This Week in: The NFL – Championship Round

Colin Kaepernick after his first rushing touchdown against the Packers - if only the lad had more confidence
Colin Kaepernick after his first rushing touchdown against the Packers – if only the lad had more confidence

In last week’s Divisional Round, Colin Kaepernick – in just his 8th NFL start – set a record for rushing yards by a quarterback (181) in the postseason, as he led the 49ers to a 45-31 victory over the Packers in San Francisco.  Green Bay were unable to defend the zone-read option offense their opponents employed but, despite that, they still had an opportunity to build a resounding lead early on that could have sent the game in a completely different direction.  During the 49ers first drive, Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned for a touchdown, then after the two teams had traded scores, the Packers forced San Francisco to punt the ball away at 14-7 down.  However, instead of having the chance to drive down the field and extend their lead, Green Bay allowed the score to be tied after Jeremy Ross fumbled the kick and C.J. Spillman recovered the ball for the home side, leading to Kaepernick’s first passing touchdown (of two) for the day.  On their next possession, the Packers once again turned the ball over, as Aaron Rodgers made an uncharacteristically sloppy pass that was intercepted, after which Kaepernick and San Francisco took over and ran away with the game.  While Rodgers did not have his most impressive outing, the 31 points that Green Bay registered (although 7 of those were in garbage time, when the result was beyond doubt) represents the third highest total an opponent has recorded against the 49ers this year and it was the lack of any coherent defense that led to the Packers exiting the playoffs at the Divisional Round stage for the second consecutive year.

The other NFC matchup saw the Atlanta Falcons advance thanks to another last-minute comeback, something they achieved despite having led 27-7 heading into the fourth quarter.  Seattle were kept off the board in the first half, despite having been deep in Atlanta territory on two occasions – the first of which led to a turnover on downs after a failed run attempt on 4th & 1; while the second came to an abrupt end as the clock ran out before the field goal unit could get setup following a sack on Russell Wilson.  The rookie QB led the Seahawks back into the game in the second half, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for another, then a 1 yard run from Marshawn Lynch appeared to have completed the comeback for Seattle with just 31 seconds remaining.  Nevertheless, that was enough time for Matt Ryan to earn the first playoff win for the Falcons since they drafted him in 2008, as he completed two long passes to put his team in field goal range, then watched as Matt Bryant made the kick – following a failed attempt which had been nullified by a Seattle timeout – that sent Atlanta to the NFC Championship game.

Over in the AFC, Baltimore provided the upset of the postseason thus far, as they beat the top seeded Broncos in the second period of overtime.  The two teams had traded touchdowns throughout the game, both putting up 14 points in the first quarter, followed by 7 in each of the next three, though Denver will be disappointed that they were unable to maintain the 35-28 lead they held with less than a minute remaining, as Joe Flacco was able to find Jacoby Jones with a 70 yard TD pass over safety Rahim Moore’s head to tie the score.  The Broncos ran the final 30 seconds off the clock rather than attempt their own final minute drive – seemingly because the cold weather was inhibiting Peyton Manning’s ability to throw deep – and neither side could find a breakthrough in the first fifteen minutes of extra playing time, but when Manning threw an interception towards the end of that period, he gifted the Ravens great field position that they ultimately converted into the winning field goal.  Baltimore will now head to New England for the AFC Championship game for the second year in succession, as the Patriots took care of the Texans 41-28, with Tom Brady throwing three touchdown passes en route to securing his 17th playoff victory as a starting quarterback, beating former 49ers QB, Joe Montana for most all time.  The only bad news for New England came in the form of another injury to Rob Gronkowski, with the tight end now ruled out for the remainder of the postseason with a broken arm.

Weekend Preview and Predictions

Last week, 2-2; Playoffs, 4-4

NFC Championship Game

2. San Francisco 49ers @ 1. Atlanta Falcons – Sunday 3:00pm ET

After watching Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense shred the Packers apart last week, this should be an easy pick – but surely no other team can defend the zone-read option as badly as Green Bay.  Atlanta has the advantage of having played against that form of offense in the previous round against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, plus they were able to prepare for the college-type game as their other potential opponents were the Redskins, who employ a similar style with Robert Griffin III at QB.  The Falcons also have experience of winning close encounters – the win over the Seahawks moved their record for the season to 8-2 in games that were decided by a touchdown or less – and they will have faith that their quarterback, Matt Ryan, can drive them to a win in the closing minutes should he have the opportunity to do so.  San Francisco were a much more ordinary team on the road this year – losing half of their games compared to a 7-0-1 record at home – though they did have an impressive victory at New England in week 15.  If the Falcons are able to contain Kaepernick early on and build a lead, then they will force the 49ers to adopt a more conventional, pass-first offense which may be the key to them winning.  Should Atlanta fall behind early, then stopping San Francisco and their free-running QB on the quick turf of the Georgia Dome may prove to be as impossible for them as it was for Green Bay last week.  The Pick – Atlanta +4.5 over San Francisco.

AFC Championship Game

4. Baltimore Ravens @ 2. New England Patriots – Sunday 6:30pm ET

This time last year, Baltimore lost to New England in the AFC Championship game 23-20, though they would have been heading to the Super Bowl had Lee Evans held onto a pass in the End Zone in the final minute – rather than being stripped – and would have at least forced overtime, but for kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32 yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.  In 2012, the Ravens were far from impressive in the regular season, but in January, they have overcome the Colts, who had been on a roll with their “Chuckstrong” momentum – although in the light of the Manti Te’o scandal, perhaps we will find out next that Chuck Pagano is actually a fictional online coach whom Indianapolis pretended had leukemia – and the Broncos, a game in which Baltimore were double-digit underdogs.  The task of preventing the Patriots from making their sixth Super Bowl in the Tom Brady era is likely to be the toughest challenge yet for the Ravens, as New England have won their last 8 home encounters.  The two teams did face each other in week three and, although the Patriots lost that encounter by a point, the matchup was marred by a string of bad decisions from the replacement referees.  There is only one way I can pick this game however – having picked Baltimore to win the Super Bowl before the season began, I have to stick with that decision – thus: The Pick – Baltimore + 8 over New England

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