The two blemishes came courtesy of an emerging quarterback who seems uncontainable right now, and an improperly played angle by a veteran safety. Can’t say that I should have seen them coming…or that anyone else did, for that matter.
But with an extremely worthy final four remaining, let’s get to the keys for each team’s success as they fight for their right to be in the presence of Beyonce’ on February 3:
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Ravens’ Keys: It’s been a fairly hot topic that Baltimore’s defense has endured a lot of time of the field for their first two playoff games. And the Ravens don’t exactly have a young defense, to boot. Therefore, one of the biggest areas of focus for the visiting team should be stopping the Patriots on third down. There’s no doubt that New England is going to attempt to keep the pace of the game up, particularly by orchestrating the no-huddle offense to their advantage as much as possible. For that reason alone, the Ravens are going to have to make those key stops to preserve some energy for Ray Lewis and company.
In the same breath, Baltimore must sustain drives by including the consistent running of Ray Rice, contrasted with the slashing style of Bernard Pierce. If they are successful, they will have plenty of opportunities to expose the Patriots with the long ball. But they have to make sure that they set up the pass by first establishing the run…and not the other way around. By no means do the Ravens want to misfire on 1st and 2nd down, and give Bill Belicheck extra chances to put points on the board. That would be a sure-fire way to allow this game to get out of hand.
Patriots’ Keys: No surprise here: the Patriots are going to stuff the up-tempo game down the Ravens’ throats. They’ll try to nickel and dime Baltimore’s defense into frustration, and force John Harbaugh to send additional rushers. And when that happens, New England will try to make them pay even more. New England’s biggest challenge is going to be to not abandon the ground game, and to actually get something from it. After his promising performance a week ago, Shane Vereen won’t sneak up on the Ravens. But the combination of Vereen and Stevan Ridley need to give the Patriots about 120 yards in the rushing/short passing game to set up bigger things down the field for Tom Brady.
On defense, New England must be aware of Baltimore’s big play potential. Surprisingly, the Ravens lead the NFL in the number of passing plays that covered 30+ yards. Accordingly, the Patriots secondary will need to control the speed of Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on the outside. Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington have to ensure that they don’t fall victim to the double-move, and prevent Smith and Jones from getting a step on them.
T Lamont’s Score: Ravens 27, Patriots 34 – The Ravens’ offense is not going to have problems scoring against the Patriots’ defense. However, New England is simply better prepared to triumph over opponents in offensive showcases – which it appears that this conference matchup will be.
San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons
49ers’ Keys: If you were anything like me, after Colin Kaepernick’s INT that provided the game with its first score, you were thinking to yourself, “uh huh…he ain’t ready for this.” Well, boy, did he prove us wrong. Kaepernick torched the Packers, and set records along the way. The youngster was totally unashamed of his ability to dominate the Green Bay defense with his legs, and it’s hard to see how he would clam up against the Falcons. Atlanta was 24th in the NFL in yards given up per game (356), so the Niners can stick to their pounding offense in hopes of making the Falcons crack as the game goes on.
The Niners are going to have to work overtime to stop Matty Ice and the Atlanta passing attack. Roddy White and Julio Jones are certainly prime suspects for San Fran, but they’d better be careful not to let Tony Gonzalez get into a rhythm. As difficult as it is to believe, Gonzalez remains the cream of the crop when it comes to pass-catching tight ends. He has the ability to win games by working the middle unlike any other mid-range possession receiver.
Falcons’ Keys: Contain Kaepernick. Contain Kaepernick. Contain Kaepernick. I can’t say it enough. Kaepernick’s speed is tremendous, and his long strides rack up yards – and first downs – rather quickly. Atlanta must attempt to make the San Francisco QB beat them with his arm, in hopes that he will make some mistakes.
On offense, Atlanta should consider rotating its big play receivers into (and out of) the slot position. It’s not going to be easy for the Falcons to get separation from the Niners secondary, so they’ll need to create mismatches in their favor. Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers could be important x-factors in this game. A productive day for them could mean that the Falcons will still be playing on Super Bowl Sunday.
T Lamont’s Score: 49ers 27, Falcons 24 – We should see a fiercely competitive game between these teams, and the Falcons are definitely out to prove something. But Jim Harbaugh’s crew is just too tough, and Kaepernick’s confidence is sky high. He has a chance to be the most influential player in Sunday’s game…and as long as his poise doesn’t waver, the Niners could be in a good position to do what they couldn’t a year ago.