Monthly Archives: January 2013

What we Learned from the Conference Championships

The lessons learned from the recent NFC and AFC Championship games revolve as much around the losers as they do the winners. With the upcoming “Harbaugh Bowl” sure to dominate next week’s news cycle, last week’s “Final Four” raises some interesting questions.

First, just when it appeared that the Atlanta Falcons had that proverbial monkey-on-the-back clinging for dear life, they instead revert to the lovable, yet bumbling, stumbling Dirty Birds that we’re accustomed to. QB Matt Ryan, as has proven to be his blueprint for several seasons, was lights-out early in the game, looking like Joe Montana in his heyday. Just as the previous week’s thriller versus Seattle, the Falcons bolted out to a huge lead over the 49ers only to suffer fourth-quarter collapses. They managed to stage a final minute comeback over the Seahawks, but this past Sunday’s meltdown was fairly obvious by midway through the fourth-quarter. One of the biggest blunders was Ryan’s momentary “eyes-off-the-ball” debacle that led to a crucial late turnover which snuffed out a potential go-ahead drive. Television replays clearly showed Matty Ice getting ahead of himself and failing to secure the snap, leading to the ball going to the ground and subsequent San Francisco recovery as the Georgia Dome crowd booed lustily. For a QB who’s frequently praised for his coolness under pressure, Ryan literally “dropped the ball” and set himself (and his teammates) up for a long off-season. Also puzzling was RB Michael Turner’s limited participation in Atlanta’s usually balanced offense. The pile-driving Turner carried the ball just eight times (for 30 yards), but after gaining three yards on the Falcons first play of the second half, Turner virtually disappeared, leaving the ground game to Jacquizz Rodgers. Turner has been an integral part of Atlanta’s success since he arrived a few seasons back and now questions are abundant regarding his future. Atlanta’s dependable veteran TE Tony Gonzalez is retiring, and now they must find some way to replace his typical 100+ receptions and unmatched class and leadership. Julio Jones and Roddy White return, but as we saw on Sunday, it’s a slippery slope when the defense knows you’re going to throw the ball. On defense, the Falcons are in dire need of some tough tacklers, especially in the secondary, while the front seven is beginning to show some wear and tear.

The losers in the AFC, the New England Patriots, simply are nowhere near the juggernaut we’ve become accustomed to. Despite their Arena Football-like scoreboard extravaganzas, the Pats have shown an alarming tendency to fall all over themselves when faced with adversity, which no doubt causes Bill Belichick sleepless nights. His post-game media appearance found the “Hooded One” even more non-communicative than normal, which is saying something, since his typical persona is about as talkative as a Shaolin monk. Observers are also asking questions about QB Tom Brady, who looked nothing like the “Greatest QB of All-Time” label he’s been saddled with. The Patriots went scoreless after halftime against an admittedly veteran but banged-up Ravens defense that had been grossly overworked in two previous playoff games. New England’s resurgent ground game also failed to produce, and even though Brady and Co. downplayed it before the game, they sorely missed injured TE Rob Gronkowski, who watched the game from owner Robert Kraft’s luxury suite. Belichick’s patchwork defense also showed plenty of holes as Baltimore QB Joe Flacco routinely found the openings that kept the chains moving. Expect plenty of personnel changes over the offseason.

And now the winners. The San Francisco 49ers, fresh off their old-fashioned schoolyard whipping over the Green Bay Packers, came into the NFC title game with a young, mobile, record-setting QB and their typically opportunistic defense that has somehow neutralized virtually every opponent. Colin Kaepernick was expected to pick up where he left off against the Packers, where he set an NFL record for rushing yards by a QB. Instead, with the Falcon defense obviously keying on him, the lanky second-year signal caller demonstrated that he has an arm as well, and he shredded Atlanta’s secondary, especially with TE Vernon Davis, who’d almost become an afterthought late in the regular season. Veteran RB Frank Gore also showed plenty of heart and durability, while rookie LaMichael James gave the Falcons a completely different look when subbing for Gore. Even Randy Moss, well past his prime and used more as a decoy this season, made some clutch receptions, while Michael Crabtree made certain that defenders couldn’t forget about him. Some excellent run blocking by the offensive line also made a difference, while that tough-as-nails defense, led by LBs Willis and Bowman, took no prisoners.

Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t have produced anything nearly as dramatic as the unfolding story of the Baltimore Ravens and their emotional leader’s final ride. With No. 52 Ray Lewis playing like he’s 27 instead of 37, the rest of his teammates followed his lead and made the Patriots look like a high school JV team on their home field. The real story however, has to be QB Joe Flacco’s elevation to “elite” status among NFL signal callers. Regularly the subject of trade talks and discontent among fans and teammates, the sturdy Flacco has been lights-out throughout the postseason. His playoff leadership has been nearly flawless, leading the Ravens easily up and down the field and going 8 for 8 on trips into the red zone. His rapport with receivers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta has given Baltimore an explosive aspect that few would have thought them capable of a month ago. Also, with RB Ray Rice providing his usual production, the Ravens are a smooth-running machine heading into Super Bowl XLVII. Defensively, with greybeards Lewis, Reed and Suggs making certain that complacency or less than 110% effort occurs, it’s difficult to find anything not to like about their chances.

What To Expect From The 2013 NFL Conference Championship Games

The AFC and NFC championship games are set and the two conferences are one step away from determining who their representatives will be in the Super Bowl. In the AFC, the New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens in a rematch of last year’s AFC title game. In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons host the San Francisco 49ers.

Baltimore At New England

Reason To Watch:

Most importantly, this game will determine who the AFC representative in the Super Bowl will be. However, the key player in this game is going to be Joe Flacco. In prior years, Flacco would have played second fiddle to players such as Ray Lewis. In other words, it was his job to not screw up what his teammates had set up for him.

This year, Flacco has done all he can to put the team on his shoulders and lead them to victory. His play on Sunday will be the reason why the Ravens are celebrating their first trip to the Super Bowl since after the 2000 season or bemoaning what could have been. Another important story worth keeping an eye on is the pending retirement of Ray Lewis. If Baltimore loses, his playing days are over.

What To Expect:

Expect the Patriots to score a lot of points and get a lot of favorable calls at home. Tom Brady is not going to let the Patriots lose this game under any circumstances. Although getting to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in his career is important, the fact that the Patriots lost to the Ravens in the regular season has to be gnawing at him as well. However, if the Baltimore defense steps up, they will give the Ravens a huge advantage.

Who Wins This Game?

If the Raven defense steps up, the Ravens should win this game because their offense is now built to keep up with any team in the league. Expect this game to be a shoot-out that Baltimore wins 35-31.

San Francisco At Atlanta

Reason To Watch:

The winner of this game will meet the winner of the Ravens-Patriots game in the Super Bowl. For the Niners, this will be their first appearance in the Super Bowl in nearly 20 years. Atlanta hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1998.

For viewers who are not fans of either team, Colin Kaepernick is the reason to watch. Since he took over as starting quarterback, he has added another dimension to the 49er offense. Last week against Green Bay, he rushed for a NFL record 181 yards. With the Falcon defense built more on stopping the pass as opposed to rushing the passer, he could have a lot of room to run.

What To Expect:

You can expect the Falcons to be fired up after their first playoff victory under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. With the home fans behind them, look for Atlanta to get off to a quick start like they did against Seattle. San Francisco will be at a bit of a disadvantage as they will have to travel all the way across the country. Jet lag and the sheer number of miles traveled could make the Niners a little groggy at the beginning of the game.

Who Wins This Game?

This will be the better of the two games this weekend. If Atlanta can tighten up on the defensive side of the ball, look for the Falcons to pull out the victory and head to the Super Bowl.

Sports fans, you are going to be in for a treat this weekend. As four teams battle it out to move one step closer to a title, everyone will be leaving everything they have out on the field. If these predictions come true, a Super Bowl match-up between the Ravens and Falcons should be one of the best in recent memory.

Hockey Is Back

Well hockey fans, the lockout is over and starting Sat. Jan 19th we will have a shortened season that will go by faster than an Al MacInnis slap shot. Soon we will be hearing Chelsea Dagger blaring from the United Center speakers! Questions abound in this shortened season, as teams will have to quickly gel in hopes of making the playoffs. Will the defending Stanley Cup champs, the LA Kings, be able to defend their crown? Or, will they be dethroned by the Chicago Blackhawks and budding young superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews?

The Vancouver Canucks remain a Stanley Cup hopeful thanks to the combined talents of Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond and the always-dangerous Sedin twins. With Cory Schneider now guarding the net, Hawks fans won’t have a chance to chide Roberto Luongo anymore but what happens if he joins them via a midseason trade? Several teams have fresh talent, including Zach Parise and Ryan Suter who joined forces in Minnesota while Rick Nash jetted to the Big Apple play for the New York Rangers.

Hockeytown’s own, the Detroit Red Wings, are hoping for a successful season as well, especially with new captain Henrik Zetterberg leading the charge. No team may have benefited more from the lockout than the Pittsburgh Penguins where injured players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, arguably the best duo in all of hockey, are now healthy and well rested. The Eastern Conference will be tough as always as no team stands head and shoulders above the other. The Philadelphia Flyers are always a force as long as Claude Giroux is around but they’ll have to shore up some goaltending issues, which is a major reason they haven’t made it to the finals in the past three years. Expect Boston to play tough as well but as goaltender Tuukka Rask takes over for the departed Tim Thomas, one thing is for sure–this season will be unpredictable and exciting!

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