Friday, January 18, 2013

Not To Be Denied

Several years ago, I talked about how Conference Championship Sunday in the NFL is a rather breathless day, and that was how I felt when the 49ers weren't involved. There's a bit of finality to the day. It's the NFL's last pure weekend, and even then it's not really a true weekend since they moved the game times to 3pm and 6pm from 1 and 4. That doesn't remove the importance from any of the games, mind you. But, suffice it to say, with the 49ers involved last season, I basically had to just pass time during the AFC Championship until the 49ers took on the Giants, something I did through clenched teeth. This year, the 49ers are back in the NFC Championship. Even though it's the early game, I'm quite certain I will have whipped myself into quite the frenzy by time 3pm rolls around. I'll probably be burned out by time the AFC Championship game starts at 6:30. It just doesn't even rate with me. Predictions, half-informed, nonetheless. 2-2 last weekend brought me to 5-3 overall.

 Sunday, 3:00pm
San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) at Atlanta Falcons (14-3)
So, for the second consecutive year, the 49ers find themselves in the NFC Championship game. This is the 14th time the 49ers will have played in the NFC Championship (their 9th since I've been watching). For all the success the 49ers have had as a franchise, they're actually 5-8 in NFC Championship games. Last year, they hosted the game and fell painstakingly short in a the kind of game that I think about a year later and still get rankled. This mission this season, though it's never been widely discussed, was clearly with the mission to make it back to this game and win it this time. But, they'll have to go on the road to Atlanta in order to do it.

The 49ers and Falcons don't meet all that often anymore, unless the schedule falls that way. This wasn't the case for many years, when the Falcons bizarrely resided in the NFC West and these two teams met twice a year. Though the 49ers lead the all-time series 44-30-1, they haven't beaten Atlanta since the divisions realigned and the only time they met in the Playoffs, the Falcons won 20-18. Needless to say, I've never cared for the Falcons much, which is just as well since I have no particular affection for Atlanta's baseball team, or the city in general, either.

That the Falcons are here is a bit of a miracle. In spite of the fact that they got off to a hot start and went 13-3, nobody really gave them any kind of credit for their strong season. Faced with a matchup against the red-hot Seahawks, most predicted that the tandem of Matt Ryan and Soupy Sales would fall for the 4th consecutive time in the Playoffs. They almost did in excruciating fashion, running out to a 27-7 lead, then blowing it all in the 4th Quarter before Ryan rallied the Falcons back and put them in position for the winning Field Goal. Basically, Atlanta won in spite of doing a lot of things wrong and my feeling about them, outside of being glad that they kicked the Seahawks in the nuts, was that they don't really play complete games.

This was in stark contrast to the whipping the 49ers laid on the Packers. Yes, I'm biased, but let's face it. Everyone was on the Packers' jock going into the game, and the 49ers wore them out. The Packers kept the game close for the first half, but come the second half, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense just overwhelmed them with a barrage of different formations, different looks and plays they just weren't equipped to defend. The Packers had no answer and what was a 24-24 shootout turned into a 45-24 pasting. The 49ers contained Aaron Rodgers and the potent Packers offense by pounding out 323 yards on the ground, controlling the clock and keeping Rodgers off the field. The 579 yards they generated represented a 49ers Postseason record.

All things considered, I still have some concerns about this game. Colin Kaepernick had the ultimate "I'll Show You" game last weekend, shaking off an early interception before catching fire. His performance has launched him into the national spotlight, and even on the (regional) cover of Sports Illustrated. The concern is that he won't sneak up on the Falcons quite the same way he did on the Packers. Then again, the 49ers mix up their offense enough that, in general it may not be too much of a concern. In spite of the fact that the Packers defense got more hype (based more on Clay Matthews, III's hair than actual talent), Atlanta probably has a better unit, but it depends mostly on the effectiveness of John Abraham, the former Jet standout who has a history of no-showing big games.

Also, the game is in Atlanta. I said this already, but it's worth taking note. The 49ers history in NFC Championship games is checkered, and their history in Playoff road games is also pretty checkered (although because of the years of success they've had, they also haven't had to play that many road games). In fact, the 49ers haven't won a Playoff road game since 1988, when they beat the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship to go to Super Bowl XXIII. Since then, they've gone 0-5. But, at the same time, the 49ers have lost their fair share of Championship games on their own home field, so this could all be another one of my illogical concerns.

Although Atlanta has been very good all season, and they showed their intestinal fortitude by getting up off the mat and rallying to beat Seattle last weekend, they're going to have their hands full with the 49ers. They'll give the 49ers problems of their own, in the same respect that Green Bay gave them some problems, but the 49ers create the same kind of matchup issues that they did against Green Bay. The Falcons boast a better running game than Green Bay, and they have a pair of lights-out WRs in Julio Jones and Roddy White, but Matt Ryan isn't Aaron Rodgers. On the other side of the ball, I don't really know a great deal about Atlanta's defense (again, they don't have beautiful people like Clay Matthews, III, so nobody pays attention to them), other than they didn't really do anything especially impressive against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Wilson shot himself in the foot a few times, but when push came to shove, Wilson was able to run and throw as he pleased. I expect Kaepernick will have the same success.

Ultimately, I believe the 49ers will win. I firmly believe that they're the better team on both sides of the ball, but that's not why I think they're going to win. Championship games often come down to desire. I said it before and I'll say it again. The 49ers got this far last season and lost. They have the crucible of knowing what it's like to go this far only to come up short. Patrick Willis set the tone for this season after their opening game, saying "People don't understand. We're on a mission." This season hasn't been perfect for the 49ers, but when it's mattered the most, they've come up with the victories they had to get to bring them right back to this game. Jim Harbaugh made the calculated gamble to switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick with an eye towards getting back to this game and beyond. Given another opportunity, the 49ers will not be denied.
Prediction: 49ers 34, Falcons 24

Sunday, 6:30pm
Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4)
 After a miracle comeback in the last minute of regulation that led to a heart-stopping victory in the 6th Double Overtime game in NFL History, the Baltimore Ravens have all the look of a team of destiny, rallying behind their retiring hero, Ray Lewis. On the other side, the Patriots are basically doing what they always do, just sort of rolling on like the machine they usually are. Admittedly, I really haven't bothered to form much of an opinion on this game. I've devoted the entirety of my thought process to the 49ers and the NFC Championship, to the point where I'm not really sure I care who wins, and I really don't know if I have an accurate idea of who will win. I know it's going to be close, and it may come down to a similar instance as last year, although I don't think it's going to be quite as spectacular as Billy Cundiff's shanked Field Goal.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Ravens 20

I guess you could call this a half-well-informed set of predictions. I say I don't care about who wins in the AFC not to be funny or to blow it off, I legitimately don't care who wins the AFC game. My head is wrapped solely around the 49ers right now. 

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