Conference Championship Picks
Here we go. Second to last time until next September (that, I can assure you, is an accurate prediction). What not to expect.
San Francisco (-4) at Atlanta
Here’s how I started out thinking about this game: I keep not believing in Atlanta and they keep proving me wrong. So I should pick the Falcons. Only, I also keep not believing in Colin Kaepernick and he keeps proving me wrong. So I should pick the Niners. You see where that got me? Nowhere. So you know what? I’ve decided I believe in both the Falcons and the kid. And that also gets me nowhere. I also believe in takeaway/giveaway differential. That get’s me most of nowhere (Falcons, +13; 49ers, +10). I believe the Falcons have a slightly more productive offense and the 49ers have a slightly stingier defense. Nowhere. I believe in home field advantage. That’s something, I suppose. But I also believe that the Falcons came within inches of choking away a 20-point fourth quarter lead at home last week against a team that was playing its second straight cross-continental road game and that isn’t nearly as good or as well coached as San Francisco. So there goes that. And now I’m back to nowhere (and starting to feel entirely too damned comfortable here). Seems to me that I’m destined to be wrong no matter how I pick this thing. So, to hell with it; I’ll go with the favorite. That way, at least I won’t feel like I’m all alone when it goes the other way. San Francisco by six.
Baltimore (+9) at New England
Let’s start with two completely meaningless statistics (because I did the research so I’m damned well gonna do something with it). First one: Teams playing in a conference championship (I’m lumping pre-merger league championships into this group) the year after losing the Super Bowl are 7-2 (.778) all time. So there’s that. Next: Super Bowl era teams returning to the semifinals a year after losing a conference championship (league championship, pre-merger) are 12-19 (.387). None of that applies to this game in any real way, but you can maybe throw those numbers out at a bar or something and make people think you’re as crazy as I am. How about one that maybe does matter a little: Joe Flacco has never, in his entire career, played outstanding football for three consecutive weeks. Flacco once, in 2010, had three straight standout games, but there was a bye in between the second and third. More to the point, Flacco’s only two consecutive great games in the current season came in the wild card round and the divisional round of the playoffs. That is, prior to the last two weeks, the consistently inconsistent Flacco had been, consistently, up and down all season. Given that, do you think Flacco’s got a third straight great game in him? It could happen, I suppose, but I don’t see any reason you’d want to put money on it. Certainly, you won’t find that reason in the Patriots defense. Because the defense Flacco will face on Sunday isn’t even remotely like the D he faced back in week three when he rallied his team from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to a one-point victory on the strength of deep passes and an absurd string of defensive penalties (which isn’t to say that the replacement officials made bad calls — some would argue they did; I don’t care — but that the New England D couldn’t get out of its own damned way in the final period). It’s also a defense that’s considerably tougher than the one the Patriots offense will face. The Ravens this season have been OK against the pass, but considerably less than OK against the run. And one can talk about how Baltimore’s D has been getting healthier, and how they finished the regular season with a couple of strong performances on the ground. But in the postseason Baltimore has given up 152 rushing yards to Indianapolis and 125 to Denver (precisely 25 of which came in overtime — so call it 100 if you want). And neither the Colts nor the Broncos achieved run production in the regular season that was even close to the seventh-ranked Patriots run offense. That appears to present a challenge for Baltimore. And what do you do if you’re the Ravens? Do you bring extra bodies to the line to try to slow down the run? Because if you do that, Tom Brady is going to eat you alive in the secondary. I’m also not convinced that the Ravens can get to the quarterback consistently enough to take the Brady out of his game. And if you can’t stop the run and you can’t stop the pass — and your defense, which isn’t young and which has played an awful lot of football over the last two weeks, has to face the fastest-moving, highest-scoring offense in the league — you end up in a situation in which you have to match the Patriots point for point. Ray Rice can’t do that on his own. Can Flacco do enough to make up the difference? On his best day, sure. But Flacco’s already had his best day. Twice. In a row. I think he needs to have as good a day here as he did back in week three, and I just don’t see that happening against the Patriots defense as currently configured. The Ravens and the Patriots virtually always play each other tough. And initially, I thought this game would turn on three points, max. But the more I look at it, the more I wonder if it isn’t time for one of those anomalous games in which one of these teams blows the other out. Last time around (back in 2009) that honor went to the Ravens. This time, it goes to the Patriots. New England, 33-14.