Championship Weekend Matchup Predictions
49ers (12-4-1) @ Falcons (14-3): The top two teams in the NFC will meet in Atlanta this weekend, and we'll likely be in for a game similar to when the Falcons hosted the Seahawks a week ago. The 49ers and Seahawks have both followed the same basic blueprint to construct their roster - a vicious defense with a smash mouth, run oriented offense. They even both have quarterbacks who can take off and burn you on the ground. The Falcons, right now, feel like they can beat a team like the 49ers, as they just beat their lookalike in the Seahawks last week.
I don't think it's fair to knock the Falcons for their playoff struggles this week. Sure, Matt Ryan only improved his career playoff record to 1-3, but he did so in impressive fashion. I predicted that Ryan would uncharacteristically throw some interceptions, and he did, but he didn't let it faze him. He proceeded to complete over 68% of his passes and throw for three touchdowns. He finished off the game with a masterful drive, executed with 31 seconds remaining on the clock, which won the Falcons the football game.
While I do think this gets the Falcons over the playoff hump, there are some things that they were able to do against the Seahawks that they won't be able to do against the 49ers. First of all, they ran the ball extremely well. This is a team ranked 29th in rushing that boasts an abysmal 3.7 yards per carry average. An extremely washed up Michael Turner ran for 98 yards on only 14 carries, while backup Jacquizz Rodgers got 64 yards out of his 10 attempts. That allowed the Falcons to control the clock for most of the game, keeping the Seahawks off the field and essentially giving them less time to complete their comeback attempt. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Navorro Bowman won't let them get away with that.
In addition, the Falcons 29th ranked run defense was able to bottle up the Seahawks run game. I believe a large part of that had to do with Marshawn Lynch's foot sprain being more serious than anyone had believed. Regardless, the 49ers have a massive offensive line that makes it incredibly tough to get a shot at the ball carrier. The Falcons and their typically struggling run defense will have a very tough time containing the 49ers' ground attack.
I think this game will play out very similarly to the Seahawks/Falcons matchup (aside from Atlanta going up by 20). The big differences between the Falcons' last game and this week's game will be on the ground - the 49ers won't let Michael Turner look like he's still in his 20's, and the Seahawks won't shut down Frank Gore and company. I expect Colin Kaepernick to play about as well as Russell Wilson did last week, so what happens on the ground will make all the difference.
49ers win 31-27.
Ravens (12-6) @ Patriots (13-4): I've been very hard on the Ravens all season, and I think everything I've said has been warranted. However, here is where they have proven me wrong: they step it up in the playoffs. It may not be pretty, and I may not understand how they do it, but they somehow get wins when their season is on the line. Having said that, I also have to address how they came away with last week's impressive victory over the Broncos...
I never like to say that teams win based on luck, because I don't believe that is ever the case (or that it is extremely rarely the case), but a lot of things went the Ravens' way last weekend. The Broncos' offense became far too conservative towards the end of the game, allowing the Ravens to come back. The refs missed an easy pass interference call that resulted in a Ravens' defensive touchdown. Rahim Moore, for lack of a better term, completely brain farted to allow Jacoby Jones to score the game-tying touchdown. Finally, Peyton Manning made his most un-Peyton play of the year, throwing across his body into the hands of a Ravens player for a crippling interception.
The fact of the matter is, the Ravens won that game fair and square - they were better than the Broncos on that day. The plays that Rahim Moore and Peyton Manning made were the difference, and if you can't step up in those moments, you don't deserve to win. However, I don't think the Patriots' players will mess up in those situations. Tom Brady is not going to throw across his body to give his opponent the ball ten yards from field goal position in overtime. Bill Belichick is not going to abandon his aggressive offensive style when his team is up by a touchdown. Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory aren't going to completely misjudge an under-thrown deep ball.
The Patriots have the best offense in the NFL, and they are loaded with players who have experienced and been victorious in Championship Round games. I like their firepower, ball control, and ability to force turnovers over a wild card Joe Flacco backed by an overrated defense. I'll give the Ravens credit, however, for their recent success. A few weeks ago, I'd have this game pegged as a borderline blowout (yes, even though the Ravens beat the Patriots in Week 3), but now I think this will be a good game - maybe even a great game.
Patriots win 34-30.