Well, maybe more like six questions, and three for each game. Yeah, we don’t mess around.
In this last hour before a glorious championship Sunday officially kicks off, consider this partly a quick recap of the many talking points we’ve meandered through this week with our primers for both games, a retrospective on last year’s Ravens-Patriots game, a look at whether or not the Falcons can contain Colin Kaepernick, Rob Pizzola’s degenerate betting bible, and Alen Dumonjic’s analysis of Michael Crabtree’s YAC ability, and the Patriots’ offense without Rob Gronkowski. Whew, that was a mouthful.
I’ll also introduce a few other questions to ponder. The questions are aplenty, and the answers will come soon.
NFC Championship: 49ers @ Faclons
1. How much will John Abraham’s injury effect the Falcons defense?
With a healthy Abraham, they have a chance to at least limit Colin Kaepernick and force him to throw more, while also making him handoff during read-option plays. Between the poisions of Kaep or Frank Gore, taking your chances with Gore is a little more appealing.
But Abraham isn’t at full health, and he’s likely not even close. He practiced in a limited capacity Friday, and his reps throughout the week were minimal. Officially, he’s questionable, meaning shortly we’ll hear that he’s active, and the world will continue with its normal rotation. But his acceleration and burst will surely be restricted again to some degree, and even with Abraham able to be Abraham this year, Atlanta still surrendered 339 rushing yards to quarterbacks on 38 attempts (8.9 YPC).
2. Can the Falcons’ cornerbacks keep up with Crabtree?
A week ago, Golden Tate had 103 receiving yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, a stat line that included a 29-yard catch. His season per game receiving average was only 45.9 yards.
Today we’ll see an Atlanta secondary that’s overall been underwhelming, ranking 24th against the pass while giving up an average of 242.2 yards per game during the regular season. That number has risen dramatically over the Falcons’ last three games, climbing to 344 YPG.
It’s a unit that’s led by Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson on the outside. They’re two very aggressive corners, which leads to both their success, and their downfall. Today it could be the latter if they over-pursue balls thrown in Crabtree’s direction, and lose containment. That will end poorly, as Crabtree is averaging 109.5 receiving yards over his last six games, a stretch that’s included a heavy volume of targets (67 in total).
3. Can Tony Gonzalez find space?
We know about the importance of Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside, and their matchups against Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. But the fight for the deep middle that Gonzo will have with Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson is equally important, and for Falcons fans, scary.
During the regular season San Francisco ranked first in defending tight ends, giving up an average of only 39.6 receiving yards per game to the position, according to Football Outsiders.
Ravens @ Patriots
1. Can Torrey Smith be limited?
The odds of an upset will begin to steadily climb if Smith is targeted deep frequently. Yes, Aqib Talib wasn’t around back in Week 3, and the Patriots are surely hoping his presence alone makes a difference. But his task is rather large, as he’ll be asked to contain a deep threat receiver who has 209 receiving yards and three touchdowns during just two career games against New England. Worse, he’s posted those numbers at a pace of 23.3 yards per catch.
2. Will Lardarius Webb’s absence loom large?
In addition to reciting Ray Lewis’ life story every 10 minutes, the media at large has had great fun discussing the improved health of the Ravens’ defense over the past two weeks. And indeed, there’s a lot of truth to that, obviously, as Lewis and Terrell Suggs have hardly been on the field together this year. There’s still a massive exception, though: Lardarius Webb.
Webb has been gone since he tore his ACL in Week 6, and despite his presence three weeks earlier, Tom Brady still passed for 335 yards, his third highest single-game total of the season. Brandon Lloyd has been mostly a waste of time this year, but as we saw in Week 15 against the 49ers when he had 190 yards on 10 catches and 16 targets, he can sporadically come alive, and Bill Belichick easily recognizes a weakness, and an opportunity to deploy his deep threat. This is one of those times.
3. Will Ray Rice be the central focus for Baltimore?
Seems simple and logical, right? The most explosive player on your offense should repeatedly get a chance to do explosive things. But whether it’s been Cam Cameron or now Jim Caldwell as Baltimiore’s offensive coordinator, Rice’s touches have been inconsistent. Under Caldwell, he’s had as little as 15 in a game, and he’s topped out at 30 twice. That’s a pretty wide gap.
The Patriots’ defense ranked ninth against the run during the regular season, but what’s key with Rice is his presence in the passing game, where he could find open space against linebackers who sometimes struggle in said space. In Week 3 he had 150 total yards, 49 of which came through the air. Most notably, though, Rice’s longest play of the day was a 27-yard catch and run, which was one of his six +20 yard catches during the regular season.