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.

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