The San Francisco 49ers have the running game, unpredictable quarterback and strong defense. The New England Patriots have Tom Brady. The Baltimore Ravens? A new found faith in Joe Flacco and a defense inspired by Ray Lewis. No one has figured out the Atlanta Falcons.
After one of the best divisional round playoff weekends in memory, the conference championship games are coming up. The San Francisco 49ers coming to play the Atlanta Falcons, the Baltimore Ravens arriving in New England to play the Patriots. Out of these four teams, who do you figure goes all the way and ends up with the Super Bowl trophy?
Why the Atlanta Falcons?
There’s always one “team of destiny”, but the torch and label can be passed around. It was looking like the Seattle Seahawks or the Washington Redskins when the postseason began. A couple of weeks later, and the Atlanta Falcons, the number one seed in the NFC, become that team.
Because leading 27-10 entering the fourth quarter and then losing that lead with 31 second left is gut wrenching and demoralizing as it gets. And the Falcons still picked themselves up: Matt Ryan forgot all the playoff losses from the past few years and the two interceptions he threw. He simply let it rip, and put his team in a field goal position. Matt Bryant doesn’t miss from 49 yards, and disaster was averted.
And when you look back at the Falcons’ season, trying to figure out where that came from, you remember that they’re simply a clutch team. There was the 30-28 win against the Carolina Panthers; down 28-24 in the middle of the fourth, but two Matt Bryant field goals, including one with 5 seconds left, kept them undefeated. There was the 24-17 October win in Washington, with Turner running for the game winning touchdown after coming back from 14-17 down. The 23-20 win over Oakland, Matt Bryant hitting the game winning field goal on the final play of the game, overcoming three Matt Ryan interceptions.
There’s nothing one thing that really stands out about this team, who rank 20th or lower in rushing yards and stopping the run and pass. Still, they come up with wins, via Matt Ryan and via a very reliable kicker, especially in the Georgia Dome. Sometimes, the things that can’t be explained are the best.
Why the San Francisco 49ers?
Earlier in the season, while the 49ers rolled in New Jersey against the Jets (34-0) and in that 32-7 win in Chicago against the Bears, they mostly looked like the best team in the NFL, even with Alex Smith. Jim Harbaugh did something that began the Patriots dynasty over a decade ago: He suddenly switched quarterbacks. First because of injury, but he stuck with the replacement, and the Tom Brady legend began.
Colin Kaepernick isn’t a new breed of play-makers, despite the hype. He’s doing something that’s been done before him, just a little bit better, and a little bit more exciting because of how the story unfolded.
But beyond the sudden trust in a quarterback that is much more than about not making mistakes, the 49ers have a solid team across the board. Frank Gore isn’t the best running back in the NFL, but the Niners, with their quarterback included, probably have the best running game in the league. They ranked 4th in running yards, 4th in stopping the pass, 4th in stopping the run. Numbers don’t lie, and talent, which they have in abundance on defense and in the receiving core, with good coaching, doesn’t lie as well.
Why the New England Patriots?
Tom Brady, Bill Belichick. Two men who have played in six conference championship games, winning all but one. In a repeat of last year’s AFC title game against a team that has beaten the Patriots this season once, this is the tandem and team you put your money on.
Because Tom Brady’s only loss at home this season was against the San Francisco 49ers, and the Patriots are a better team since then. Their early problems this year of dropping the ball in the fourth quarter are disappearing, while Tom Brady, despite losing weapons, keeps getting new ones to toy with.
Among quarterbacks whose careers began in the Super Bowl and made at least 20 starts at home, Brady has the best home winning percentage (.851).
There’s no other head coach who can change things so much and still remain with the same outcome – A defense that’s very hard to run against and a quarterback that makes receivers look like All-Pros when he’s throwing them the ball, including converted running backs like Shane Vereen.
Why the Baltimore Ravens?
Not a lot of head coaches lose their first three conference championship games. After dropping two against the Steelers and the Pats last year, John Harbaugh is going to do it. There’s nothing the Ravens do exceptionally better than other teams, but the total package is coming together in the past few weeks. Don’t count them out because they were lucky to escape Denver with a win. Flacco is playing the best football of his career, as the balance between him and Ray Rice is finally working out.
And then there’s Ray Lewis on defense. Not the numbers, but the influence and belief he inspires in the players around him. To get one more stop, to get the interception, that forced fumble. Things can also be explained with numbers – with Lewis, the Ravens’ pass rush allows only 49% completions. Without him, opponents complete 65% of their passes.