Sep 032013
 

Peyton ManningLet me get our annual writer’s picks started with my own. After an off-season of controversy and roster turnover, my beloved Patriots enter the 2013 as a certain favorite in the AFC East and are likely to make another deep playoff run. With an improving defense to help offset offensive uncertainty, the Patriots look solid but uncertain. Even as a die hard fan, it’s hard to envision the Patriots winning the Super Bowl this season.

Baltimore made some strategic decisions after winning the Super Bowl, and have sought to put all of their eggs in the Joe Flacco basket, which I find problematic. While they have cobbled together what is likely to be a top ten defense again, the offense after Ray Rice looks problematic. Letting Anquan Boldin leave was a huge mistake, and the loss of Dennis Pitta for most of the season is a huge blow to this team.

Thus, the Broncos look like the class of the AFC, even if their defensive front seven leaves me a little bit squeamish. I know people are thinking the offense will be unstoppable with Wes Welker complementing Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as receivers for Peyton Manning, but the loss of Dan Koppen leaves the line a little shaky and I am not sure the running game will consistently produce. Still, the Broncos would appear to have the edge in the battle for the Super Bowl.

On the NFC side, the 49ers will be a fashionable pick, but Colin Kaepernick no longer has the advantage of being an unknown, and now defenses will get their chance to adjust to his style of play. The loss of Michael Crabtree hurt, forcing Boldin into the role of being a primary receiver rather than a complement. The Niners can run the ball and have a stout defense, so they have to be considered a favorite to get back to the big game. That’s possible, but San Francisco may not even win their division given the resurgent Seahawks, who have their own answer to Kaepernick in Russell Wilson, who seems to be a star in the making. Like the 49ers, the Seahawks have an efficient receiver corps that doesn’t scare people but manages to get the job done, and a bruising running game embodied in Marshawn Lynch with a sleeper in reserve Christine Michael. The Seattle defense looks to be just as good as the one in San Francisco, so this team must be considered a serious threat.

Finally, we get to Atlanta,, who flamed out in the playoffs last season after a very successful regular season campaign. The Falcons added Stephen Jackson in the off-season and have the best receiving tandem in the league in Julio Jones and Roddy White, complemented by the ageless Tony Gonzalez. The defense is the big question mark on this team, with a re-engineered secondary and a lack of impact players in the front seven. It’s entirely possible that the Falcons will make it to the Super Bowl, but it would be really helpful if they could gain the top seed and avoid the 49ers and Seahawks for as long as possible.

This is a wide open year in the NFL, with no one clear favorite to win it all, so it should be an exciting season. But for those of us craving some certainty this year, let me provide it for you; the Jets will end the season by jettisoning Mark Sanchez, they will have already figured out that Geno Smith isn’t the answer, and Rex Ryan will be in search of a coordinator job.

So with all of that said, here are my 2013 predictions:

AFC EAST
New England124
Miami79
Buffalo610
New York Jets214
AFC NORTH
Cincinnati115
Baltimore97
Pittsburgh97
Cleveland79
AFC SOUTH
Houston115
Indianapolis97
Tennessee610
Jacksonville313
AFC WEST
Denver124
Kansas City88
San Diego511
Oakland214
NFC EAST
Washington106
New York Giants97
Dallas97
Philadelphia511
NFC NORTH
Green Bay106
Chicago106
Minnesota88
Detroit79
NFC SOUTH
Atlanta133
New Orleans97
Carolina79
Tampa Bay79
NFC WEST
Seattle115
San Francisco106
St. Louis88
Arizona610
AFC PLAYOFFS- Wildcard Round
Cincinnati over Indianapolis
Houston over Baltimore
Divisional Round
Denver over Houston
New England over Cincinnati
AFC Championship
Denver over New England
NFC PLAYOFFS- Wildcard Round
Washington over Chicago
San Francisco over Green Bay
Divisional Round
Atlanta over San Francisco
Seattle over Washington
NFC Championship
Seattle over Atlanta
SUPER BOWL
Denver over Seatttle
NFL POST SEASON AWARDS
Most Valuable Player -Adrian Peterson
Offensive Player of the YearDrew Brees
Defensive Player of the YearJJ Watt
Offensive Rookie of the YearTavon Austin
Defensive Rookie of the YearDesmond Trufant
Comeback Player of the YearMaurice Jones Drew
Coach of the YearBill Belichick
Jan 202013
 

Kaepernick and GoreThe San Francisco 49ers fought back from an early 17-0 deficit, and shut out the Falcons 14-0 in the second half to earn a 28-24 victory and give the 49ers their first trip to the Super Bowl in eighteen years.

Colin Kaepernick played the part of the clutch pocket quarterback, throwing for 233 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for only 21 yards. Knowing that Kaepernick would not be able to carve up the Falcons’ defense the same way he did the Packers, San Francisco took a patient, conservative approach, relying on Frank Gore and good decision-making by Kaepernick, who was a highly efficient 16 for 21 in the game. Gore ran for 90 yards and two scores, including the game winner with 8:23 left in the game. LaMichael James also scored on a 15 yard touchdown run, while Vernon Davis added a touchdown reception for the 49ers, who now seek to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. The 49ers have won in each of their five previous trips to the Super Bowl. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh will now square off with his brother John in the Super Bowl.

After the Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter on a pair of Julio Jones touchdowns and a Matt Bryant field goal, the 49ers struck back with two straight touchdowns to close the lead to 17-14. But Matt Ryan was able to connect with Tony Gonzalez for a score just before halftime, and it seemed that the Falcons entered the locker room with renewed momentum as they pushed the lead to 24-14. But San Francisco came out and opened the second half with a seven play scoring drive, and seemed to impose its will from that point forward.

GoreThe simple threat of Kaepernick’s legs seemed to help the 49ers on their second half scoring drives, as both second half touchdowns by Gore saw the running back go nearly untouched as the defense seemed to be hedging its bets. “I kind of figured that coming in and they showed that on film, so I assumed Frank and LaMichael were going to have a big day,” Kaepernick said.

Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a score. Michael Crabtree, who has been under investigation this week for sexual assault, caught six passes for 57 yards. Randy Moss added three receptions for 46 yards.

RyanThe Falcons’ loss spoiled a terrific outing by Matt Ryan, who threw for a Falcons’ post-season record 396 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. But the interception and a fumble on a mishandled snap helped do in the Falcons, who are now 1-4 with Ryan at the helm in the post-season. The Falcons’ rushing attack, which found new life against the Seahawks last week, was suffocated by the 49ers’ defense. Jacquizz Rodgers ran for 32 yards and Michael Turner ran for 30 as the Falcons were held to only 81 yards on the ground. Julio Jones finished with eleven catches for 182 yards and two scores, while Roddy White caught seven passes for 100 yards. Gonzalez, likely playing in the last game of his soon to be Hall of Fame career, added eight catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.

The Falcons had opportunities in the second half, but couldn’t seem to make plays when they needed to. “We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did.”

Jan 092013
 

Falcons - SeahawksThe Atlanta Falcons enter the divisional round of the NFC playoffs with a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, yet find themselves a two and a half point underdog to the upstart fifth seed Seattle Seahawks when the two teams square off this Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome. (*** see update below)

So much for earning the top seed.

Seattle’s status as favorite in this game is deserved, but the game promises to be perhaps the most exciting game of the divisional round. It also marks the only divisional round contest that is not a rematch of a regular season contest. Plus it pairs two teams with very different styles of football. Brace yourselves in for a fun ride this Sunday.

Here’s how I see the game breaking down.

When Seattle runs
Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,590 yards this season and 11 touchdowns, and racked up another 132 yards and a score in last week’s wildcard win over Washington. Lynch’s running prowess and ability to break tackles may force the Falcons to load the box rather than play a Cover 2, making Atlanta susceptible to Seattle’s passing attack. It doesn’t help that Atlanta has given up 4.8 yards per rush this season, and ranks 21st against the run at 123.2 yards per game. Russell Wilson is an effective manager of the Read Option and his athleticism may give the Falcons fits, and Robert Turbin also serves as an efficient back. Atanta’s Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent are solid linebackers, but will need to wrap up Lynch rather than try to bring him down with arm tackles or big hits. This match-up favors the Seahawks, and I would expect Lynch to again rush for more than 100 yards, while Wilson and Turbin tack on another 40 or 50. One thing to watch is Lynch’s ball protection. He fumbled five times during the season (losing two) and lost a fumble last weekend in the wildcard game.

When Seattle passes
Seattle does not possess a prolific passing offense (27th in the NFL, 189.4 ypg), so they are simply hoping for a “good enough” effort against the Falcons. Wilson has a 64.1 completion percentage this season, outstanding for a rookie quarterback. But the running game will be the key to the passing game’s success, as it will be far easier for Wilson to connect with targets downfield if the Falcons are forced to bring up safeties in run defense. Once again, Atlanta is vulnerable because they suffer in applying pressure to the quarterback, and managed only 29 sacks on the season. Wilson’s mobility further negates what little pass rush the Falcons will bring. Neither Sidney Rice nor Golden Tate is a true number one receiver, but both are reliable targets. Tate is a speedster who is capable of acrobatic catches and making big plays downfield, while Rice is a durable possession receiver. On the other side, Daunta Robinson and Asante Samuel are capable corners, with Samuel being known as a gambler in coverage. Thomas DeCoud and Chris Hope are among the best safety tandems in the league, but the Falcons still ranked only 23rd in pass defense this season. Sean Witherspoon will need to confuse Wilson and try to force him to make mistakes, and John Abraham and Kroy Biermann will need to get pressure on Wilson to take him out of his comfort zone. Look for Wilson to only pass for around 200 yards, but it may be more than enough to keep the chains moving and keep the Atlanta defense off balance.

When Atlanta runs
Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are dynamic and complementary backs, and coupled with Jason Snelling the Falcons should be capable of establishing a running game against the Seahawks, particularly off of both tackles. What is troubling for the Falcons however, is that despite the talent they possess at running back, they have not exhibited a dynamic running game this season. The Falcons come in ranked 29th, totaling only 1,397 yards this season. The Falcons possess a solid offensive line, with their only obvious weakness being at the right guard spot where Robert Kunz will need to step up his game this week. For the Falcons to have any real chance of winning this game, they must establish the run and take the pressure off of Matt Ryan, who will be facing a fierce secondary this week.

When Atlanta passes
The Atlanta Falcons would have the edge in this area of the game against nearly any team in the NFL, but the Seattle Seahawks offer the stiffest test that Matt Ryan and his talented receivers are likely to face this season. Ryan has had an outstanding season (4,719 yards, 32 TD, 14 INT, 68.6 completion percentage) and is usually a clutch performer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are as dynamic as any receiver pair in the league. White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and seven scores, while Jones caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and ten touchdowns. Throw in Tony Gonzalez (93 receptions, 930 yards, 8 TD), Harry Douglas (38 receptions, 396 yards, 1 TD), and Rodgers (53 receptions, 402 yards, 1 TD) and it’s easy to see how the Atlanta passing attack could strike fear into the hearts of nearly any opposing defense. Anyone but Seattle’s, that is. Richard Sherman (6’3″, 200#) and Brandon Browner (6’3, 220#) offer a physical match-up to the 6’1″, 210# White and 6’3″, 220# Jones that the Falcons are not used to contending with. Both are excellent corners that can play their receivers in man coverage, freeing up the safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to play Cover 2, Cover 1 robber, or to step up in run defense if the Falcons should have early success running the ball. Cornerback Marcus Trufant is still decent, but is a shadow of his former self, likely to be targeted whenever he is on the field Sunday. Rookie Bruce Irvin, who had eight sacks this season but only 17 total tackles, must step in to replace the injured Chris Clemons and apply pressure to Ryan. Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and Red Bryant form a solid wall against the run, but struggle in applying consistent pressure to the passer. Seattle only recorded 33 sacks this season (20th in NFL), so they will need to be creative in blitzes to try to rattle Matty Ice. Ryan will need to throw for over 250 yards for the Falcons to have a realistic chance to win, and will need to amass more than 300 yards and make some big plays downfield in the absence of a solid running game this weekend. Look for Gonzalez to get a heavy dose of targets, and for Rodgers to be used as a receiver out of the backfield.

Special teams
The special teams match-up offers a very slight edge to the Falcons. Matt Bryant is a clutch and reliable kicker for the Falcons, and Matt Bosher is a steady punted who excels in changing field position. Rodgers is a decent kick returner, while Dominique Franks and Harry Douglas have struggled to do much with punt returns. The Seahawks were forced to sign Ryan Longwell to replace an injured Steven Hauschka, while John Ryan is an above average punter. Leon Washington is a solid kick and punt returner who has a knack for positive yardage and absorbing hits.

Intangibles
Mike Smith is 2-0 in head to head match-ups with Pete Carroll, but is 0-3 in the post-season. Atlanta is second in the league in 3rd down conversions (45.1%), while Seattle is ranked 12th (40.2%). Seattle went 4-1 against playoff teams this season, beating Green Bay (sort of), New England, Minnesota and San Francisco while losing their first meeting with the 49ers. The Falcons are 2-0 against playoff teams this season, having beaten the Broncos and Redskins.

Atlanta is 7-1 at home this season, while the Seahawks are a mere 4-5 on the road, plus have the burden of traveling across the country for a second straight week to play an East Coast team. 8 of Russell Wilson’s 10 interceptions this season came on the road.

Atlanta and Seattle are tied at +13 in turnover differential this season, with both teams taking the ball away 31 times against 18 of their own turnovers.

Seattle wins if…  Marshawn Lynch runs for over 100 yards and protects the ball, if Russell Wilson can make some plays with passes downfield and with his legs while avoiding mistakes, they hold the Falcons under 100 yards rushing while stopping big plays to White and Jones.

Atlanta wins if… they tackle Marshawn Lynch on first contact and confuse the rookie Wilson, if they can force two or more Seattle turnovers, they establish a strong ground game and rush for more than 125 yards, and connect on several big plays to White, Jones, and Gonzalez.

Prediction
This game has the potential to go either way, and I would be genuinely surprised if this game turned into a rout one way or the other. Atlanta’s offense will be reliant on Matt Ryan makings some big plays downfield, something he has shown a knack for doing. But the Seattle secondary is going to make that a tall order. The Falcons have not shown that they consistently run the ball, something that could come back to haunt them this week. On the flip side, Seattle’s rushing attack poses problems for the Falcon’s front seven, while the passing attack is capable enough to make key plays. As long as Russell Wilson doesn’t choose this week to start making rookie mistakes, this match-up also seems to favor the Seahawks.

Look for the travel and the home crowd to give the Falcons the early edge and probably en early lead. But just as we saw last weekend against the Redskins, expect the Seahawks to slowly assert control over the game. Provided Marshawn Lynch can hold on to the ball and Russell Wilson can avoid making key mistakes, the Seahawks will pound the ball in the second half and advance to the NFC Championship.

Seahawks 27 Falcons 20

*** UPDATE: I swear I read a site where the Hawks were listed as the favorite. Of course it could be the medication talking, as I have not been able to find that site again and have continually seen the Falcons listed as a one to two and a half point favorite. So I thought I read this, but it’s equally possible that I can’t tell a “+” sign from a “-” sign. Correction noted. In any event, the basic premise is that by record the Falcons should be favored, but the Seahawks feel like the favorite. If in fact the Falcons are favored by a mere two and a half points with home field advantage, and that home field normally counts for two to three points, the Seahawks would appear to be the team to beat in this game.