imagine is the Falcons had lost this game…. they almost didn’t have to imagine.  Atlanta had a 20-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter – a lead that, according to Elias Sports Bureau, no team in NFL playoff history had ever blown in 83 such instances – but allowed Seattle to score 21 unanswered points in the final frame to take a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left in the game.

Also from Elias: This game was the second playoff game in NFL history with two lead changes in the final 31 seconds of regulation.  (The other?  The Music City Miracle between the Titans and Bills during the 1999 season.)  That’s because Ryan took the ball at his team’s 28-yard line, completed a 22-yard pass to WR Harry Douglas, called a time out and then connected with TE Tony Gonzalez up the middle for 19 yards to set up Matt Bryant’s winning field goal.

You just had a feeling that if the Falcons won, it wouldn’t come easy….

I SAW the Seahawks’ impressive six-game win streak come to an end.  During that span, they looked like one of the best teams in the league, throttling two teams by 50+ points, and coming back from a 14-point deficit against Washington in the Wild Card round.

Last weekend, Seattle almost one-upped that comeback, only to become the first tem in the Super Bowl era to score 21 points in the fourth quarter to take the lead – and then lose that game.  (ESPN Sports & Information)

You can bet that this team will be getting a few more postseason appearances with which to redeem itself.

I SAW one thing we can say about Falcons QB Matt Ryan and his offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in their victory over the Seahawks: They weren’t afraid to take their shots downfield.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan’s eight completions on throws more than 10 yards downfield on Sunday (8-of-16) were just two fewer than the total from his last three playoff losses combined.

I SAW several more surprising changes from the norm during Sunday’s wild ride:

Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch came into the Divisional Round having averaged 6.9 yards per carry and 116.8 yards per game over the last five weeks.  But the Falcons usually-soft rush defense turned Beast Mode into Dr. Jekyll, holding him to a 2.8 average on just 46 yards.

On the other hand, Atlanta finished the regular season ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing yards, with 87.3 per game.  But against Seattle’s capable run defense they put up a season-high 167 – 98 of those from RB Michael Turner, who all season has looked more Burnt Out than The Burner.

The most refreshing surprise – at least from the Falcons’ perspective – came from their quarterback, Matt Ryan, who stepped up his game against one of the league’s premier pass defenses.  In his first three playoff games (all losses) Ryan averaged 194.7 yards per game, with three touchdowns, four interceptions and a 71.2 rating.  On Sunday he equaled that three-TD total, put up 250 passing yards and a 93.8 rating.  Just as important, while Ryan was sacked 3.3 times per game in his three postseason outings prior to last weekend, he wasn’t sacked at all against Seattle.  Keeping him upright will once again be a top priority this weekend against San Francisco.

I SAW one factor that can’t be overlooked in the Seahawks’ sackless loss – the absence of DE Chris Clemons, who tore his ACL during the Wild Card round.  Clemons led the team with 11.5 sacks in the regular season.  DE Bruce Irvin was second on Seattle, with 8.0.  After those two, the next-best Seahawks have just three sacks apiece.  It’s easy to understand, then, how the Falcons kept their QB Matt Ryan from getting sacked on Sunday: Without one of their mere two competent pass rushers, Seattle’s pass rush is too easy to neutralize.  Adding to their personnel in this department is bound to be priority number one in the offseason.

I SAW PROPS and sweet, sweet vindication for Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez.  Sixteen regular seasons logged in his career, and in the last postseason of his career he finally has a playoff win to show for it.

This was no mail-it-in contribution for the most prolific tight end in NFL history, either.  Not only did he make the clutch grab that set up the game-winning field goal (see above), but he also made a sick tip-toe TD catch in the first quarter in a game during which each point scored turned out to be crucial.  Like Ravens LB Ray Lewis (see: Baltimore wins @ Denver, 38-35 – 2OT), I hope Gonzalez’s final season lasts longer, but at the very least he’s gone out with some positives in January.

I SAW Falcons K Matt Bryant win the game with a clutch 49-yard field goal during the final minute of the game.  Bryant has now made his last 10 attempts from 49 yards or farther.  His head coach, Mike Smith, put it well, via the Associated Press:

“Our quarterback is a special player.  They call him Matty Ice, but I feel like we’ve got two Matty Ices. There’s Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant.”

I SAW one of the most dumb-assed decisions I have ever seen.  After the Falcons took a two-point lead on a field goal with 31 seconds left in the game (see above), they appeared to attempt an onside kick that the Seahawks recovered at their own 46-yard line.

Honestly!  In the words of numerous Cohen brothers’ characters, what the fuck?

The decision nearly cost Atlanta dearly, since Seattle got the ball already within range for a Hail Mary attempt to win the game.  What was special teams coach Keith Armstrong thinking?  The risk of Seattle getting great field position brutally outweighed the benefit of recovering the onside and ending the game with a kneel down.  (The ’Hawks were out of timeouts.)  The only explanation that even comes close to making sense is that the play was supposed to be a squib kick by K Matt Bosher, and he flubbed it.  Still, the Falcons’ kick coverage has been solid all season.  There’s no need to get fancy when you’re that close to winning arguably the most pressure-heavy game in franchise history.  Fail.

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson put up another tour de force performance in his stellar rookie season: 24-of-36 (66.7%), 385 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception, a 109.1 passer rating, 60 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown.  Over his final ten games, Wilson threw 19 TDs and just 3 INTs.

What a season for Wilson, going from a criticized prospect that was drafted too high to a third-round steal.  The former Wisconsin Badger was taken 75th overall in last year’s draft, and he’s looked better than almost all of the 74 guys taken before him.

It’s not just Wilson’s statistics and physical attributes that impress.  His leadership, maturity and focus are also otherworldly.  For example, this is what Wilson told the Associated Press after the loss:

“We had high, high hopes for the rest of the season.  When the game was over, I was very disappointed. But walking back into the tunnel, I got so excited about next year. The resilience we showed was unbelievable.”

(2) New England wins vs. (3) Houston, 41-28

I SAW the Patriots reach the AFC Championship by easy beating the Texans for the second time this season.  The first time New England trounced Houston it started the Texans on a tailspin that they never truly recovered from.

In fact, the start of Sunday’s game can be seen as a microcosm for the Texan’s season.  S/KR Danieal Manning received the opening kickoff, and after a few tiny jukes found himself streaking down the field, seemingly ready to take the game by storm – much like Houston did to the league with their 11-1 start to the regular season.  However, despite a lead of almost ten yards on his closest pursuer, Manning somehow didn’t score, forcing QB Matt Schaub to come out and suck the team to a FG instead of a valuable 7 points against the league’s top scoring offense.  In other words, both Manning and the Texans ran out of gas.  They lost four of their last 6 games.  Schaub lost his edge in the passing game as the season wore on, and so did the once-vaunted defense, that allowed nearly 10 more points per game during that slump:

Texans’ 2012 Start vs. Their Finish

First 12 Games Since (Incl. Playoffs)
W-L 11-1 2-4
Opponents’ PPG 18.4 27.3
Point differential +10.8 -8.7

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I’ve mentioned a few times throughout the season that Houston head coach Gary Kubiak had a challenge in front of him to keep his team firing on all cylinders after all but running away with the AFC South by the end of October.  (The Colts came close to stealing the division, but that certainly didn’t look possible until December.)  Maybe the Texans got out to too big of a lead over the rest of the field.  Either way, they pissed that lead away, and have a second straight 1-win playoff disappointment to show for it.

I SAW PROPS for the Patriots as they continue their milestone-ridden dynasty, and as usual it starts with the legacies of their quarterback and head coach….

QB Tom Brady passed his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, by earning his 17th playoff game – most in NFL history.  Brady now also has 41 TD passes in the postseason, trailing only Brett Favre, with 44, and Montana, with 45.  He might set that record too, before these playoffs end.

Coach Bill Belichick is now heading into his seventh conference final, which puts him on a list with the most successful head coaches in the Super Bowl era:

Most Appearance In Conference Championships By A Head Coach

Coach Appearances W-L Record
Tom Landry 10 5-5
Bill Belichick 7 5-1
Don Shula 7 5-2
Chuck Noll 7 4-3

Landry coached Dallas for 28 seasons, Shula coached Baltimore and Miami for 32 years, and Noll helmed the Steelers for 22.   Belichick has been in New England for 13 seasons.  Belichick also has more Super Bowl rings as a head coach (3) than everyone on this list except for Noll (4).

Don’t get me wrong – I never use the term “dynasty” lightly.  But come on.

I SAW Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski re-break his arm.  He will have to undergo a second surgery on the arm in a matter of mere months.  I mention this because of how prolific Gronk can be – not because I expect his absence to matter much next weekend (see: Away from the game(s)).  After all, QB Tom Brady still passed for 344 yards, 3 TDs and a 115.0 passer rating despite never connecting with the Gronkulous one on Sunday.

I SAW that Pats QB Tom Brady lost RB Danny Woodhead early in the game to injury, as well as TE Rob Gronkowski.  But the hallmark of New England’s schemes is that the sum is greater than its exchangeable parts.  (Not expendable, as most people like to say – smart athletic pieces are needed to execute the game plan – but exchangeable with other roster members.)

One of the most consistent parts of that greater whole came through again on Sunday.  WR Wes Welker barnstormed the undermanned Texans defensive backfield for six catches for 120 yards in the first half.  (Welker finished with a total of 8 grabs for 131 yards, but the damage was already done by halftime.)  It’s probable that New England will not re-sign Welker this offseason, putting their strategy of roster replaceability to its toughest test since Brady was lost for the year in 2009 and Matt Cassel stepped in to guide the Pats to 10 wins.

I SAW Texans RB Arian Foster get held to 90 yards rushing.  It was the first time in four playoff games that he had failed to gain 100 yards, maintaining his team’s undefeated status (8-0) this season when he topped the century mark.

I SAW what seems to be the only way to slow down Texans DE J.J. Watt: Make him play the Patriots.  In two games against New England this season, Watt has just six tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 4 QB hits, and no pass deflections.  Maybe there’s something to the Pats’ strategy of practicing with defensive linemen brandishing racquetball racquets to simulate Watt’s impressive ability to bat down balls.  There’s also something to be said for QB Tom Brady’s ability to make quick reads and deliver the ball before Houston’s defensive superstar can impose himself on the game.

I SAW Patriots LB Rob Ninkovich have an up-and-down game.  He blew his coverage on a long completion on a screen pass in the third quarter, but later in the drive, Ninkovich came up with a key jumping interception of Texans QB Matt Schaub to buy the momentum back.  Ninkovich is a slightly-less-rich-man’s Mike Vrabel.

I SAW Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels show his ability to think on his feet when TE Rob Gronkowski and RB Danny Woodhead left the game with injuries.  McDaniels understands something long unappreciated in pro sports: creating and exploiting mismatches.  He lined up RB Shane Vereen out wide, giving him single coverage beyond the hash marks on a linebacker.  That’s not good for said linebacker.  According to ESPN Sports & Information, had 58 receiving yards and a TD in such situation on Sunday – the most receiving yards for a running back split wide and just the third TD as such over the last three seasons.

Trivia Bomb:

According to Elias Sports Bureau, Shane Vereen became just the third player in NFL history to have two receiving touchdowns and a rushing touchdown.  The other two are both Niners – Roger Craig in 1984 and Ricky Watters – both of whom did so in the Super Bowl.

I SAW one last nugget to burn off before we go into the conference championships:

Trivia Bomb:

According to STATS LLC, the Patriots are hoping to become the first team to win a conference championship after losing the Super Bowl in the previous season since the 1972 Dolphins.  That Miami team was the 17-0 team that won it all….

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP EDITION – HERE AT TFQ. 

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