John Canton: We are down to the final four teams in the 2012-13 NFL season. Before we get to this week's games I have some comments on the results of last week.

Baltimore 38 - Denver 35 (2OT) - I'm stunned that the Broncos defense played as bad as it did. While I expected their offense to put up a lot of points (special teams got two TDs also), I figured their defense would get them past a team like the Ravens. Nope. The Ravens used the deep pass to score that late TD with under a minute and then got the INT against Peyton Manning to get the win in overtime. I credit the Ravens for making the plays when they needed to. I just think the Broncos had a lot of questionable (aka stupid) coaching decisions and too many mental lapses on both sides of the ball.

San Francisco 45 - Green Bay 31 - This was a total ass kicking. Colin Kaepernick had one of the best games by a QB in the history of the NFL playoffs. I think this game and last year's playoff loss to the Giants in the same round will hopefully open the eyes of Packers management to make them realize they need new personnel on the defensive side of the ball because the guys they have aren't cutting it. The Niners opened up a lot of people's eyes with that game. They're a dangerous team on both sides of the ball.

Atlanta 30 - Seattle 28 - Best game of the weekend. The Falcons charged out to a 20-0 lead, then it went to 27-7 and the Seahawks finally woke up in the second half. It was an amazing first half performance by Matt Ryan and a second half performance by Russell Wilson. Neither QB had a great full game like you would hope they could do in a playoff game. I admired the heart of the Seahawks in coming back. It would have been amazing to see them pull off the victory while down by 20 points. However, you have to credit the Falcons for having the resolve to complete two passes, use their timeouts wisely and watch as Matt Bryant kicked that clutch 49 yard field goal for the win. It was one of the best playoff football games I've ever seen.

New England 41 - Houston 28 - This was what I expected. The Patriots pounded them when they played in the regular season and the same thing happened here. It was a bad matchup for the Texans because the Patriots had too many weapons. If you want to see why Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are so good together look at the adjustments they made. They saw the Texans playing man defense for most of the game, so they put their fast RB Shane Vereen out wide and he destroyed the Texans LBs that were trying to cover him. That's what makes the separates the Patriots from other teams. They are deep and they know how to exploit matchups better than anybody.

The big thing I took away from last weekend was all the scoring. Every game went over the over/under line and none of them were really close to going under either. I'm not sure if that's a trend that will continue this week. It's the new NFL with the offenses running wild.

 

Final Regular Season Standings Straight Up

John 176-79-1 .690

Bret 169-86-1 .663

Mike 169-86-1 .663

Playoffs Straight Up

Mike 6-2 (Last week 2-2)

John 6-2 (2-2)

Bret 5-3 (1-3)

All game times are Eastern.

 

San Francisco at Atlanta     3:00 PM   

Bret: What Kaepernick did last week was impressive - but I watched a few of those long runs several times on the coaches film and boy were the Packers out of position. Surely some of those guys played against an option in high school or college right? It boggles my mind that men that good at their sport can be that undisciplined. Still, Kaepernick was making the right read and then using some amazing speed to get through the line.

I think we'll see much of the same from  him this week in terms of the read option, and I don't think San Fran will be nearly as slow to open up their offense as Seattle was. I actually think this game will be almost an exact replay of last weeks Atlanta/San Francisco game. Atlanta will go up early based on the travel, playing in a loud dome, and the time difference, but that'll only last a quarter, and then the real 49ers will show up. 

The difference between the 9ers and the Seahawks will be injuries. The Seahawks had them (Lynch and Clemons), and the 9ers don't. The Smith's will be playing fast on the temperature controlled turf and won't give Ryan the time to pass, and I really don't think Old Man Turner will be doing much against the 9ers 4th in the league rush defense. 

Offensively, the 9ers have finally unleashed the pistol that we hadn't seen from Kaepernick since the preseason and it's deadly. I really don't think Atlanta has the speed at linebacker to stop that, and it's going to tough sledding for them.

Atlanta wins the first quarter, but then it's all San Fran from there. No comeback this time. San Francisco 38 Atlanta 24

Mike: While I understand the narrative people are taking with this game in saying that Atlanta has no chance to win and that San Francisco will easily win this game, I'm not sure I'm buying into that.  Yes, San Francisco obliterated the Packers in the second half of last week's game, and yes, Atlanta was barely able to squeak by Seattle at home.  But let me make a case here on why Atlanta has a chance in this game, and at the very least could make it a close one against the Niners.

First, a few things on the Packers/Niners game.  Looking at the last quarter and a half of the game, when San Francisco blew open a 24-24 game by scoring three unanswered touchdowns, you'll see that Colin Kaepernick went 6/6 for 115 yards and ran the ball 3 times for 76 yards including a 56 yard touchdown run.  Now, Kaepernick's rushing numbers were fantastic no matter how you look at it, as up to that point he still had run 13 times for 105 yards.  But his passing numbers before that drive in the third quarter, he had gone 11/25 for 148 yards.  He was unstoppable for a quarter and a half which is why he ended up with a respectable 17/31 for 263, but San Francisco's passing offense wasn't really lighting it up the entire game.

The reason the Niners won the game was because of their impressive performance on the ground.  Kaepernick and Gore both looked great, rushing for 300 yards between the two of them.  While a lot of credit goes to them and their offensive line, I can't stress enough how clueless Green Bay's defense looked.  Their run defense has certainly struggled at times, and this was no exception, in particular Erik Walden was completely exposed at the OLB spot and the injury to Nick Perry earlier in the year showed that they did not have the depth on that side of the field to pick up the slack.

But now let's look at Atlanta.  Seattle was the #1 team in rushing DVOA this year, and yet against Atlanta Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch combined for 23 carries for 106 yards.  Nice enough numbers, but nothing that's going to swing a game for you.  The reason the Seahawks were in that game is because the last 17 minutes of the game they put up 210 yards of offense, pretty much all done through the air.  Zach Miller absolutely murdered the Falcons defense all game, catching 8 balls on 9 targets for 142 yards and a touchdown.  I think it's fair to say Atlanta has a tough time covering tight ends.  And yet...San Francisco has a stud tight end that Kaepernick doesn't throw to!  Vernon Davis had one catch against the Packers.

All this being said, I still like the Niners for a few reasons.  First, I don't expect Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers to average almost 7 yards per carry like they did last week.  I think they will have good games, as the Packers showed last week (at least in the first half before they gave up on DuJuan Harris) that you can run effectively on the Niners, but I don't expect Michael Turner to be a major factor in the game.  Second, Jim Harbaugh should be a much more formidable matchup than Pete Carroll.  The Seahawks completely blew a red zone opportunity in the first half when they had someone other than Marshawn Lynch run the ball (and get stuffed) on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 on Atlanta's 11-yard line.  They also screwed up an easy field goal opportunity at the end of the first half. Then of course there was the part where they gave up a field goal to Atlanta in 23 seconds to lose the game.  I don't think the Niners will be quite as susceptible to such mistakes.

If David Akers runs into some confidence issues, and if Atlanta can somehow manage to win the turnover battle, I think the Falcons have a shot to win the game.  But the Niners have looked like the best team in the NFC for most of the season, and I have to take them to win this week.  San Francisco 27 Atlanta 24

John: I think after last week's performance by the 49ers offense a lot of teams around the league probably said "oh s**t" because  they know that a team with a defense as good as theirs can be lethal now that they have a dynamic QB like Colin Kaepernick running the show. You don't see somebody play that well in their first playoff game very often because once you get to the playoffs you expect the competition to be greater. Nope. Not last week. What about this week? I don't think things will be much different.

The 49ers only lost two games with Kaepernick starting. The first loss was a 16-13 loss in St. Louis against my Rams and the other loss was a 42-13 dismantling in Seattle. What do those teams have in common? Two things:

1) They were divisional foes familiar with the 49ers personnel, which makes it easier to prepare for their games. That's an important point when you consider that the Falcons haven't faced the 49ers since 2010.

 2) A physical defense. That's the big one. The best thing you can do to combat the 49ers offense is beat them up by rotating in players on the defensive line, blitzing LBs/DBs and trusting your defensive backs to play tight man to man defense so that you have other players free to keep an eye on Kaepernick. That's why the Packers failed. The Niners offensive line pushed them around and there was so much running room for San Fran's offense. Does Atlanta have the kind of physical defense needed to slow down the Niners? I don't think so. That’s red flag for me.

If you saw the Falcons win over the Seahawks last week you would know that the Falcons had a lot of trouble containing Russell Wilson in the second half of that game. He was incredible. The problem for the Falcons is that Kaepernick is the same kind of corner with a similar offense, but he's even faster than Wilson. He's more likely to run when a play breaks down.

Whenever we get this deep in the playoffs there are always "x-factors" that people talk about in terms of players that may sneak up on us to have a big game. You know who I'd look at in this game? The Niners 35 year old receiver Randy Moss, who was once the fastest man in the NFL. I have a feeling that the Falcons are going to key on Michael Crabtree in the passing game and crowd the line to stop the run that you might see a deep touchdown pass to Moss that comes out of nowhere. I'm such a fan of Jim Harbaugh's playcalling that I just know something surprising is going to happen to break open the game for the Niners.

As I shift the focus to the Falcons offense I think they'll have some success, but if they play a second half like they did last week against the Seahawks they're going to lose. What I liked last week was their RB duo of Turner/Rodgers played very well early on. They finished with 167 rushing yards. If they can get more than 150 rushing yards against the 49ers I'd be very surprised. That's where I see them struggling. Without the run game I think Matt Ryan may not have a lot of time to find his talented group of receivers and with the 49ers playing such well disciplined defense it's likely that they will create some turnovers. Ryan better hope that Jones, White & Gonzalez can stretch the field because if not he's going to get knocked down quite a bit.

This will be a high scoring game just like the games last week. It may have a blowout feel to it even though my score prediction is a ten point outcome. I can see the 49ers opening up a touchdown lead by the half, making adjustments and then dominating the third quarter as they cruise to the victory. I think the Falcons will score a TD late to keep the outcome respectable, but I really like the Niners to win this game. As I mentioned earlier they're a dangerous team on offense with an emerging quarterback that defenses don't know how to stop yet. That will be a problem for the Falcons.

Give me the 49ers to win here and I think they'll walk into the Super Bowl as the favorite no matter who they play. 49ers 37-27

We all picked the Niners to lose last week. This week we all pick them to win. Is that a good sign? You decide.

 

Baltimore at New England     6:30 PM

Bret: There are a ton of factors going on in this game in the X's and O's, and it makes it really hard to compute. Let's try to break some of them down.

Patriots offense vs. Ravens defense

There are two key match ups here. First, as I mentioned last week, the key to stopping the Patriots this year is to stop their running game. Baltimore has been more successful against the run the past few weeks, but the likes of BenJarvis Green Ellis, VIck Ballard, and an injured Knowshone Moreno haven't been much of a test. Stopping the Patriots running game is quietly a very important key to this one. If they can get that going they're unstoppable. I don't think Baltimore will be able to keep the Patriots running backs to under 100 yards, but I think they'll do a good enough job to keep the Patriots from running away and controlling the clock.

The other key on this side of the ball will be the play of Dannell Ellerbe's play. Ellerbe will be the player tasked with stopping the inside slot/ace tight end in on most downs - and will also be the occasional extra blitz man. In their last meeting, Ellerbe got beaten badly, but he's one of those classic players that improve by leaps and bounds as the season progresses. I think he'll do a much better job staying with the inside zones here, and the passing game will be even more difficult than it has in the past.

The Ravens know how to play with - and beat - this offense. They're not going to let them come out and blow them out of the water. I think they'll keep New England under 30 points. 

Baltimore offense vs. New England defense

On this side the key to me is whether or not Belichick overreacts to what he saw last weekend. Flacco's deep ball looked deadly last weekend, and if that was the only game you'd watched all year you'd think that'd be your greatest risk. It's not. I've seen other games where Flacco looked mediocre at best and more like downright bad on the deep ball. He could certainly have another monster game, but over-gameplanning for that could be dangerous. Much like the Broncos, the Patriots have been week this year against tight ends and running backs near the line of scrimmage. If the Patriots are playing soft and deep, Flacco could find Rice, Pitta, and Dickson open in the 7 to 10 yard range all day long. I still feel like we haven't seen Ray Rice be Ray Rice yet this year - and with the offensive line playing the best it's played in years, Rice having relatively fresh legs considering the time of year, and the potential soft spots in the defense, this could be a Ray Rice game. 

Both teams have very good special teams as well - Baltimore's might be better, despite last week, but not by much.

I really think this game is a tossup and will come down to a few key plays. I can't believe I'm doing it, but I think I see Baltimore slowing down the intermediate passing game, keeping the running game in check, and dinking, dunking, and running the Patriots to death. Baltimore 28 New England 27

Mike: Well, here we are again, Baltimore and New England.  I have no idea how we got here, to be honest.  Baltimore is a pretty middle of the road team offensively and defensively, their real strength is in their special teams, and even then they gave up two special teams touchdowns last week!  I just assumed with LaDarius Webb out for the season, and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis being old and all, that the Ravens defense wouldn't be good enough to make it anywhere.  I didn't think Joe Flacco (A career 86.3 QB rated player) had enough in him to lead his team to the AFC Championship.  I still don't know that any of these Ravens observations are incorrect.  And yet, here we are.

For the Ravens to have a chance in this game, offensively I think they're going to need to combine what worked for them in the Broncos game with what worked for the Texans last week against New England.  Ray Rice is going to need lots of touches.  Arian Foster had 29 touches last week, including 7 passes for 63 yards.  Ray Rice had 30 carries last week, but no catches.  Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels combined for 17 receptions and 176 yards last week.  The combination of Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta should be able to improve upon this statistic.  They have three legit targets to throw to, and also Jacoby Jones is at least capable enough that he needs attention even if he's more of a   Joe Flacco will have to do good Joe Flacco things, which means big plays downfield.  This last part is the toughest, because sometimes the deep game just isn't working, and I'm not sure the Ravens offense can do enough other than that to win.

As for the Patriots, I think their biggest concern is that Baltimore knows how they tick.  Stevan Ridley has been a real positive for the Patriots this year, but he has also had some games where he's been shut down, and those include games against the Seahawks, the Niners, and the Ravens.  All losses.  If the Ravens have game planned well for their offensive scheme, specifically their run game, this could turn into a struggle for New England.  The big reason why the Patriots lost to the Ravens the first time this year was because Baltimore could run the ball and New England couldn't.

Through the air I think the Patriots will do fine, although with Rob Gronkowski out I'm not sure they will be able to dominate.  You can only throw to Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez so many times, which means they're going to need to get Brandon Lloyd more involved and continue to be creative dumping the ball off to Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen.  But I don't think the Ravens as currently constructed are capable of really shutting down Tom Brady, they may just be able to prevent him from totally going off.

I'm taking the Patriots in the game, although I also expect this one to be more of a close game and I don't like the 8-point spread for New England.  The Ravens' familiarity and the lack of Gronkowski will allow them to keep this close, but short of a special teams mishap or some timely turnovers I just don't think the team has enough talent to beat the Patriots. Baltimore had a favorable wild card matchup against Indianapolis and were absolutely gifted a win at Denver after one of the worst late game defensive miscues you're going to see in the playoffs.  I think they're playing a little above their pay grade right now, and it's going to catch up to them.  New England 31 Baltimore 27

John: I have to ride the Patriots in this game because they were my pick to win the Super Bowl before the seasons. Even if they weren't I would still like them. I'm not going to say that the Ravens were lucky to win last week, but they were the beneficiaries of poor coaching by the Broncos.

The Ravens offense isn't that complex. They either run the ball with Ray Rice, their best offensive player, or they use a vertical passing game with Joe Flacco throwing down the sideline to Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin or Jacoby Jones - who caught the game tying deep ball last week. They don't really use a short passing game like the Patriots or Broncos. They go for the quick strike. If you know that's going to happen then you should never get beat deep like the Broncos were repeatedly last week. What you have to do is make sure you have two safeties back at all times and that they are smart enough to get there every time. Flacco isn't accurate throwing short, but he is terrific at stretching a defense. If you know that (like Denver should have) then it's easier to set up a game plan to try to stop them. That doesn't mean the Patriots will stop them, though.

When you consider that these two teams met in this game last year (Patriots won 23-20 after that Lee Evans drop & Billy Cundiff missed FG) and earlier this year (Ravens won 31-30 on a game winning FG) they are obviously very familiar with eachother. In that game earlier this year the Ravens offense played amazing by racking up over 500 yards with Flacco throwing for 382 yards with 3 pass TDs and Rice running for 101 yards. Tom Brady had a really nice game too as the threw for over 300 yards, but the big story was the improved Patriots running game only got 77 yards on 34 carries. That will have to change for the Pats to get this win. If you watch the Patriots offense the big thing for them is running the ball on quick handoffs after their opponent is scrambling on defense due to the passing game. A team like the Ravens is prepared for that, though, so it will be difficult for the Pats to use their normal way of calling a game.

I can definitely see the Ravens winning, but I like the Pats too much. I think their pickup of CB Aqib Talib midseason was really smart because he's an above average corner that can do a good job of limiting the Ravens passing game. Their pass rush is better this year than last year although it's not a difference maker. I just have a feeling their defense is going to do a good enough job to limit the Ravens offense because they're too smart to make the mistakes the Broncos did.

The biggest difference maker for the Pats? Tom Brady, of course. You know he's very motivated to win this game after losing the Super Bowl last year (if that pass to Welker was better they would have won) and while I think his legacy as one of the best players in NFL history isn't in doubt, he knows he can add to it with another ring. It's been eight seasons since the last one. He's better player now when he was then. The difference is his defense isn't as good now as it was when he won those three titles. Moving the focus back to this game, I think the Patriots offense will stumble a bit without Rob Gronkowski, but I think the inclusion of Shane Vereen in the passing game last week shows how deep they really are.

I like the Patriots in this game because I think they're going to raise their game on their home field and they will have their usual smart game plan to jump out to an early lead. I think if they can establish Ridley & Vereen in the run game then Brady will find Welker, Hernandez and Lloyd in the pass game. I'm not taking anything away from Ray Lewis or the Ravens defense. I just think in this game and in this setting the Patriots will be tough to deal with. Patriots 34-24

 

The Degenerates Dungeon 

This is where we give you some picks for our best bets of the week.

Regular Season Records

Mike 42-41-2

John 40-43-2

Bret 38-45-2

Playoffs

John 4-2 (2-1 Last Week)

Mike 1-5 (0-3)

Bret 0-3

 

Bret (5dimes.com)

1. Atlanta Falcons 1st quarter +1/2 (-140), or move it to a -1/2 (+160) if you're daring!

2. NFC +2.5 to win the Super Bowl. (Do it now before Baltimore wins and you lose the points!)

3. San Francisco beats Baltimore in the Super Bowl. (+807) Imagine how good you'll feel having 8 to 1 odds on a 3.5 point favorite!

 

Mike (Pinnaclesports.com) 

Baltimore +8 @ New England - Only bet I really like this week as I think both championship games should be competitive.

 

John (Pinnaclesports.com)

San Francisco -3.5 @ Atlanta - I'm all in on the Niners. Don't think the Falcons defense will slow them down.

San Francisco @ Atlanta OVER 48

Baltimore @ New England OVER 51

 

We'll see you again in two weeks for the Super Bowl preview. Follow us on Twitter: 

Bret: @BClevenger30

Mike: @Mtmaloney

John: @TJRSports and @johnreport

You can also email John Canton at mrjohncanton@gmail.com with any questions or comments.