Last Week: 1-3 (.250); Playoff Total: 5-3, (.625); This Season: 174-89-1 (.661)
Sunday, Jan. 20
3:00 p.m. ET (FOX)
San Francisco 49ers">49ers (12-4-1) at Atlanta Falcons (14-3)
Three games to go in the playoffs! Only three more games I can mess up this season!
Well, I like the Niners on Game One of Championship Weekend. That is, unless the most valuable person of the weekend, Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, has the best gameplan of his career. Nolan has walked into tough situations before -- trying to resuscitate the Niners in 2005 after they went 9-23 in the previous two seasons, for instance. But I doubt he's had a single challenge like this one: Pen in, on the artificial carpet of the Georgia Dome, a quarterback with sprinter's speed, a veteran passer's instincts and good downfield accuracy, a quarterback who has rushed for 60.6 yards per game in his eight NFL starts, a quarterback who throws very well from odd out-of-pocket angles.
"Love our gameplan," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon told me this week for the SI podcast. He wouldn't be more specific than that, but let me help: With pass rusher John Abraham iffy with his bum ankle, it's up to Weatherspoon and fellow 4-3 outside 'backer Stephen Nicholas to contain Kaepernick and not let him beat them to the edges; at a soggy Candlestick, that might not be as important, but on the fast track of this field, it's essential Kaepernick is kept to the inside. On the other side of the field, Matt Ryan has to lead some looooong drives. Atlanta needs to win two things -- time of possession and the turnover contest -- to win this game. It's possible, but I can't see after Russell Wilson's 445-total-yard dynamism last week how Atlanta can shut down an equally difficult weapon behind center.
6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4)
The last three times these two teams have met, New England has won two and outscored Baltimore 76-71. Imagine, for a moment, if Lee Evans had hung onto the pass in the end zone for the winning touchdown of the AFC Championship Game last year in Foxboro. The difference? Baltimore 2 wins, New England 1. Baltimore 78, New England 76.
Now, I understand the thing about ifs and buts, I'm just making the point that as much of a favorite as New England seems heading into the late game Sunday, I think it's smart to hold your horses. One, Baltimore has some tremendous mojo going, after beating around Andrew Luck and neutralizing Peyton Manning (mostly) in the last two weeks. Two, the Baltimore defense has come alive, and it's not all because of Ray (17 tackles in Denver) Lewis' return. It's about Paul Kruger coming to life and becoming a dangerous rusher, and about Corey Graham, who did not play a single snap on defense in Baltimore's 31-30 September comeback win over the Patriots, becoming a tremendous defensive force in the last half-season. As I wrote this week, I thought he was the best defender on the field in Denver last weekend.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if Baltimore wins. But I'm going New England. The Ravens have made life hard on Tom Brady in the last three meetings (two touchdown passes, five interceptions), so I don't think he'll hang 40-something on them -- but I do think the chemistry Brady's developed with his backs will neutralize the loss of Rob Gronkowski. And as long as Wes Welker, his third-down crutch, is healthy, Brady will be the most dangerous weapon in this game. This will be a great game, though, the second straight weekend the league will produce an instant classic involving the Ravens.