49ers @ Falcons
As soon as Matt Bryant’s second attempt at a game-winning field goal split the uprights last week, I got right on my computer and backed the 49ers this week. I called Atlanta a bunch of chokers last week, and they did all they could to piss that game away. Unfortunately for those of you that didn’t get behind the 49ers early, you’re likely going to be forced to give away an extra point or two this weekend if you want to ride with San Francisco as well.
San Francisco’s dismantling of Green Bay was masked slightly by an early pick-six and a garbage time touchdown that boosted Green Bay’s final score. Outside of that, the 49ers did exactly what they set out to do, and that was keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline with their running game, while also putting Colin Kaepernick in reasonable down-and-distance situations so that he would have the freedom to do what he wanted to with the football. On that night he leaned toward the run and didn’t disappoint, smashing the rushing record for quarterbacks.
It’s that type of offensive explosiveness that explains why Alex Smith is on the sideline. Some detractors question whether Kaepernick can replicate this success on the road in the Georgia Dome, but the young man already has a win to his credit in the Superdome, so the bright lights in Atlanta shouldn’t affect him. Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether this game was played in Atlanta, San Francisco, or Cucamonga. Everyone’s money is on the 49ers this week because no one believes the Falcons can stop Kaepernick, and with good reason. In three combined games against Atlanta this season, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson combined to throw for 887 yards and six touchdowns, while also rushing for 262 yards and three additional scores, with only one total turnover in those three games.
A look at the box score from Atlanta’s win over Seattle would indicate that the team has solved their issues in run defense. In reality, that was more a product of circumstance, with a questionable Seahawk game plan, and the health of Marshawn Lynch playing bigger roles than anyone in a Falcon jersey. The Seahawks threw the ball on early downs at an uncharacteristically high rate in that game, even early in the contest before the Falcons had built up much of a margin. We’ve been hearing concerns about the health of Seattle’s top running back all season, but as it turns out, this week those concerns were warranted. Lynch was held to 2.9 yards per carry, and while it may seem as though the Falcons deserve a pat on the back for that, the reality is Seattle’s poor rushing day had more to do with Lynch than anyone else.
Lynch didn’t have the same burst we’re used to seeing from him, and didn’t run with the aggressiveness that he’s become known for. Robert Turbin turned six touches into 55 yards against that same Falcon defense, while Russell Wilson ran seven times for 60 yards and a score. That second line is especially alarming for Falcon fans with Colin Kaepernick heading to town. The team hasn’t been able to get any pressure on opposing quarterbacks, racking up only five sacks since Thanksgiving, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to turn that area of their game around this weekend with John Abraham banged up.
As for the offense, Michael Turner’s resurgent performance a week ago likely won’t be replicated against a tough 49er rush defense. Seattle finished the regular season ranked 23rd against the run, while San Francisco was ranked third. Matt Ryan’s heroics on the final possession last week made everyone forget about his two interceptions. Ryan has thrown multiple interceptions in three of four career playoff games, with a total of eight turnovers in those four games. The 49ers should be able to put pressure on Ryan and force him to make some mistakes. San Francisco only sacked Aaron Rodgers once last week, but they did apply plenty of pressure, and Rodgers was able to avoid sacks with his feet. Ryan doesn’t share that skill with Rodgers, so he could spend a large portion of this game picking himself up off the turf.
Under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have been lethal versus the top teams in the league. They are 7-0 against the spread when playing teams with winning percentages greater than 75 percent. Conversely, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have led the Falcons to an 0-4 record against the spread in the playoffs. Coach Harbaugh’s decision to make a change at quarterback was validated last week, and any lingering doubts should be put to rest when Kaepernick leads the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Falcons 20
The play: 4* 49ers -3.5 (5 Dimes) or 3* 49ers -4 anywhere else.
Ravens @ Patriots
It’s déjà vu all over again as the Ravens head back to Foxborough for the AFC Championship Game. Last year’s trip ended with disappointment when Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal late in the contest. The key take away from that game is that Baltimore was right in the thick of it until the very end. The Raven defense has taken a big hit since then, but the Patriots were dealt a blow last week as well when they lost Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the playoffs.
The loss of Gronkowski may seem like a side note as few doubt the ability of the Patriot offensive machine to move the ball and score at will. However, the numbers tell a different story. Gronkowski plays a big role for the team both in his role as a receiver, and as a blocker. The Patriots average 6.0 yards per play when Gronkowski plays, compared with 5.4 yards per play when he doesn’t. Also, Tom Brady’s completion percentage drops from 65.7 percent to 58.4 percent without Gronk, while his touchdown-to-interception ratio drops as well, from 23-3 with the big tight end, to 11-6 without him.
I’m not saying this because I expect the Patriots to struggle to move the ball, but I don’t think they’ll be able to move the ball up and down the field the way many expect them to. Tom Brady still has plenty of options when he drops back to pass, and the team’s running game has been performing at its highest level since Brady got the starting gig. The Patriot offensive line has also been playing incredibly well, allowing only 16 sacks since Week 5.
Baltimore’s defense has taken a lot of heat this season, but they’ve quietly improved over the last month. The unit actually ranks first in pass defense over the last four games (don’t forget, Denver scored on two return touchdowns last week). A big reason for the improvement has been the team’s ability to get to the quarterback, and that starts with linebacker Paul Kruger. Kruger has 10.0 sacks since the team’s Week 8 bye, and his 2.5 sacks in the playoffs are second only to Clay Matthews. Ray Lewis has also provided the defense with more than just an inspirational boost, racking up 30 tackles in two playoff games (no other player has more than 18).
Offensively, Joe Flacco is starting to silence some of his critics, taking his game to another level in the postseason. Flacco’s regular season YPA of 7.2 has jumped to 10.8 in the playoffs. In two postseason games, he’s thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions. A lot of the credit for Flacco’s turnaround belongs to the team’s offensive line. Bryant McKinnie was moved in at left tackle and he has not disappointed as that allowed Michael Oher to move back over to right tackle, and he seems to be a lot more comfortable on that side of the line. The team has allowed only two sacks in the postseason, facing off with the likes of Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Von Miller, and Elvis Dumervil in those games.
New England doesn’t have a pass rusher that can bring pressure the way those players can, sacking the opposing quarterback on only six percent of drop-backs this season, so the line should hold up again this week. If Flacco does get the time he needs to operate, he should have success against a beatable Patriot secondary, which will also open up running lanes for Ray Rice, who racked up 101 yards and a score on 20 carries when these teams met in Week 3.
If my prediction from the weekend’s first game holds true, we’ll be just one game away from a Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl. I’ve been fading the Ravens when they’ve played on the road, and it’s tough to imagine them coming out of Foxborough with a win, but they do have what it takes to keep the game close. New England has won four of the last six meetings between these teams, but none of those wins came by more than six points.
Looking back at the two most recent meetings, Baltimore beat New England 31-30 in Week 3, and they could have easily won last year’s AFC Championship game if not for a dropped touchdown pass by Lee Evans, or a missed field goal from Billy Cundiff that would have sent the game to overtime. The Patriots are 2-8 against the spread in their last 10 playoff games, and were 3-5 ATS during the regular season when favored by more than a touchdown, largely due to inflated lines, particularly when they play at home. This line is certainly high, but not as high as I’d like it to be.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Ravens 24
The play: Pass. Truth be told, I lean slightly to Baltimore but I’d need to get 10+ points to make this a wager worth considering.