Thank God for the New England Patriots.
Not because I embrace the teachings of the Emperor, Bill Belichick. Not because I worship at the altar of the almighty Tom Brady.
No, it’s because, if not for the Patriots, I would have been bagel-and-four in the divisional round last week.
The Denver Broncos? They fell victim to the worst blown coverage in postseason play since the Detroit Lions’ secondary lost track of Sterling Sharpe in a 1994 NFC Wild-Card Game at the old Pontiac Silverdome.
The Green Bay Packers? Colin Kaepernick is still running … somewhere. Just don’t ask anyone wearing green-and-gold to locate him; those guys proved for 60 minutes last Saturday night that they couldn’t have found Kaepernick if he’d been wearing GPS cleats.
The Atlanta Falcons’ victory was the harshest one of all. They turned an easy cover into a heartbreaking loss by gagging away a 20-point lead in the final quarter. Falcons fans may be happy that their team won, but those of us who play the spread are not real big fans of Mike Smith and his gang of exasperating choke artists.
Only the Patriots did what they were supposed to do. They were predicted to bury the Houston Texans and that is exactly what they did. It’s nice to know there are some things in the world you can still count on.
Coming off that tepid showing, it’s not exactly like I am boldly going forth with my picks for Championship Sunday. But go forth I shall, if for no other reason than by virtue of my dual Irish-German heritage, I am so stacked with stubborn, it’s almost incomprehensible.
Home teams, for the final time this season, in CAPS:
NFC Championship, Sunday, 3 p.m. EST (FOX)
49ers (minus 4) over FALCONS: San Francisco has a huge, physical offensive line, but its skill position guys are terrific blockers downfield, which helps Kaepernick and Frank Gore break off those defense-gutting long runs. Atlanta has quality run-blockers downfield as well, especially those big wide receivers. Kaepernick was sacked only once last week in 31 dropbacks, even though it was obvious that left tackle Joe Staley wasn’t himself with that arm injury. It will be loud in the Georgia Dome, a factor that usually favors the home team’s pass rush. But John Abraham—the Falcons’ best pass rusher—aggravated the ankle he hurt in the meaningless Week 17 loss to Tampa Bay and his status is still up in the air. Getting to Kaepernick could be a big problem for Atlanta and, because of his running skills, bringing the blitz against Kaepernick can be a risky, risky proposition.
The bottom line is that the 49ers are one of the most difficult teams in the league to prepare for and are the more physical team. That advantage in the trenches sends San Francisco to its first Super Bowl in 18 years.
AFC Championship, Sunday, 6:30 p.m. EST (CBS)
Ravens (plus 8) over PATRIOTS: Torrey Smith’s big-play ability opens up the middle of the field for his fellow Baltimore receivers, Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta. Smith was amazing when these teams played at Baltimore in Week 3. New England couldn’t stop the deep ball in that game, but the Patriots will almost certainly match up Aqib Talib on Smith. The Patriots play a lot more man coverage now, since Talib was acquired from Tampa Bay, and the number of big plays New England has surrendered has gone down dramatically. Denver’s Trindon Holliday scorched the Ravens’ special teams for two touchdown returns last week, but Baltimore’s special teams were the best in the NFL during the regular season. Contrast that with the trouble New England has containing Houston’s Danieal Manning on kickoff returns last week and what you have is something that could prove to be a tangible difference.
The Patriots are 7-2 at home this year, but the Ravens have traditionally given them fits and have won in the playoffs on the road with regularity under John Harbaugh, including a win at Baltimore in the 2009 playoffs. And lest we forget, Baltimore was a Lee Evans drop away from going to the Super Bowl via Foxborough last January.
That said, New England is fresher and has too much firepower. Baltimore’s aging defense has faced about 6.5 million snaps over the last two weeks (number approximate) and even without injured Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots just have too much firepower for the Ravens to keep up with.
Last Week: 1-3