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Massimo’s NFL Blog
NFL Predictions | NFC AFC Conference Championship Pigskin Picks: NFL Football Picks and NFL Football Predictions
By Massimo Russo – Featured Writer Silver and Blue Report & Hook’em Report
Been There, Done That
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have reached the ‘Big Dance’ five times since the 2001 season. Last season, it wasn’t Tom Brady’s arm that earned them the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. It was a dropped pass by Baltimore receiver Lee Evans and a shanked missed 32-yard field goal attempt by Billy Cundiff. The Ravens have a new kicker and receiving core this time around, but will it help them erase the demons of yesteryear?
Conference Championship Round
Sunday, January 20
NFC Championship 3:00 PM ET – TV: FOX
San Francisco 49ers (2) 12-4-1 @ Atlanta Falcons (1) 14-3
The Mike Nolan Effect: Great hire by Atlanta Falcons team owner Arthur Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to bring along Mike Nolan to run the defense. Nolan’s approach to Atlanta’s defense has made the defense more opportunistic, and that opportunistic approach needs to continue, but at a much more highly physical approach going up against an extremely physical 49ers offense. The game plan for his group will be trying to keep 49ers mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the pocket, not letting him beat the defense with his feet. Kaepernick has brought a high boost of energy to the 49ers offense that can now stretch the field with a vertical passing game.
The 49ers offensive line is one the best in the business that is excellent in run-blocking, creating running lanes for hard-nosed running back Frank Gore, and in pass-protection. Since Kaepernick has taken over under center, he and receiver Michael Crabtree have been connecting big. Kaepernick’s two touchdown passes were to Crabtree who burned the Packers defense with 9-catches for 119-yards, helping the 49ers get to a second straight conference title game. So…Nolan’s group has their work cut out for them. And knowing that Atlanta’s run defense has been a problem here and there creates concern, but last week, they held a top tier running back Marshawn Lynch to a slim 46-yards on 16-carries. Gore is just as physical as Lynch and can also catch out of the backfield. I trust Atlanta’s secondary on the backend with Thomas DeCoud and William Moore defending the deep pass, and cornerbacks’s Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel going man-to-man on the outside with San Francisco’s receivers Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss. Nolan may need to use some blitz packages to get pressure from all angles towards Kaepernick, especially if the D-line isn’t winning battles upfront. They should do this, because you have to create pressure so the backend of your defense has the opportunity to make plays from hurried throws.
Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s Dynamic Receivers: When playing against a top rated defense that features many skilled players at defending the pass like San Francisco has, it’s vital to have a receiving core that has a quarterback that get them the football in tight spots. Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are a ball-hawking, hard-hitting, disciplined secondary the 49ers sport. It’ll be key for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to place the football in areas were his talented receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and tight end Tony Gonzalez can catch the football without giving the 49ers defense a chance at making big plays. These are the type of matchups on the offensive end were the talent needs to be showcased, and you have to be able to make acrobatic catches. And I’m pretty sure Matt Ryan has been having a good talk with his group about catching jump-balls and fighting for the football against tight coverage.
The Difference Maker: Did everyone forget about this guy? 41-catches, 548-yards and 5-touchowds may not be anything sexy enough to look upon if you’re going to look into the numbers game, but 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is still one of the most talented players in the game that I think will create problems for Atlanta’s linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas. With defensive end John Abraham (ankle) status 50/50, Weatherspoon and Nicholas’ role on spying on the mobile Kaepernick running the read-option and dropping back into coverage to cover Davis in my opinion is too much to handle. Atlanta needs Abraham rushing off the edge to pressure Kaepernick, and even if he plays, I don’t think he’ll be effective enough. Pick: 49ers 34, Falcons 24.
AFC Championship 6:30 PM ET – TV: CBS
Baltimore Ravens (4) 12-6 @ New England Patriots (2) 13-4
Baltimore’s Defense Back at being Junkyard Dogs: No Doubt, the defense is full of energy, barking like wild pit-bulls again with Ray Lewis on the field. Lewis had 17-tackles in Baltimore’s dramatic win over Denver to advance to a second straight battle against New England for the conference championship. That’s one key factor, but what’s helped the defense along the way in the second half of the season and playoffs is the solid play of outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Corey Graham, not to mention the return of Terrell Suggs at outside linebacker. The defense is creating havoc at the line of scrimmage, forcing turnovers by getting opposing quarterbacks to throw on the run. The pressure they’ve been creating upfront forced Peyton Manning to throw on the run to throw the decisive interception that set up the game winning field goal last Saturday. And although the Ravens won by a score of 38-35, the defense only allowed 21-points, the other two scores came against their special teams. Providing pressure on Tom Brady is the obvious must, and in the last three meetings against Brady, the Ravens defense has only allowed him to throw only two touchdown passes and five interceptions. Bottom line is, the Ravens defense has made things difficult for him, and they’re playing their best ball at the right time.
No Gronkowski, No Worries: Due to a forearm injury, the Patriots have lost star tight end Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the playoffs. Does this hurt New England’s chances of making the Super Bowl? Well, having all of your ammo can only help your chances, but when you have multiple weapons on offense at every position, it makes things easier to make adjustments when you have a fundamentally sound offensive line, running backs, receivers that are tremendous route runners and an extremely accurate quarterback like Tom Brady throwing the football. Most teams would struggle without a key starter, but the Patriots offense has been fine without Gronkowski, at least, statistically in the area of points per game, but not in average yards per play, and the touchdown to interception ratio for Brady suffered without Gronkowski. The offense is still dangerous with Brady and Wes Welker connecting on third down, and tight end Aaron Hernandez may not bring the physical attributes to the table like Gronkowski does, but he has wide receiver type skill with speed, great hands and the ability to break free into the open field, gaining yards after the catch. Plus, whoever is spelling Stevan Ridley at running back, whether it’s Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden or Shane Vereen, all of them can catch out of the backfield or line up on the outside as a receiver like Vereen did against the Texans last Sunday. Vereen will spell Ridley this weekend again.
The Ray Rice Factor/X-Factors: The Ravens have a featured running back with Ray Rice that can do just about everything you need a running back to do for your offense. Ray can run between the tackles and off the edges outside the tackles. He can also leak out of the backfield on option routes as receiver and make big plays after the catch. New England’s linebackers Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes will play a key role on trying to stop Rice from making big plays when he gets past the line of scrimmage rather running the football or defending him when he becomes a receiving option for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco has a hot hand with a group of receivers that may not come across as a start-studed cast, but they’re a tremendously talented group with veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, young speedster and deep-ball threat Torrey Smith, tall and speedy Jacoby Jones, who seemingly makes a big play every time he gets his hands on the ball as a receiver or returning kicks, and an emerging tight end Dennis Pitta who I think has given the Ravens more of a well-rounded core of pass-catchers with Flacco having an option in the middle of the field at tight end. Pitta has also proven that he can do more than catch short passes, as the tight end has made big plays after the catch and has caught huge passes on third and longs.
Who Wins The Game and Why: Although the Patriots are mainly known for dissecting defenses with their prolific passing attack, 2012-2013’s offense is better than the previous season. Why? Stevan Ridley becoming a featured running back that defenses need to prepare for, and when in the redzone, the Patriots can pound the football with Ridley who finished the regular season with 12-rushing-touchdowns. The offense has a more physical approach that has the ability to gash the 3-4. The Ravens defense can be exploited by New England’s excellent run-blocking that creates running lanes for Ridley to run between and outside the tackles. This game will come down to field position and turnovers, something that the Patriots have been superb at. The Patriots defense will bend, but it won’t break, because at some point, they’ll get a key turnover for the offense to take advantage of. Flacco isn’t afraid to throw the ball in tight spots, and I think that’ll cost him in this game. Then again, I could be wrong. Flacco impressed me last week against the Broncos, making big throws, eluding the rush, stepping up in the pocket and throwing the deep pass well against a good Broncos defense. In the grand scheme of things, the Patriots offense has more weapons that can exploit Baltimore’s defense with running backs that can do so much, and a dynamite option for Tom Brady on third down with Wes Welker that creates miss-matches for any defense. I like Baltimore’s chances from an offensive standpoint, but I just don’t see the Ravens defense getting Brady and the Patriots offense out of their groove. Pick: Patriots 38, Ravens 30.