Tag Archives: atlanta falcons

NFC Championship Game Preview

By Kevin York

I debated on if I should write game previews for the NFC and AFC Championships. After all, the last time I did this, and first time I did a preview on this blog, it didn’t work out so well, did it? Oh well, life goes on. At least after I spent Saturday night and Sunday angry, bitter and constantly muttering about how the Packers didn’t prepare the right way, how ridiculous it was that they weren’t prepared for San Francisco since even I knew how San Francisco would attack them. I mean, if I’m a sports blogger I’m supposed to make irrational statements like that, right?

So, yes, it’s time to move on and do another preview. This one may even be better because I don’t have any emotion behind it…other than hating the 49ers.

Photo Credit: (Denis Poroy/Associated Press)

Photo Credit: (Denis Poroy/Associated Press)

Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons are in an odd position of being the number one overall seed, playing at home, yet being the underdog. They’re the higher seed. And it’s not like they have Peyton Manning playing for them or anything (too soon?).

In all seriousness, Atlanta started the season on fire and were the last team in the league to take a loss. Yet, there was just something about them that didn’t seem complete. No one seemed to give them the same type of respect that another team might receive for accomplishing the same feat. Even looking back at our NFL Power Five that we did throughout the season and posted to our Facebook page on a weekly basis, I could see a clear bias against the Falcons. It’s like we found ways to rank other teams ahead of them, even teams with more losses.

So why the bias against the dirty birds?

In all honesty, I think it’s because the Falcons are a team that flies under the radar (pun intended). There’s not a lot of hype about them. They’ve really taken on the model of their head coach. They’re pretty workman-like in their style and they don’t do much to draw attention to themselves. They have an offense that can be high powered with Matt Ryan connecting with Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. On the other hand, they have an offense that can also grind it out behind the running of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. In fact, it often seems to be one or the other. For some reason they struggle to find a balance blending the two, as head coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter sometimes appear to forget they have such a strong running game and shy away from it.

Nonetheless, the offense has the potential to be powerful. Matt Ryan improved greatly from last year to this year and I think defenses had to respect him more. The playoff win last week really got a monkey off his back so I expect him to play a bit looser this week. He showed a lot of poise by driving the Falcons into position for Matt Bryant to kick the game winning field goal – especially after the Falcons had a significant lead which they’d blown earlier.

On the defensive side of the ball, I think Atlanta’s pass rush is pretty underrated. The front four applied some nice pressure to Russell Wilson last week against a Seattle offensive line that has played very solidly all year long; however, that front four, front seven really, struggled to defend Cam Newton as a runner in two meetings this year. On Sunday, they’ll face a similar quarterback in Colin Kaepernick so he could certainly create some problems for them.

Atlanta’s secondary is a solid unit, but they raised some questions with the way they allowed Seattle back into the game last week.

I still think their defensive game plan comes down to containing Kaepernick. Green Bay wasn’t able to do it. The Falcons use a base 4-3 defense while Green Bay was using a 3-4. Is the 4-3 better suited to defend a running quarterback attacking you with a read option? I’m not totally sure. I think it’s more dependent on your total team speed. Is Atlanta a faster overall defense than Green Bay? Maybe a little, but they don’t jump out at me as blazers.

Photo Credit: (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle

Photo Credit: (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle)

San Francisco 49ers
I think San Francisco is the heavy favorite. Yes, they are going cross country and playing in a very, very loud indoor stadium, but they’ve been playing much better than Atlanta as of late. While Atlanta struggled with Seattle, San Francisco put on a convincing second half against Green Bay and handedly beat them.

When you look at San Francisco’s offense, it jumps out at me that this unit is now the strength of the team. I mentioned that in my initial thoughts after the divisional round games, but I really can’t get over it. When I look at the weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities of that team, I now see less with the offense than I do with the defense. The element Kaepernick brings with his running has really evolved their attack. He brings something different than a running quarterback like Robert Griffin. Kaepernick has a bigger body, so he appears to be a little more capable of sustaining hits, but more importantly, he looks to throw as he’s rolling out. Now, his field vision can use some work, but when a guy’s running like that, a defense doesn’t really have as much time to focus on where his eyes are looking as he’s going through his progressions.

On a side note, I find the increasing use of the read option by NFL teams very interesting. The option is an offensive play that was actually used for years by teams that had inferior talent, either in size or speed or both. It was a way of tricking the defense and using some sleight of hand to gain an advantage over a team that had more talent than you. That’s the reason that in college football, a team like Air Force is able to compete with teams that have much more size, speed and strength. Air Force traditionally has run not just an option, but a triple option offense (My high school football team, consistently ranked near the top of our division, played one conference team every year, the same one, who ran a triple option offense. It was always one of the hardest games to prepare for even though they were never one of the best teams we’d play. The offense is a pain in the ass to defend and speaking from experience, it really does take away a team’s speed and size advantages). They have to because they don’t have 300 pound linemen. Those guys can’t do the necessary military drills and exercises if they’re that huge. Knowing that history associated with the option offense, I find it somewhat ironic that it’s now being used by NFL offenses to further utilize the speed (and with Kaepernick, the size) of skilled offensive players as an advantage rather than using it to combat larger and faster defenders. In high school I always sort of viewed those running the option as unable to run a “real” offense.

My thoughts on San Francisco’s defense are well versed on this blog. I don’t think they’re quite as good as everyone else seems to think are. However, against Atlanta, I think they match up pretty well. The only potential difficulty they could face is the running game of Atlanta. The 49ers haven’t been quite as good against the run late this year as they were last year and at the beginning of this season. In fact, the Packers even did a decent job of running the ball on them and they don’t have a star running back. Atlanta has a nice mix of power and speed with Turner and Rodgers. That has the potential to create problems for San Francisco because it could pull one of their two safeties into the box to defend the run, opening up Atlanta’s passing game. Against Green Bay it was easier. You dare the Packers to run on you and leave two safeties back, out of the box, to make sure you can defend Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. It’s not quite as easy with Atlanta. Vic Fangio will be forced to make more decisions with his defensive schemes, probably bringing Donte Whitner in to support stopping the run.

The Final Word
So who’s going to win? That’s right, I’m actually going to predict a winner. Now that my team is out, I have no qualms about predicting a winner.

All the momentum in the world is with San Francisco right now. They’re the hotter team and probably the stronger team at this point. It would take someone out of their mind to pick Atlanta to win this game. That’s exactly why I heavily considered it. It’s just a gut feeling, one of those scenarios where you just know the game won’t play out like everyone predicts it to. I think Atlanta will actually be the looser team since all the pressure is on San Francisco. Atlanta knows no one thinks they can win this game. They’ll use it as motivation all week and I think it’ll push them to come out hot. If they get a big lead, that’s the recipe needed for beating San Francisco. Trying to come from behind takes some of Kaepernick’s abilities away from him because it doesn’t allow him to be quite as free with his decision-making. You can’t use a read option offense when you’re down two touchdowns or more. Let’s also not forget that this week Colin Kaepernick made his first appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The SI cover jinx is well documented. Seriously, look at that list. It’s long. Way longer than I realized. Let’s also not forget my past comparisons of Jim Harbaugh to Rex Ryan. It would be the ultimate validation of my comparisons for Jimmy to lose his second straight conference championship in only his second season (Rex’s Jets lost two straight AFC championships in his first two years).

All that said, as much as I’d like to pick against San Francisco, I can’t do it. There’s a simple reason that I can’t do it. I want San Francisco to lose. That, of course, means they will win. Buy your tickets and book your Super Bowl flights, Niner fans.

You can read The Couchletes’ preview of the AFC Championship game here.

By Kevin York
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevin_york
You can contact Kevin at kevin@thecouchletes.com

Thoughts on the NFL Divisional Round Playoffs

We’re now down to the last four teams in the NFL playoffs. Baltimore, San Francisco, Atlanta and New England. It was an entertaining weekend of games. The Ravens-Broncos overtime thriller was an instant classic and a game that Denver fans, and Peyton Manning, will likely want to forget quickly. The Broncos, huge favorites, really blew that game. Green Bay-San Francisco was close, at least until the fourth quarter, but nonetheless a much more competitive game than their first encounter in week one. This game didn’t turn out at all the way I wanted and I now have to live with it. I may never write another Packers preview as a result. Seattle-Atlanta looked like it would be a rout early, but the Seahawks, as they’ve done all season, refused to give up and made it quite an ending, though they ultimately blew their chance to steal a win. That game may have ended even more exciting than the Baltimore-Denver game. And finally, New England showed how strong, and deep, they really are by winning a game with Houston that never really appeared competitive after the Pats scored their first touchdown.

We’ll have previews of the AFC and NFC Championship games later this week, but here are my initial thoughts after watching the four playoff games this weekend:

— Peyton Manning could be the best regular season quarterback ever, but man, that guy has a tendency to come up short in the playoffs. It just feels like a really high number of times that he’s been the higher seed and lost. He’s such a good player and an all around good guy that I feel sorry for him.

— Speaking of him being a good guy, I appreciated hearing that Manning waited around for an hour and a half after the game to privately congratulate Ray Lewis. That’s a class act.

— The Ray Lewis story is having quite the final chapter. I can’t believe how much he’s inspired this Ravens team. It sounds ridiculous, but his presence on the field does wonders for improving Baltimore’s chances of winning a game.

— Enough criticism of Joe Flacco. He’s shown over the past two post seasons that he really is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. I’d take him in a playoff game. Last year he outplayed Tom Brady, this year he outplayed Peyton Manning. You can’t ask for much more than that.

— Baltimore still has a good defense. They don’t quite have the same pass rush they’ve had in the past, with Paul Kruger being the only really consistent pass rushing threat, but it’s still a solid unit. They may not have ranked that way this year, but remember, they had a ton of injuries and those injuries were to main contributors (Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed). Everyone’s healthy now.

— The San Francisco 49er offense may have become the team’s strong suit. With the difficult to defend new read option dimension that Colin Kaepernick has added, I really think this might the case. While the defense is still solid, I don’t feel like they shut down the Packers defense as much as they did in their week one meeting. In fact, the Pack did more to shoot themselves in the foot. Their turnovers were more a result of their own mistakes than any forcing the San Francisco defense did. And it was the Niner offense that capitalized on those Green Bay mistakes.

— Frank Gore quietly continues to be a huge contributor to the 49ers offense. He’s not the most vocal or showy player, so doesn’t command the same mainstream media attention as others on their offense, but he is the rock of that unit. Would you be surprised to know he gained 119 rushing yards against the Packers? I watched the entire game and was surprised by it. He quietly just gets his job done.

— Michael Crabtree has emerged as a top receiver in the game. Going into that game, Green Bay knew that he was one of Kaepernick’s go to guys, and they still couldn’t defend him, knowing it was coming.

— Green Bay didn’t appear to have much of a competitive game plan on either side of the ball. They apparently didn’t read my analysis post from last week because they didn’t appear prepared for many of things I called out. They ran very few screen passes (and I don’t remember any outside screens) on offense and on defense, they didn’t look prepared for Kaepernick’s outside running, which is especially odd since they put together a game plan exactly a week ago to shut down Adrian Peterson’s outside running (and were effective).

— I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new defensive coordinator in Green Bay next year. Dom Capers’ unit has not performed well for the second season in a row now. It’s the achilles heel of an otherwise pretty good team. Sure, personnel is some of it, but I think scheme is part of it too.

— Seattle had quite the year, but came up just short. That’s still a great team and one that I think over the next couple years will become the team to beat in the NFC West. They’re younger than San Francisco and won’t face some of the free agent questions that the Niners will in the offseason.

— Good for Matt Ryan. He’s a good guy and it’s nice to see him get this playoff monkey off his back. Same with Falcons head coach Mike Smith and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Those are three of the classiest guys in the league.

— Pete Carroll’s got to be wishing he had not taken the time out to try and ice Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant at the end of the game. Bryant ended up missing the attempt (which then didn’t count) and Carroll proceeded to complain to the officials about being awarded the time out. Not sure what you were complaining about Pete. FOX clearly had you on tape calling the timeout.

— The Georgia Dome is LOUD.

— Most people think the Packers (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley) or Patriots (Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, and now Shane Vereen) have the best group of receivers in the league. Top to bottom, they probably do, but does anyone have a better 1-2-3 combination than the Falcons have in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez? Throw in Harry Douglas and that’s a pretty good receiving corps. They’re vastly underrated.

— San Francisco should have a more difficult time preparing for Atlanta’s offense than they did preparing for Green Bay’s last week. In the passing game they’re similar, but Atlanta has the running game that Green Bay doesn’t with the combination of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers (as long as they don’t forget about it, which for some unknown reason they’re prone to do at times…).

— New England is the deepest team in the league. They’ve faced quite a few injuries to key contributors this year, yet their play doesn’t drop off. Danny Woodhead gets hurt on his first play of the game and New England turns to Shane Vereen to fill Woodhead’s role. He looked awesome and we’re now left wondering, where was this guy all year?

— New England’s running game has really developed this season. Ridley and Vereen looked good against a Houston defense that was supposed to be one of the best in the league.

— Speaking of Houston’s defense, what happened to them? They looked horrible. They couldn’t stop New England at all.

— Tom Brady now has the most playoff wins of any quarterback in NFL history as he surpassed Joe Montana on Sunday. In the Brady-Montana debate about who’s the best quarterback ever, I think Brady keeps doing his part to provide us with a definitive answer. The guy’s money and the case is closed in my book.