Feb 042013
 

FlaccoSo the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 last night in Super Bowl XLVII. I can’t call it one of the best Super Bowls I watched, but rather would call it one of the more bizarre football games I have witnessed. So here is a not so quick, highly opinionated take on last night’s game.

The Ravens deserved to win

I am no Ratbirds fan. Not even close. I can’t stand Ray Lewis (more on that later), and think that John Harbaugh is the more pompous of the brothers. None the less, the Ravens deserved to win last night. The Ravens dominated the first half of play and had a huge halftime lead, and the game should have been over by the end of the third quarter. But the Ravens didn’t wake up after the lights went back on, and the 49ers stormed back, similar to the Patriots’ comeback in Week 15 against the Niners. In the end the comeback would not be enough; the Raven’s defense did just enough to secure the win, and they were aided by poor clock management and even  poorer play-calling on the part of San Francisco.

Jacoby Jones should have been the MVP

There’s no question that Joe Flacco had a good game, but the Ravens don’t win that contest without the performance of Jacoby Jones. Jones tied a Super Bowl record with a 108 yard kickoff return to open the second half after having made a brilliant play on a 56 yard touchdown pass near the end of the first half. That was Jones’ only reception of the night, but he finished the game with 234 return yards, to give him 290 total yards for the night. That was three more yards than what Flacco threw for, in a very efficient 22/33 performance with three touchdown passes, all of which came in the first half. The award is arguable, but Jones seems to be the better candidate, having an impact similar to that of the one offered by  Desmond Howard in Super Bowl XXXI for the Green Bay Packers.

I’m betting the Houston Texans wish they hadn’t let go of Jones.

Flacco has huge leverage

Whether or not Flacco deserved to be MVP of the Super Bowl, he is, and the fact that he helped deliver a title to Baltimore means significant leverage for the Ravens’ quarterback in coming contract negotiations. The truth is that Flacco took a huge step forward in his development this year, although he is still not a consistent enough performer to count among the league’s best. But that won’t stop Flacco from seeking top dollar, in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

As noted on Pro Football Talk, the Ravens will now almost certainly tag Flacco with the exclusive franchise tag, placing his 2013 pay in excess of the $20 million mark that Flacco desires. There’s very little chance that the Ravens would allow less successful teams to make a run at Flacco by applying the non-exclusive tag. So it looks like Joe is going to be cashing in on his Super Bowl win in short order.

Worst Color Commentator EVER…

Am I the only one who was both baffled and horrified by the on air performance of Phil Simms as the “color” commentator? Between the man “seeing” things before plays that he failed to share with the audience to not seeming to understand the strategy behind the game of football, Simms was a complete bust during the Super Bowl broadcast.

While Simms was miserable throughout the game, the final drive served as proof positive that Simms has no business being on the air. First, Simms was barely critical of a final 49ers drive that demonstrated poor clock management and poor play selection. Second, Simms started out by calling the final 49ers’ offensive play a “good no call” and then retreated back from his position to the point where no one, even Simms, knew exactly what his thoughts were. Finally, Simms seemed out of touch with the idea that the Ravens’ would (Very wisely) take a safety on the punt in the game’s next to last play, killing valuable clock time while protecting the Baltimore lead. If you didn’t know who the commentators were, you would be convinced that Jim Nance knows far more about football than Phil Simms, and that might very well be the truth.

I haven’t checked to see who is broadcasting next year’s Super Bowl. But if it is CBS doing the honors, I hope they will rent Troy Aikman away from FOX for a day.

Jones and CulliverKarma bites Culliver

I was ranting all week about the need for karma to make an appearance at this year’s Super Bowl and it did… just not in the way that I expected. Chris Culliver, the 49ers’ cornerback who went off in a rant about the possibility of gay players in the NFL (newsflash idiot… there already are gay players in the NFL), got lit up like a Christmas tree by Flacco and the Ravens. Culliver found himself to be a frequent target of Flacco during the game. Culliver was the one who got burned on Jacoby Jones’ terrific touchdown play, and was also responsible for a pass interference penalty on a key third down with only nine minutes remaining in the game.

Right about now Culliver needs a hug, but I wouldn’t blame any of his teammates for not giving it to him. Culliver can claim all he wants that there is no homophobia or hate in his heart, but there was plenty that came out of his mouth.

Good bye, Ray

Speaking of karma, I am convinced it took the easy way out after targeting Culliver instead of Ray Lewis. But for those who share my disdain of the Ravens’ criminal linebacker,  we can take solace in the fact that the retirement party is nearly complete; there’s just a parade left to go and then we’ll just have to deal with the man as a talking head going forward.

Still, Ray just couldn’t resist giving us more fodder upon which to despise him. In an interview with CBS’ Shannon Sharpe, Lewis was asked directly about the double murder in which he was implicated in 2000. His response? Why of course it was to blame the investigatory process.

Said Lewis, “It’s simple. God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see. And if our system — it’s the sad thing about our system — if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth. But the saddest thing ever was that a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.”

That’s right scumbag…. blame the system. The same system that you refused to cooperate with and eventually had to plead guilty for obstruction to. I also suppose the system is to blame for the disappearance of a blood-splattered white suit. Lewis can talk all he wants about God and about being reformed, but the fact is that God didn’t commit commit those murders. God didn’t investigate the case. And God sure as hell didn’t refuse to cooperate with the investigation, to lie, or to hide a bloody white suit. In my opinion, the type of salvation that Lewis has claimed to possess can only occur when the offender has assumed responsibility for his actions. Other than to pay off the families to avoid a civil finding, and to contribute mightily to the community to presumably assuage his own feelings of guilt, this ass continues to spout drivel and act like it is profound. It’s time for you to go Ray, and for me to mute my television every time your face comes on the screen.

Shut up, Frank

For what seems to be the one hundredth time this season, a player in defeat claims that his team beat themselves or gave the game away. It’s a tired refrain that on the surface is poor sportsmanship and on a deeper level just feels like a complete lack of respect for one’s opponents.

Enter Frank Gore.  Following the game, Gore told the Associated Press, “They got away with one. We showed we were the better team. It was just a couple plays here, a couple plays there.”

Perhaps Frank doesn’t understand (though he should) that every game in the NFL comes down to a few plays “here” and a few plays “there”. The winner executes and the loser doesn’t. And the loser should probably shut the hell up about being the better team when the scoreboard doesn’t agree. I don’t like the Ravens, and I don’t think that they are the best team in football, but I can at least acknowledge that they were the better team on this night and that they are the Super Bowl champions. Show some class, Frank.

GiR 2Gridiron Rats Super Bowl Party

Gridiron Rats officially ended its first full season of NFL football with a small gathering at the Rat’s Lair. We could only get four of our contributors and their families in attendance, but a great time was had by all. The halftime show by Beyonce was pretty good (and I am not usually a fan), but it paled to the post-Beyonce dance performance given by eight kids ranging from 13 to 2 years of age.

The food was fabulous. Rat’s Widow made Belichicken Wings, a dish we found perusing the Patriots Life site. Folks… make this chicken; it was wonderful. She also made cocktail weenies, a very good beer bread and dip, and she provided a tremendous spread of yummies that the kids dove into. Flip Stricland provided a huge bag of steaks that were perfectly marinated. Ghost Rat cooked up about a dozen of these on the grill while Rat’s Widow turned the rest into sandwich meat. And not to be outdone, the Country Preacher and his wife brought along a hash brown casserole that was the perfect complement to the evening’s main dishes.

GiR 1I’ve added some photos of the steaks (yes, I was grilling in the snow) and of our illustrious contributors. The back row has Country Preacher, Flip Strickland, and the Ghost Rat, while the front row has the Preacher’s Wife, Flip’s Wife, and the famous Rat’s Widow. Aren’t those ladies pretty? We are lucky men!

The party only lasted until just after halftime because… you know… we all have little kids. But the power outage intervened and gave everyone time to tuck the little ones in and get back to what turned out to be a pretty dramatic Super Bowl.

 

Jan 162013
 

Patriots - RavensYes, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots 31-30 in a Week Three Sunday night contest. Yes, the Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season this past weekend when he broke his forearm for the second time this season. Yes, the Ravens are playing with a lot of emotional energy and momentum as they try to extend the career of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

None of that will determine the outcome on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens come into the contest fresh off a stunning and thrilling double overtime win over the Denver Broncos. While the Ravens escaped with a win, the Broncos were as guilty of handing the Ravens the game as the Ravens were responsible for making it happen. The heralded Broncos’ defense, which was the second best defense in the NFL this season (3rd against both the pass and the run) was shredded by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to the tune of 486 combined rushing and passing yards. Pro-Bowler Champ Bailey got burned badly twice for touchdowns, while Rahim Moore was responsible for allowing an inexcusable game-tying touchdown in the final minute. On offense, Peyton Manning made key mistakes and the play-calling was overly conservative, all of which contributed to allowing Baltimore a chance to win the game.

While such mistakes are possible on any given Sunday, they are not crimes the New England Patriots are likely to commit.

For their part, the Patriots handily dismissed of the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. While the Texans didn’t fold early this time around, the Patriots dominated the third quarter and early fourth to build a 38-13 lead and coasted from there, despite not being overly sharp on offense, and while losing Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, and Chandler Jones to injuries. The Patriots simply took care of business, pretty or not, and they are highly motivated to take on the Ravens and earn their sixth Super Bowl bid in twelve seasons.

That’s not to say that this is going to be an easy victory for the Patriots to earn. But the Patriots got the better of the possible AFC championship game match-ups with the Ravens, and they have the added benefit of playing the game in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in what is currently forecast to be typical cold, windy January weather in Foxboro.

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

Ridley - RavensWhen the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley’s production has tailed off a bit in terms of yards gained, but he is still running for a solid average per carry and is more than enough to keep the Ravens’ defense honest. Denver ran for 125 yards against the Ravens, with their running game suffering the loss of Knowshon Moreno, but Ronnie Hillman was productive in gaining 83 yards. The Colts were similarly effective in rushing the ball against the Ravens in the wildcard game two weeks ago, gaining 152 yards on the ground.

The Patriots’ rushing attack was seventh in the league this season, averaging 136.5 yards per game. The Ravens still maintain a tough run defense, but slipped to 20th in the league this season, yielding over 122 yards per game on the ground. The versatile backfield group of Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, running behind a stout offensive line, is likely to match the Patriots’ season average for yards. Ridley will grind yards between the tackles while Vereen has good speed to the edge and is always capable of breaking a big play. I expect that the Patriots will look to serve up a heavy dose of hurry-up offense, seeking to tire out a Ravens’ defense that looked heavily winded against the Broncos last Saturday. If the Patriots can secure a second half lead, look for the Patriots to pound Ridley and Vereen against a tired defense, killing valuable time off the clock.

Terrell Suggs had ten tackles and two sacks in the divisional round win over the Broncos. Ray Lewis is still fierce against the run, and assists Haloti Ngata, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones in trying to limit the Patriots’ rushing attack.

Prediction: 130 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Brady - Ravens

When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was not overly sharp on Sunday and was hampered by dropped passes, yet still piled up 344 yards and three scores. Just as importantly, Brady protected the ball and did not throw any interceptions. The Patriots’ passing attack will be without Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots are used to life without Gronk, and have plenty of players ready to step up. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are likely to once again be the keys to the Patriots’ short passing attack, while Brandon Lloyd has made his presence felt at key points in the season. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are reliable receivers coming out of the backfield who will likely get their opportunity to match up against the Ravens’ linebackers. Part of what will dictate the action is the defense that the Ravens line up with. If the Ravens line up in a base defense, it means mismatches with Vereen and Hernandez on linebackers, while if the Ravens move to a nickle defense, the Patriots will seek to exploit it with the run.

Corey Graham and Carey Williams are capable cornerbacks who will have their hands full on Sunday. Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are fearless and experienced safeties who can play coverage or go for the big hit, though Reed is known as a gambler. However, the linebacking corps is where the Ravens are going to experience problems. While Paul Kruger has emerged as as the Ravens’ best defensive player and is a pass rush threat who is also more than capable in coverage, both Lewis and Suggs will be liabilities in defending the pass. Similarly, the Patriots may be able to exploit match-ups against Dannell Ellerbe, and I would expect Vereen and Woodhead to be running short routes in Ellerbe’s assignment area. This mismatch between receivers and linebackers is complicated by the fact that the Ravens have struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line, and have had to bring linebackers to aid the pass rush. Brady excels at identifying the blitzing linebacker and exploiting the open area.

Prediction: 270 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns

Rice - PatriotsWhen the Ravens run

Although Ray Rice’s production tailed off, the return of right guard Marshal Yanda has bolstered the Ravens’ offensive line and Rice was able to run for 131 yards against the Broncos after rushing for 68 yards against the Bengals (Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards in that game). Pierce is emerging as an offensive threat, but is struggling with an injury suffered against the Broncos. Vonta Leach is a versatile fullback who excels at creating room for Rice to run in. The Patriots’ defensive front is among the best in the game, anchored by Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes excel in run defense, while Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are effective in setting the edge. Justin Francis is an adequate replacement if Jones is unable to go due to injury. While Arian Foster was able to gain 90 yards last week against the Patriots, much of that came in a short succession of runs. Otherwise, Foster constantly found his running lanes clogged as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry (22 carries) which included a 21 yard run and a 19 yard run in the second quarter. Factoring those two runs out, Foster struggled for 50 yards on 20 carries.

Although Ray Rice is the only running back to have rushed for over 100 yards against the Patriots this season, he did so with 101 yards in Week Three. Rice is likely to average four yards per carry this week, and will likely hit at least one run of over twenty yards, but he is going to have a hard time finding room to run against a disciplined defensive front. Rice is one of two keys that the Patriots are looking to take away from the Ravens this Sunday.

Prediction: 110 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown


FlaccoWhen the Ravens pass

The other key that the Patriots will be looking to take away is the deep ball, particularly from Torrey Smith. While Smith does not make a ton of catches, he simply makes big plays, as Denver found out last week and as the Patriots know all too well from Week Three. Enter Aqib Talib, who plays with a level of swagger and confidence that is rare in Patriots’ cornerbacks. Talib’s skills make this a much tougher match-up for the Ravens than in the first meeting, but I still expect safety help whenever Smith is on the field. One of the keys to Baltimore winning this game is to hit big plays downfield, and that is something the Patriots must take away.

Joe Flacco excels in throwing the deep ball, and has emerged as the top of the “near elite” quarterbacks after Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. And we might be talking about Flacco very differently had it not been for an outstanding play by Sterling Moore (on Lee Evans) in last year’s AFC Championship. Having said that, Flacco is better at throwing the deep ball than he is in the short and intermediate passing games; his post-season passing percentage in two playoff games this season is a mere 52.6. Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard (if healthy) are good bets to limit the production of Smith and Anquan Boldin, though both receivers will get their share of catches. Jacoby Jones is also a threat, and Kyle Arrington may have his hands full with the speedy receiver. Devin McCourty excels at safety and will take advantage of any mistakes made by Flacco, though his 22 TD, 10 INT season makes it unlikely that he will commit too many mistakes. Steve Gregory is playing extremely well and also limits yards after the catch.

The Patriots’ linebackers are generally solid in coverage, but they will be challenged by Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Ray Rice has not factored as a huge receiving threat out of the backfield this season, but this is one area that the Ravens could seek to take advantage of, particularly since the Patriots seemed content to allow Arian Foster to go uncovered out of the backfield on numerous occasions last Sunday. Foster caught seven balls for 63 yards and a touchdown, and this has to be an area of concern for the Patriots.

The New England pass rush has not been consistent throughout the season, and the reshuffled Raven’s offense has performed admirably in pass protection, surrendering only two sacks so far in the post-season. The Patriots may need to get creative in blitzes to give Flacco less time to look down the field.

One very interesting development in the Patriots’ defensive evolution took place last Sunday when Rob Ninkovich picked off a Matt Schaub pass to end a Texans’ drive. On the play, the Patriots put only one man on the defensive line in a three point stance, and moved Mayo up to the right side of the defensive front to give the appearance of an all-out blitz. Schaub read this and saw that the middle of the field was wide open, but the Patriots had baited him. When Schaub stepped back to pass, Ninkovich dropped into coverage, exactly where Schaub thought he had a free pass. The result was an acrobatic play by Ninkovich to pick the ball off and steal any momentum the Texans might have. This is significant because we have not seen this type of scheming in the New England defense since the days of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and speaks as to how far the defensive unit has come since a miserable early part of the season. Flacco will get his yards, but the Patriots know his tendencies and are likely to create some confusion for him as the game goes on.

Prediction: 280 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception

Special Teams

Justin Tucker is an excellent rookie kicker who has missed only three field goals this season and looks to be at the beginning of a spectacular career. Sam Koch is a steady punter who is capable of giving the Patriots poor starting field position. Jacoby Jones is one of the game’s best returners; the Patriots will need to fix the coverage issues that they experienced last week against the Texans.

For the Patriots, Stephen Goskowski has overcome his early season struggles to have another successful campaign. Zoltan Mesko had an inconsistent season as the punter, but had a huge game last week against the Texans. I expect averages for both punters to come down in the colder weather this week, but Mesko is also capable of pinning the Ravens deep. McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner, while Welker always represents the potential of a big play in the punt return game.

Intangibles

Unlike the Texans, the Ravens won’t play scared and have a chip on their shoulder. Similarly, New England is playing with a strong sense of purpose after falling just short in last year’s Super Bowl.

One highly important piece is turnovers. The Patriots are the best in the league at +25 (41 takeaways versus 16 giveaways), while the Ravens come in at +9 (25 takeaways versus 16 giveaways). The lesson in these numbers is that both teams are proficient at protecting the ball, but the Patriots excel in forcing mistakes and turnovers. The Patriots were +1 in this department last week against Matt Schaub and the Texans, while Baltimore came out two Peyton Manning interceptions ahead last week. In the previous week however, Ray Rice loss two fumbles against the Colts. Fumbles are a rarity for Rice, but he will have to secure the ball this week against ballhawks like Mayo, Spikes, and Ninkovich. Just as special teams have the potential to shape this game, so too do turnovers.

One extra concern to note for the Patriots is their uncharacteristic trend of giving up points to end the first half, and giving up easy points once a lead has been established. If the Patriots can get in front of the Ravens on Sunday, they need to go for the kill and never let up.

Brady - VereenPrediction

If you simply compare the rosters between the two teams, the Ravens fare well, as their roster is loaded with talented players, even if they lack some of the depth of the Patriots, particularly on defense. Add the factor of the Ravens seeking revenge for last season’s loss in the AFC Championship, and Ravens’ fans have plenty of room to be hopeful. But revenge is only so much of a motivator, and it doesn’t replace execution. This game will come down to match-ups and execution, and that’s what gives Patriots’ fans confidence for a win.

The Ravens came into the playoffs as losers of four of their final five games. While their defense performed admirably on the road in the second half in Denver, shutting down Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, the team will find it harder to execute to the same level in Foxboro this Sunday. The Patriots’ offense enjoys mismatches against the Ravens’ defenders that make it unlikely that the Ravens will hold the Patriots under 30 points. If Baltimore is to win this game, they will have to do so by winning a slugfest, and the Patriots’ defense is far better than it was when the two teams squared off early in the season. While the Ravens were able to win in Week Three, it was only after the Patriots squandered a two score lead late in the game in Baltimore.

Torrey Smith is right when he says the Ravens are a different team than they were a year ago; the trouble for the Ravens is that they are not necessarily a better team than they were a year ago. The offense has made strides in the passing game and has better playmakers than it did a year ago, although it is generally on par with where it was in 2011 statistically. But the Ravens’ defense has taken a significant step backward, in part due to health and in part to age. The Patriots are likely to draw the Ravens into a shootout, and the Ravens don’t currently seem equipped to win such a shootout with a team that won’t self-destruct the way Denver did in their divisional game, particularly on the road in New England. This game will see some early jitters for both sides as it will take time for the Patriots’ offense to find their rhythm, and an early Ravens lead is possible. But the Patriots will pull even or better by halftime, and the Patriots’ offense will physically pound the Ravens’ defense in the second half of the game. Both teams suffered from special teams lapses in the divisional round, so big plays are possible there. In the end, the Patriots’ offense will wear the Ravens down, and move on to the team’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.

New England Patriots 34 Baltimore Ravens 27

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”

Jan 092013
 

Ravens-BroncosThree of the four NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups this weekend are rematches of regular season games that were so one sided that nobody, sans the revenge seeking losers of each game, would clamor to see based on the initial result. Less than a month ago, Denver traveled to Baltimore and opened up a 31-3 lead behind Knowshon Moreno’s 115 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. For the Broncos it was their 9th straight win and also the 9th straight win for Peyton Manning against Baltimore. His mere presence at the helm snapped a 5-game losing streak for Denver in Baltimore and provided further proof that recent Bronco history must receive a separate distinction between pre-Manning and the present. For the Ravens Week 15 this marked the first performance of the Jim Caldwell offense, as Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in the midst of what would turn out to be a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season.

Both teams arrive at this point, the Divisional round, for the second straight year-albeit under much different circumstances from a season ago. This time last year Denver was riding Tebowmania and an upset of a battered Steelers team in the Wild Card Round. This year Manning is at the helm and the offense has improved from 23rd a season ago to 4th; meanwhile, the defense has made a similar climb from 26th to 2nd. A season ago, Baltimore was the team coming off the bye and would roll into the AFC Championship and land a heartbeat away from a second Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore on the other has seen its defense fall to 17th after a myriad of injuries to Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis (who did not play vs. Denver), and company—its worst ranking since 2002 and only its second time out of the top 10 since 1998. Nonetheless, it was the defense that led the way in a 24-9 Wild Card weekend victory over the Colts to set up a rematch of December 16th—this time in Denver. Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl in 2000 began with a 21-3 victory over Denver; they will likely need more than history on their side against this Denver team.

The Keys for Baltimore
Joe Flacco needed only 12 completions last week to tally 282 yards and two touchdowns. Baltimore handled the Indianapolis rush extremely well last week and Flacco was sacked only once. Baltimore will need to give Flacco time to use his downfield accuracy. He was able to strike downfield consistently against the Colts, particularly to Anquan Boldin. Boldin was unable to secure a single reception against Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary in the first match-up and will need a performance more reminiscent of last week’s 145 yard effort for the Ravens to find success. The type of protection provided last week was not there for Flacco in the regular season match-up (While sacked only three times he was pressured all day. Boldin and counterpart Torrey Smith combined for just 15 yards between them and their inability to get open compounded things for Flacco. The turning point in that game was when Flacco was pressured into an interception that Chris Harris returned 98 yards. Baltimore fell down too deep in that game to utilize the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice Combo. The duo rushed for a combined 58 yards in the first meeting. Last week, the tandem rushed for 178 yards—overcoming two Ray Rice fumbles– and will be counted on to take pressure off of Flacco and maintain favorable time of possession. Baltimore will need similar output from the running game minus the fumbles, along with mistake free football from Flacco to pull out the upset.

Fairly healthy for their game against Indianapolis, Baltimore was able to notch 3 sacks and two turnovers with constant pressure on Andrew Luck. The Denver offensive line unit is much more capable than the Colts and yielded only 21 sacks; however, similar pressure will be needed for Baltimore if they are going to force Manning into a rare mistake. In the first match-up—if anything could be taken as a positive—Baltimore’s defense was able to tame Manning for the most part with the exception of a couple of long play action plays that stemmed from Moreno’s effective ground output. The Raven’s can point to Ray Lewis’ 13 tackle performance in his return and the fact that Moreno’s Week 15 performance came in Lewis absence as an indication that they have a true advantage against the Broncos running game. If Baltimore can limit the running game they can limit the play action; in conjunction with a solid pass rush they will then boil things down to their ability to match Denver in man coverage. Last week, despite all the pressure the brought, Baltimore’s secondary did yield 300 yards to Luck. The Raven’s will be counting on their defense to rush the passer similarly to last week and handle Denver in man coverage like they did in the first game. A tall order; but a necessary one if Baltimore is to spring the upset.

The Keys for Denver
Historically, Peyton Manning has had mixed results in the post season against teams he has played (5-6) and defeated in the regular season (2-3). During the regular season meeting with Baltimore he was mostly held in check as Baltimore held him to 204 yards. Incidentally, Knowshon Moreno had his finest performance in what has been mostly a shoddy performance as the starter in Willis McGahee’s absence—his ability to duplicate his 115 yard performance, or even approach it, will be tested with Ray Lewis in the lineup for this match-up. If Moreno comes close it will go a long way toward positioning Denver for a victory. Moreno’s effective running paved the way for an strong play action game that benefited Eric Decker. Decker had 8 catches for 133 yards; however, Demaryius Thomas struggled against Carly Williams and the Baltimore secondary. While Moreno will be counted on to produce on the ground, Thomas will need to step his game up on the outside with a performance more becoming of the 1400 yard receiver he has become. Denver would get a solid boost in the pass game if their line can hold up to Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger in a battle that will pit a top pass protection unit versus a strong pass rush. As stated, Manning has been sacked on 21 times this year and the battle up front has been consistently won by Denver throughout the season.

Denver’s 52 sacks ranked atop in the NFL and they have already experienced the results yielded by Joe Flacco when faced with heavy pressure—a game changing turnover and a completion percentage of 50%. Denver’s will need to continue to get the type of pressure they have gotten in their 11 game winning streak from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and company. Meanwhile, the secondary will need to continue its strong play–despite featuring a heavy rush and leaving their secondary in man coverage situations no team was as proficient against the pass on third down in the regular season. This trend must hold true for Denver on Saturday. The Broncos compounded Baltimore’s problems by grounding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in Week 15 early and then forcing Flacco into a key mistake that dashed any hope of the Ravens establishing any stability on the ground. Pierce was the more effective back last week, topping over 100 yards while Rice was a mixed bag of big plays and lost fumbles, but Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing attack will need to contain both backs in order to orchestrate a repeat of Week 15.

The Outcome
It is tremendously difficult to locate a distinct advantage that Baltimore has in any key area that can be exploited to foster a victory. The return of Ray Lewis and the defensive momentum garnered against the Colts further tempered by the facts that they were playing an inexperienced Colts team, in Baltimore, which was not yet equipped experience success on the playoff stage. Denver has won 11 in a row…true momentum. Denver certainly yields a talent advantage at running back where Moreno is nowhere near the talent of the Rice/Pierce duo. Nonetheless, their run defense negates even that potential area of strength for Baltimore. It’s hard not to love the game breaking ability of Jacoby Jones and the stellar kicking of Justin Tucker but Baltimore won’t be kicking 7 field goals and returning two kicks for touchdowns.

The stagehands can lower the curtain on Ray Lewis’ career. Denver is better in all aspects and will win going away.

Denver Broncos 31-Baltimore Ravens 17

Jan 042013
 

Ravens-ColtsThe disintegration of the already tenuous relationship between Joe Flacco and the Baltimore fans has continued its downward trajectory along with the Ravens record after Baltimore’s 9-2 start gave way to a 1-4 finish. Nevermind Flacco’s 54-26 record in Baltimore or that since taking over as a rookie in 2008 he has become the only QB in history to lead his team to at least one post season victory in each of his first four seasons. It has gone virtually unmentioned the Flacco has improved in every single major statistical category from 2011 to 2012; as it’s the drop in wins from last season’s 12 to 10 that has the championship thirsty city on edge. His 309 yard 2 TD performance in Baltimore’s week 16 decimation of the Giants seemingly has gone unnoticed. Perceptions couldn’t have changed more dramatically than they have for Flacco who less than a calendar year ago executed a near perfect 2 minute drive in the AFC Championship only to have the NFL gods strike down and snatch victory at the last moment. Nonetheless, for the fifth time in Flacco’s five years—and second as division champion-the Ravens are heading to the playoffs.

For the opposing side, the Colts Andrew Luck has earned in 16 games a level of adulation from the city of Indianapolis seemingly reserved for the likes of only Peyton Manning. His 7 game winning drives are the most by an NFL QB since 1970 and no rookie in this stellar class has been asked to do more downfield with so little in the backfield (there is no Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, or even Reggie Bush in the Colt lineup). Luck had dropped back nearly 650 times and only 4 QBs have been sacked more, nevertheless, Luck has nearly single-handedly resuscitated and transformed a team that was 2-14 just a year ago into an 11-5 contender.

In the 28 years that have elapsed since Robert Irsay drew the ire of the city of Baltimore by jetting for Indianapolis in a move that made economic sense and Jim Irsay drew equal ire from the city of Indianapolis by jettisoning Peyton Manning (another fiscally prudent move) much has changed. Manning brought a pair of AFC Titles and a Super Bowl to Indianapolis and Art Modell brought a team and title to Baltimore. As playoff opponents this marks the third meeting between the two franchises. The first two acts took place in Indianapolis and left much to be desired as Baltimore has managed only 12 points total. The most recent post season matchup with the two ended in a 20-3 Indy route in 2010 and marked Manning’s final victory in a Colt uniform.

The Keys for Indianapolis
Lining up for their 17th game, don’t expect wholesale differences for the Colt’s or any other team for that matter this late in the season (i.e. the Colts will not suddenly develop the ability to control the line of scrimmage or add a ground game to add balance to their attack). More than a touch of Luck will be required for the Colts to move on and they will need Luck to be every bit the quarterback that passed for more than 4,300 yards, was rivaled by only Flacco for most 20-plus yard completions, and posted 7 game winning drives.

The Colts will have their hands full handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the only hope to improve on the 104 yards per game they rushed for is if Anthony Castonzo can withstand Ngata’s pressure versus the run. Unfortunately for the Colts, RB Vick Ballard has only one carry of over 25 yards this season and Ngata spent week 17 re-charging his batteries. Factor in the return of Ray Lewis and it is likely the Colts will be at their one dimensional worst.

The Colts will have to do anything they can to factor in as many five-man routes as possible, giving Luck as many options as possible. His ability to get the ball deep has been a revelation considering the lack of a ground threat and while his tendency has been to go deep he will need check down options available. Luck’s ability to dissect the Ravens’ defense will be pertinent, and he has the perfect coaching scenario to help him identify those keys and giveaways. Chuck Pagano—prior to taking the Colts job—took a tour as defensive coordinator in Baltimore and knows their personal better than anyone.

The Colts 28-16 victory last week against Houston marked their first win over a winning team since early October and came despite being outgained by over 100 yards. Yet, Luck was able to do enough to exploit the secondary to notch the win in Pagano’s return. If Luck can continue his third down success that has masked the run deficiencies and the Colts utilize the other subtle qualities they bring into the game—namely returner Deji Karim’s recent explosiveness and Pagano’s knowledge of the opposition—they can find a way. It has been just that, the ability to find a way, which has positioned them at 11-5 despite being the only team in the post-season with a negative scoring differential.

Defensively the Colts will need to do what they can to limit Rice’s effectiveness between the tackles; if they can force him outside they can utilize what is perhaps their only asset against the run—their sideline to sideline speed. Like Luck, Joe Flacco has been victimized by a leaky offensive line. The Colts will hope to touch up Flacco and will need Vontae Davis to build on his two interception performance of last week and match up with speedster Torrey Smith.

The Keys for Baltimore
While defense has been the Baltimore calling and the names Suggs, Reed, Ngata, and Lewis still appear on the marquee a win for the Ravens will likely have to be attributed to the ability to exploit obvious weaknesses in the Colt defense. The Colts defense has allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game. While solid in pursuit, they fail to hold up well versus running backs that do damage between the tackles. Enter Ray Rice: the Ravens have won 23 of the 26 games when Rice has at least 25 carries. The Ravens will look to establish strong play by their tackles to allow Rice to control the pace of the game and effectively approach that 25 carry magic number.

In the passing game, the same group of tackles that will be key to springing Rice to a good game on the ground will have to do a better job than they have this year of protecting Flacco. When protected, Flacco can be accurate and effective and the Baltimore offense more than efficient. The Ravens thrashed the Giants for 533 yards in week 16 and, despite all the late season offensive turmoil, have averaged nearly 32 points per game at home. Baltimore has their own man from the other side in Jim Caldwell who manned the Colts sideline in both a tight Super Bowl loss and last season’s 2-14 debacle. Caldwell has spent the last month calling the plays for Baltimore and though results have been mixed he does have knowledge of Colt personnel.

There is not enough that the Colts can do to gain effectiveness against a Raven’s defense that will look to feed off of the emotional return to the lineup of Ray Lewis. While the Baltimore defense has lost a step or five they still hold enough advantages to boil things down to one focus: the ability of Ed Reed and the secondary to ground the third down passing attack that has been at the crux of Luck’s ability to bail out the Colts offense all season long.

The Outcome
The Pagano story has rightfully captured the hearts of NFL fans everywhere and has made the Colts a post season rooting favorite for fans that don’t have a horse in this race otherwise. If the sentiment of Ray Lewis potentially playing his last game at home can be trumped then it is Pagano’s remarkable return to the sideline after battling leukemia that has deserving done so. Though the luster seems to have faded from Baltimore many weeks ago it will be quite a challenge for the Colts to do what no team has done in the Flacco era and the Ravens to a winless post season.

Is Luck enough to lead a team that takes the field with 28 men playing their first postseason game? Baltimore is better on defensive and their running game foils the Colts direct weakness against the run. Furthermore, Jacoby Jones and the elite return game has the potential to exploit Indianapolis’ struggling coverage unit. This will be Ray Lewis’ last home game, but it won’t be his last game. The Ravens have too many advantages and they are at home. This week being pretty good is better than having ‘Luck’ on one’s side.

Baltimore 30 – Indianapolis 21

Week 11 Recap

 Posted by
Nov 212012
 

It was a wild week in the NFL in Week 11, as three teams blew double digit leads to drop games late or in overtime. The Patriots and Broncos both stayed on a roll, and both lost a key player for several games. Meanwhile, the 49ers and Bears offered contrasting views of teams operating with backup quarterbacks, and the Bengals gained in the playoff race while the Lions continued to find a way to lose.

Here’s the Week 11 recap: