By Russell S. Baxter (@BaxFootballGuru)
Cold Hard Football Facts Fact-Faction All-Pro
And it all comes down to this…almost.
We’re down to four teams and three games in the NFL’s 93rd season. The San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots all deserve their share of congratulations for a job well done so far.
So in honor of the recent Oscar nominations, we’ll use the titles of some notable (and perhaps not-so-notable) films to sum up the team’s current state of affairs or recent performances.
Don’t worry. We’re not drawing any comparisons to suspenseful bus rides, mountain climbing, trips in a time machine or lost love. But for fun, we’ll be including some clips from those movies just to keep you entertained.
Of course, here’s hoping the numbers alone prove to be more entertaining.
San Francisco 49ers (Speed)
Anybody get the number of that long-legged bus that ran through the Green Bay defense last Saturday night?
Did the Niners’ offensive staff have a plan or did they have a plan? San Francisco rolled up 323 yards rushing in last week’s Divisional Playoff win over the Packers (the fourth-highest total in a postseason game in NFL history), 181 of that by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Perhaps Jim Harbaugh and his staff noticed that the week before, Vikings quarterback Joe Webb did run for 68 yards in the Wild Card Game at Lambeau Field.
Of course, running the football has been the Niners’ bread and butter both last season and in 2012. Only three teams in the league totaled more yards on the ground this season than Harbaugh’s club and with this Atlanta defense ranking 21st in the NFL against the run, the game plan is pretty evident.
Then again, San Francisco ranked third in the league in total yards allowed and only the Seahawks gave up fewer points this season.
But in their last four games, including the win over the Packers, the Niners have given up 120 points and 13 offensive touchdowns. That’s quite a contrast from their 13 contests, when they allowed only 16 offensive touchdowns and just 184 points. And that could be something to watch when the Falcons’ offense takes the field.
What do you do, Matt…What do you do?
Atlanta Falcons (Cliffhanger)
It’s safe to say that this team lived up to its cinematic reference last week at the Georgia Dome.
Last weekend, on the verge of their first playoff win during the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan Era, something funny happened on the way to the Falcons’ first postseason in 2004…
It actually happened.
But it wasn’t without its anxious moments as Atlanta owned a 27-7 lead early in the fourth quarter and with 31 seconds left was suddenly in possession of a one-point deficit. After three playoff losses under Smith and Ryan, a fourth suddenly looked inevitable.
However, just as the “c” word was trending worldwide (or at least in NFL circles), Ryan did what he does best. Set up by a 34-yard kickoff return by Jacquizz Rodgers, the league’s one-minute specialist then completed a pair of passes and it was kicker Matt Bryant (who you can’t spell without Matt Ryan) who delivered the game-winning 49-yard field goal and a 30-28 win.
Almost lost in the victory was the performance of the Falcons’ ground game, which rolled up a season-high 167 yards against the Seahawks. And you had to be surprised that Michael Turner and company put up that number considering that only three teams in the league ran for fewer yards than Atlanta in 2012.
Then again, this week may be a much taller order considering that only the Buccaneers, Steelers and Broncos were harder to run on during the season than the 49ers.
These Falcons will have to be “Sly” indeed.
Baltimore Ravens (Back To the Future)
It was back in 1985 when Dr. Emmett Brown turned to Marty McFly and stated, “If my calculations are correct, when this baby hit 88 miles per hour, you’re going to see some serious #$@&.”
Dr. Brown, meet Professor Joe Flacco and his assistants.
For perhaps the first time since they’re very early days in the mid-1990s, the Ravens are being driven (or flown?) by the offensive side of the ball. And combine that with just enough playmakers and savvy veterans on the defensive side of the ball, John Harbaugh’s club is back in the AFC title game for the third time in five years.
And it’s been the long ball that’s been a big part of the team’s attack dating back to the second half of their Wild Card win over the Colts. Be it Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones or Smith, Flacco has specialized in the big play this postseason.
While the fifth-year quarterback’s completion percentage (52.6) has been less than ideal, he’s completed 30 of 57 passes for an impressive 613 yards (20.4 yards per completion) and five scores without an interception. And in case you’re thinking the Ravens have abandoned the ground game, both rookie running back Bernard Pierce as well as veteran Ray Rice each ran for 100-plus yards in the wins over the Colts and Broncos, respectively.
So do these Ravens have enough to keep pace with the explosive Patriots? They already bested Bill Belichick’s team this season in a 31-30 shootout at Baltimore. And with one more gutty effort, the team will be headed to its second Super Bowl…
Aka the Big “Enchantment Under The Sea” Dance.
New England Patriots (Same Time, Next Year)
Raise your hand if you remember the Neil Simon comedy and love story starring Alan Alda and Ellen Busrtyn?
Seriously, here we are again. The Patriots are one game away from an astounding sixth trip to the Super Bowl in 12 years. And if they do defeat the Ravens on Sunday, they will tie both the Steelers and Cowboys for the overall record with eight Super Bowl appearances.
Meanwhile, a New England victory puts Tom Brady in position to become the first quarterback to start six Super Bowls as well as in place to equal Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) and Joe Montana (49ers) as the only signal-callers with four Super Bowl championship rings.
But what makes us think that this edition of the Patriots, with the third-highest scoring total in a season (557) in NFL history, can do what its’ very immediate predecessors haven’t been able to do. This marks the third straight season and fourth time in six years that Bill Belichick’s team has put at least 500 points on the board and none of those seasons resulted in an NFL championship.
This time around, the Pats do have a running game that helps balance the league’s top-rated offense. And when you combine that with a team that commits a minimal amount of turnovers (16 in 17 games, including playoffs), that makes any team’s task a lot tougher.
So it is déjà vu time in New England, where the Patriots have never lost an AFC title game in three previous contests. And we’ll soon find out if it’s not only business as usual at Foxborough, but if recent history in the Super Bowl will be repeated as well.