Sunday’s Championship games saw one nail-biter and one blowout, although not in the fashion that many expected. The New England Patriots were favoured by 7.5 points by the odds makers at home to Baltimore, yet they wound up losing 28-13 as the Ravens progressed to the big game literally against the odds. San Francisco overcame the Falcons in Atlanta despite falling behind 17-0 early in the second quarter thanks to some crucial defensive adjustments and a near unstoppable running game. Here’s a few things I took away from the two games:
– Colin Kaepernick showed a maturity beyond his nine NFL starts in a strange way – by not making plays. Nearly every time the 49ers ran the read-option the Falcons outside linebackers would key in on Kaepernick, not allowing him any room to run with the football. Wisely, Kaepernick took what the defense gave him and handed the ball off to Frank Gore and LaMichael James a combined 26 times. The pair combined to rush for three touchdowns, so it’s safe to say the offensive plan worked as far as San Francisco was concerned. Kaepernick himself only rushed twice for 21 yards, but that was all he needed to do on the day.
– Matt Ryan set a Falcons franchise record for passing yards in a play-off game with 396, although it wasn’t enough. Ryan was excellent in the first half and threw for three touchdowns on the day, however he threw a crucial interception in the second half and despite the gaudy numbers his performance wasn’t quite good enough to get the Falcons in to the big game. Who’d have thought it would be Ryan and not Joe Flacco who came out of Sunday having to answer questions about their play in crucial situations and games? Ryan also lost a fumble on a regulation snap late in the game, not a clutch play by any stretch of the imagination.
– One storyline to keep an eye on over the coming fortnight is 49ers kicker David Akers. I loved Akers when he was with the Eagles between 1999 and 2010, but it’s hard to deny that his play has declined significantly over recent years. The Eagles cut ties with Akers after he missed two kicks under 40 yards against the Packers in the 2010 divisional round, and this season the veteran lead the league in missed field goals. San Fran brought Billy Cundiff in to challenge Akers before Sundays game but Akers beat him out in practise, and NFL rules state that you can’t release and then re-sign a player during the play-offs so the teams hands are tied when it comes to the Superbowl. Akers had one kick on Sunday from 38 yards – and he hit the upright. Not too encouraging if you’re relying on your kicker for points in the biggest game of them all.
– Dunta Robinson made a huge play when he stripped Michael Crabtree on the one yard line. Crabtree was trying to reach for the goal line and a score when Robinson ripped the ball loose and the Falcons recovered. In the end it didn’t matter, but it was a great defensive play.
– Julio Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two scores. Huge numbers I know, but like Ryan Jones wasn’t able to produce at the same level in the second half as he did in the first. Nevertheless Jones is clearly a top five NFL wide out at the moment and his future is as bright as any player in the league.
– Tom Brady had a strangely poor game, at least by his lofty standards. He may have thrown for 320 yards but he was twice intercepted and only completed 29 of 54 passes for a 53 percent completion rate. Brady received little help in the running game, but its hard to deny that his reputation as one of the greatest clutch QB’s of all time is slipping. It’s been eight years since his and the Patriots last Superbowl victory despite their consistent excellence, in the regular season at least.
– Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter after he was rocked by Bernard Pollard. Pollard crashed his helmet into Ridley’s but the hit was legal because Ridley was carrying the football, and it appeared as if the running back was unconscious before he even hit the ground. Pollard was flagged earlier in the game for an illegal blow to the head when Wes Welker went up for a catch, which was called correctly by the officials as Welker was a defenceless receiver.
– Rob Ninkovich had two sacks for the Patriots after they were unable to sack Flacco when the two teams met during the regular season. Ninkovich may not be appearing in the Superbowl but he was excellent at rushing the passer from the outside linebacker position in this game.
– Joe Flacco keeps adding to the value of his next contract. His current deal expires after this season but it’s looking more and more likely that the Ravens will pony up big bucks to keep the fifth year QB in Baltimore. The Ravens have reached the play-offs in all five of his years in the league and his play recently has elevated him in to Brady, Manning and Rodgers territory. Three touchdowns and no picks represented a mature and efficient performance in this game and Flacco became the first ever QB to beat Tom Brady when Brady was winning at half time, at home.
– Two of those touchdown tosses went to Anquan Boldin. Both were excellent plays on both Flacco and Boldin’s behalf, and were near identical. Flacco read one on one coverage and trusted his man to go and grab the ball ahead of the defender using his size and excellent hands. Boldin obliged and the two second half touchdowns were ultimately the difference between the two teams. Boldin lost in the Superbowl four years ago as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, so he’ll be looking to make amends this time round as his career nears an end.
Those were my takes from last weekends games, but obviously the biggest game is yet to come. I’ll attempt to write some insightful posts about the big game and preview the ‘Harbaugh’ bowl from plenty of different angles. If there’s anything you’d like me to write about or discuss then please just leave a comment.