San Francisco -4 over ATLANTA
Few people expected either San Francisco or Atlanta to win last week, but here we are with them opening up our Championship Sunday. The difference is people generally still thinks Atlanta is a fraud while they realize San Francisco might be the best team in football. Last week’s offensive display by Colin Kaepernick is exactly what Jim Harbaugh was hoping for when he made Kaepernick his quarterback midseason. The explosiveness Kaepernick adds to the offense has made it a bit of a juggernaut. The 49ers have scored at least 27 points in four of their last five games. Not too shabby.
They’ve always had the defense, so the newfound offense is a welcome gift. The one hole in the defense that has been mentioned all week is the 49ers’ coverage of the slot. They’ve been caught in zone defense with their linebackers either tracking speedier wide receivers or being caught out of position. Atlanta generally attacks the slot with tight end Tony Gonzalez, who while good, is not someone who can run away from linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Will offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter be smart enough to scheme something to attack this weakness? I haven’t seen enough from him to believe that he will.
There are some items, however, in Atlanta’s favor. Stuckey, one of my favorite gambling follows on Twitter, points out that in the playoffs “teams coming off 38-plus points playing a team who scored 34 or less points are 1-12 against the spread.” Another is that Atlanta is 8-1 at home this year with its only loss being in Week 17 when they had nothing to play for. I was actually surprised at how boisterous the Atlanta fans were when I was there to see them play the Cowboys this year. The last time San Francisco dealt with such a vicious home crowd was in their Week 16 game in Seattle. We know that didn’t turn out too well for them.
Alas I don’t think it will be enough. San Francisco is the most complete team in football right now. Atlanta’s holes, their run offense and run defense, are too glaring. Atlanta’s been playing on borrowed time all season. They finally got their playoff win in the Matt Ryan era. There will be a slight air of complacency despite anything they say. San Francisco has been to this dance before and they’re ready to get to the next level.
Baltimore +8 over NEW ENGLAND
The Ravens ruined everyone’s best AFC Championship Game scenario by toppling the Broncos in double overtime last weekend. Well, New Englanders will be happy. No one else, though. Now the Patriots and their fans get to enjoy a home game against a perceived lesser opponent instead of having to deal with the high-powered Denver offense in Mile High. (A few of my Patriots fan friends booked a trip to Las Vegas and Denver to celebrate the holiday weekend with the all that Vegas has to offer and the sight of their beloved Patriots in the AFC Championship game. At least they still have a couple nights in Vegas to look forward to.) And oh yeah, it’s a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens have come on strong in their two playoff wins, which is nothing new to Joe Flacco. As bad as Flacco looks on the road during the regular season, he looks mighty good in postseason road games. He now sports a 5-4 record in playoff road games with last week’s performance being his most glorious of the bunch. The three biggest throws Flacco made last week were to the right side of the field, a strength that was highlighted on the CBS broadcast and on “SportsCenter” by Trent Dilfer. If it’s apparent to them, one would think Bil Belichick would pick up on it too and force Flacco to execute in another fashion. Houston saw success last week on swing passes to Arian Foster, so Baltimore would be wise to do the same.
Meanwhile New England just rolls along. They’re 10-1 in their last 11 games and looked as seamless as ever offensively last week despite losing Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injuries. The Baltimore defense was supposed to get attacked by Denver’s passing game last week, but Denver managed only one offensive score in their last nine true offensive drives of the game. Maybe it’s because Peyton Manning couldn’t throw the ball deep in cold weather, but maybe it’s because the Ravens defense has slightly improved now that it’s healthy. I’ll say it’s the latter.
Baltimore’s played New England tough over the last three years and New England knows that. The two teams have split their last four contests, which includes a split of playoff games in two of three years. Expect another battle in this one, where more than a touchdown is just too much to give.
Last Week: 4-0