Christopher’s Picks – Conference Championship

Four teams left. The winners of today’s games will meet in New Orleans two weeks from today.

We’re left with Atlanta, New England, San Francisco, and Baltimore. For some reason, these seem like fresh faces in the Conference Championship round, but that’s clearly not the case. With the exception of Atlanta, these are the same three teams we were watching this time last year.

In some ways, Atlanta had the easiest path to the NFC Championship. After starting the season 8-0, the prospect of becoming the #1 seed in the NFC seemed likely. While no one questioned Atlanta’s high playoff positioning, doubts began to creep up regarding their postseason record during the Mike Smith era. The Falcons had made the playoffs in three of four seasons under Mike Smith, but went one-and-done each year. Yes, all three of their losses had come to the eventual NFC representative in the playoffs, but the fear was that their playoff record was starting to weigh on the team.

They had been played close at home by non-playoff teams like Carolina, Oakland, and Arizona and ended the season with a disappointing home loss to Tampa Bay. Entering the playoffs, their home-field advantage didn’t seem advantageous in the least. Then last week’s Seattle game seemed to be a turning point for Atlanta in the postseason. They jumped to a 27-7 lead entering the 4th quarter, only to see Seattle storm back and score the go-ahead touchdown with 34 seconds left.

Though I picked Atlanta to win last week, their all but certain defeat was no surprise to me. At that point, it seemed like Atlanta would bow out of the playoffs early for the fourth time in five seasons. Reporters on Twitter were questioning everyone from Matt Ryan to Mike Smith and their ability to win the big game.

But a 13-3 regular season record in spite of average play says something about the real character of a team in clutch situations. Matt Ryan took Atlanta into field goal range on three huge passing plays, Mat Bryant booted the winning field goal through as time expired, and the Falcons escaped once again.

But this week, they face an even tougher NFC West team in the San Francisco 49ers. San Fran’s season has been defined by what I’m calling “The Decision”. (No disrespect to LeBron, but this choice was much more controversial when it was made.)

It’s Week 10 and the 6-2 Niners are in a surprisingly tough battle at home against division rival St. Louis. Then-quarterback Alex Smith throws the Niners’ first touchdown of the day to Michael Crabtree halfway through the second quarter. But on the play, Smith goes out with a concussion.

So in comes backup Colin Kaepernick, who 49ers fans have seen glimpses of on designed QB runs and had begun to question what he could do in the starting role. He ends up running for a score to take the lead later in the game and has a respectable day through the air.

With Smith still suffering from concussion-like symptoms, Kaepernick got the start the next week against Chicago. And the Nevada product delivered, passing for 243 yards and two touchdowns against Chicago’s great defense.

So then comes “The Decision”. Do you stay with the sure thing in Alex Smith? Or take a chance on Kaepernick for the next game in New Orleans?

Alex Smith hadn’t been elite by any stretch the last two seasons, but he had been all the Niners needed: dependable. Throwing for 17 touchdowns and only five picks last season, Smith helped San Francisco to the #1 seed and played lights out in both playoff games, leading the Niners to a huge win over New Orleans in last year’s divisional round.

During the offseason, the Niners made a very public push for Peyton Manning, which put Alex Smith’s future with the team in limbo. But after Manning chose Denver, Harbaugh moved along with Smith under center. He had began this season similar to the last with 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions up to this point. The second-year Kaepernick had never started a game in the NFL, but his small sample size showed signs of serious potential.

So Harbaugh decided to go with “the hot hand” and keep with Kaepernick as the starter. After helping the team to a big win against a rising Saints team, there was no turning back. Kaepernick threw four touchdowns against New England in Foxboro and finished the season 3-2.

Last week against Green Bay, Kaepernick showed that he was more than ready to lead this team in the future, passing for 263 yards, rushing for 181 (an all-time QB record), and scoring four touchdowns. Now he’s taken San Francisco to the same height that Alex Smith did last season. With a win against Atlanta, he’ll be Super Bowl bound in only his second season. Of the four remaining teams, San Francisco and Atlanta have the most long-term stability at quarterback.

So the pick for today’s NFC Championship game?

San Francisco over Atlanta

The Carolina Panthers have nothing to do with this game; this much is clear. But from watching them play Atlanta twice this season, one major weakness in Atlanta’s defense is clear: mobile quarterbacks in option-styled offenses.

That’s exactly what they’re up against today in Colin Kaepernick. His 181 yard rushing performance last week means that he may be the most dangerous running QB the Falcons have faced this season. Their defense did a fine job of slowing down Marshawn Lynch last week, but throughout the season, teams have been able to run on the Falcons if they want to.

It’s no secret that the Niners defense is among the best in the league, so their matchup against the dynamic Falcons passing attack should be fun to watch. But nearly every major aspect of the game favors San Francisco in this one. It’ll be tough on the road, but I think they’ll be able to pull it out.

Now on to the AFC Championship, which is a rematch of last year’s game. Same place, but clearly the Ravens will be hoping for a different outcome. When discussing the best franchises of the last five years, Baltimore may not even come up in conversation. Which is a shame – they’ve played some of the most consistent football in the league.

Only one team has made the postseason each of the last five years. That team is Baltimore.

During that span, they’ve also won at least one playoff game during each postseason appearance. That’s pretty significant considering that other great AFC teams, like the Patriots and the Peyton Manning-led Colts, can’t boast that number.

So what changed in 2008 to create this sudden consistency? The defense was already dominant.

To me, the answer is three-fold. This was the same year that head coach John Harbaugh was hired to replace Brian Billick, but the more overlooked acquisitions of that year were the selections of Delaware product Joe Flacco and Rutgers running back Ray Rice in the NFL Draft. Both picks brought stability to an offense that only had to be just that – stable. It had been years since the Ravens had a starting quarterback-running back duo on the right side of 30.

We know now that both were great picks for Baltimore. Ray Rice just posted his fourth consecutive 1,000 yard season and received a nice payday during the offseason. Flacco on the other hand, is playing for his new contract this offseason. There’s no question that Flacco has proven he can succeed in the NFL and for a fifth year quarterback… well it isn’t necessarily golden, but it’s silver. And most teams would kill for silver under center.

Is he elite? No (though he would disagree). But how many elite quarterbacks are there in the league? He’s upper middle tier and more than deserving of a new contract. And barring a six-interception performance today, that’s exactly what he’ll get this offseason.

And then there’s New England. We can’t forget about Tom Brady and company. Though the supporting cast seems to change by the minute. This season was no different. Every year, the Pats offense seems to change faces, only to reach the same heights.

Last season, it was all Gronkowski. The second round pick from 2010 put together a solid rookie season, but exploded onto the scene in 2011, going over 1,300 yards receiving, scoring 17 touchdowns and making Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and any other team you can think of. The year before that, it was “The Law Firm,” undrafted running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

This season, it’s been Stevan Ridley. The second-year running back out of LSU has one-upped Green-Ellis from 2010, running for over 1,200 yards and 12 scores. Another fine pickup has been Brandon Lloyd, the 31-year old journeyman wide receiver whose played for six teams during his ten year career. He’s given the Patriots 74 catches for 911 yards this season. Remember how we expected Chad Ochocinco to have a great rebound back year in New England last season? Well Lloyd is putting up far better numbers with much less chatter.

The ironic thing about Ridley and Lloyd is there’s a good chance neither will be wearing a Patriots uniform two years from now. That’s how their system works: find hidden gems, place them around Tom Brady, watch them thrive, and then let them go. Green-Ellis was starting running back for the Bengals this season.

Coach and quarterback seem to be the only two indispensable pieces in New England and until Brady and/or Belichick leaves, they’re likely to achieve similar results. First round bye in the playoffs, win two games, make the Super Bowl. It shouldn’t be that easy, but it is.

New England over Baltimore

Look, I’m not thrilled about this either. I have a soft spot for Baltimore, given their proximity, and I’m admittedly getting tired of seeing New England in the Super Bowl, but I don’t see any other way.

This isn’t to say that it won’t be close, however. Watch the Ravens last week in Denver if you doubt them. Hell, watch last year’s AFC Championship if you doubt them (I’m doing so again as we speak). If Lee Evans holds on to the game-winning touchdown catch in the end zone with 23 seconds left or if Billy Cundiff makes a 32-yarder to send the game into overtime, we could have a whole different ballgame. So don’t take this as me saying that Baltimore has no chance. They absolutely do.

But what does it for me (and has all season), is New England’s depth. They not only find guys out of the woodwork, but they find capable replacements as well. Gronkowski goes out for the remainder of the postseason? Enter the equally dangerous Aaron Hernandez (who I should’ve included above). Stevan Ridley in Belichick’s doghouse? A combination of Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, and Danny Woodhead will do the trick.

And I can’t forget the defense. There are the familiar names, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, and Jerod Mayo. Then you have the underrated guys in Rob Ninkovich, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty . Not to mention rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones who have made an impact right away.

The one player that New England needs is Tom Brady, which makes him priority one for the Ravens defense. Get to him early and often. If you give him time, there’s no question this will be Ray Lewis’s last game.

On offense, Flacco has to deliver. He played a solid game in last year’s championship and limited the mistakes. Same goes for last week in Denver. Ray Rice has to be a factor as well. His 67 yard rushing day from last season likely won’t cut it. Something between that and his 131 yard performance from last week is much more like it.

In the end, that may be too many ifs for Baltimore to pull off the upset. All New England needs to do is play “their game” and take care of the ball. The Ravens need to do that and then some.

So if my predictions are correct, we should get San Francisco and New England in the Super Bowl. A rematch of their Sunday Night thriller earlier in the season. But regardless of the outcome, I’m sure I’m not alone in just wishing great contests like the ones we saw last week..

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