4 Things We Learned During the Championship Games | January 23, 2013
And then there were 2…
Supposedly, the teams that win in January are the ones that have carried momentum into the Play Offs. You need to get hot at the right time, have a big December and enter the Post Season in form and confident. It worked for the Giants last year, and is the blueprint for winning Superbowls.
On that basis, not many people picked the Niners and Ravens to make it to the Superbowl. San Francisco had suffered a late season battering in Seattle and sunk to a OT lose to the Rams. Despite a last day win over the rudderless Cardinals, this wasn’t a San Fran team in prime form. The Ravens were in even worst nick. 4 defeats in their last 5 games coupled with the erratic form of Joe Flacco and a lengthy injury list, meant the Ravens were expected to fall out of the race early doors.
So much for conventional wisdom! Over the last 2 weeks, the Broncos, Packers, Patriots and Falcons have been vanquished, 3 of them on the road. Both teams have reached the Superbowl the hard way and it’s going to be tough to pick a winner.
We’ve got 2 weeks of off-the-chart hype to get through before the big game, but before that kicks in let’s look back at the 2 weekend games:
1. Colin Kaepernick Can Win with his Arm
First of all, kudos to the Falcons for restricting Kaepernick to 21 yards on the ground. That’s a great effort by Mike Nolan and his defence. They forced the Niners QB to go to the air and try to win that game that way. Sadly, for Atlanta, that’s exactly what he did.
We all knew Kaepernick had a bullet for an arm, but could he translate that into a composed display of pocket passing in a Championship game? As has been the case during his short tenure under center the answer was a resounding yes.
Vernon Davis was the primary target, but Kaepernick used all his receivers and led the Niners on a number of telling drives. The fact he did it after facing a 10-0 deficit speaks volumes for his maturity and composure. Had Michael Crabtree not been stripped at the goaline it would have been a very comfortable victory.
Should the 49ers win next week, it would be a watershed moment for the NFL. Dual threat quarterbacks have had success before, but if a team were to win the Superbowl using the read option and a mobile queturned arterback it would change the landscape. I’m not saying one dimensional pocket passers will be a thing of the past, but expect to see more young QBs in the mold of Newton, Wilson and RGIII entering the league in the next few years. These could be very exciting times in the NFL.
2. The Falcons are still Big Game Bottlers?
Just one week after getting the Play Off monkey off their backs, the Falcons returned to their old ways with a second half capitulation on the biggest NFC stage of them all. When they went 17-0 early in the second quarter they looked like world beaters. Matt Ryan was throwing bombs through the eye of a needle, Julio Jones had the Niners defence on toast and the Falcons D had completely shut down Kaepernick and co.
It was a similar start to the one they had made against Seattle in the Divisional round. Only this time it lacked the heroic last ditch drive. Ryan threw one forgivable pick, but less forgive-ably he muffed a snap and lost possession when the Falcons were in Field Goal range. It was a key moment in the game and the Falcons didn’t threaten again until the last minute.
On the other side of the ball, they successfully stopped Colin Kaepernick getting free and running, but their downfield marking left a lot to be desired. Vernon Davis was left unmarked far too often and that ultimately cost Atlanta the game. Stephen Nicholas had a particularly poor game as Kaepernick and Frank Gore cut through the Falcons D with ease.
This Atlanta team is so close to the finished product, but it’s big games like this where they need to step up. you can have all the talent in the world, but if you can’t get it done when the season is on the line then you’re not going to win Championships.
3. Flacco > Brady, Luck and Manning
Well, he is in January at least. Over the last 3 weeks Flacco has thrown 8 TDs and zero interceptions, but that only tells half the story. The Ravens QB has looked composed, strong and, at times, spectacular. It’s a far cry from the nervous and uncertain Flacco we saw at times during the regular season. The Ravens are now so much more than a run first team with a strong D. They can win through the air and make huge plays. Ray Rice can still keep Defences honest with his pace and movement, but it’s Flacco who is coming up with the game winning moments.
Last week’s win in Denver was all about the deep ball, this win had a few deep balls but it was Flacco’s clutch throws that were the key. Three times in the Second Half he found receivers in the Endzone, three times he led scoring drives that the Patriots couldn’t stop, as well as eating up valuable clock time. Flacco has played well in the Post Season before (particularly in the equivalent game last season) but he has taken his game to a new level this year. It helps that he has Anquan Boldin as a “so what if he’s covered” receiver, but that’s not to take away from Flacco’s performance. He has used Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith, Vonta Leach, Jacoby Jones and Rice as targets during this Play Off run. He has turned into a much more complete passer and whilst it’s premature to call him elite (I hate that word anyway), he’s certainly laid to rest any doubts regarding his future in Baltimore.
Avon Barksdale will be very happy!
4. End of an Era?
Not yet, but the window of opportunity for the Brady/Belichik era to yield another Superbowl is closing fast. Next season is an opportunity, but after that it’s hard to see this combination going all the way. This game highlighted the weaknesses of both, and it ultimiately cost New England the game.
Belichik’s weakness has always been the Secondary (well, that and chavvy hoodies) and this was evident when Aquib Talib went down injured in the First Half. Alfonzo Dennard performed admirably, but Joe Flacco had plenty of weaknesses to exploit. The lack of a strong secondary hurt the Pats as they were lacking a Defensive leader and struggled to stop the Baltimore charge. Belichik has been a wonderfully successful NFL coach, but his Achilles Heal was on full display Sunday night.
As for Brady, it was his first home defeat ever after leading at Half Time. That’s an astonishing stat and one that really highlights how brilliant a QB he is. However, Sunday night wasn’t his finest hour. Get Brady out of the pocket and he can struggle. He’s not exactly the most electric of runners and he goes to ground as soon as a Defender gets anywhere near him. This was a particular problem when he threw his first interception of the evening. Flushed out of the pocket he initially looked like he could make the 4 yards needed for a first down. However, a bit of dawdling left him staring at a Defender and he was forced into a reckless throw that was picked off. Brady struggled to get the offence moving in the Second Half and the Pats ended up scoreless. That in itself is a massive achievement for the Ravens D, but it could also mark the beginning of the end for the Patriots.
And then there were 2….