Five for Sunday: Patriots know how to keep chains moving
Pat Kirwan goes inside the game to give five keys to watch in Sunday's NFC and AFC championship games.
What the Atlanta Falcons present to the San Francisco 49ers : It's no secret the Falcons took a big risk moving up in the draft in 2011 to take wide receiver Julio Jones when they already had Roddy White . As general manager Thomas Dimitroff told me, "We had a vision for this football team."
The vision has come to fruition and now the only thing in the way of a Super Bowl appearance for the Falcons is a big day from the two big wide receivers and tight end Tony Gonzalez . The big three at home have been tough to beat with 131 receptions, 11 touchdowns and 94 first downs this season.
The Falcons won't go away even if they're behind in the fourth quarter. This year Matt Ryan was as battle-tested as any quarterback in the NFL. With the Falcons trailing this season, Ryan had 184 completions in 269 attempts for 2,208 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Falcons wide receivers are excellent on boundaries with acrobatic catches and are simply bigger than the 49ers' corners and should win their fair share of jump balls.
What the 49ers present to the Falcons: After last weekend no team looks more dangerous than the 49ers. Is this the year a drop-back passer doesn't win the Super Bowl? Colin Kaepernick brings a dimension to the game that really hasn't been seen before.
In two games vs. Cam Newton , the Falcons gave up 202 rushing yards and two touchdowns to the Carolina Panthers QB. Last week Russell Wilson ran seven times for 60 yards and a score. Mike Vick ran for 42 yards in seven carries against the Falcons, which makes the prospects of containing Kaepernick bleak. But the Falcons' record in those games was 3-1, so the Niners better find other ways to move this offense besides their running QB.
For example, the Seattle Seahawks got great production from tight end Zack Miller (eight catches, 142 yards, TD) vs. Atlanta and now the 49ers need to wake the sleeping giant known as Vernon Davis . Atlanta wants to run the ball as much as possible but in their three loses this year they ran 45 times for 146 yards at 3.2 a carry. Niners linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman plan to stuff the run just like the teams that beat Atlanta in the regular season. Sooner or later the Falcons will be a one-dimensional team that has to throw to win.
Flacco and Rice vs. New England: The Ravens in the Joe Flacco / Ray Rice era are 2-3 against the Patriots and it is pretty clear why they win and why they lose to the bad boys from Foxboro. In Flacco's two wins over the Patriots, he was not sacked in 49 pass attempts. In his three loses he was sacked eight times. Can the Patriots apply a pass rush?
As for Rice, it's much of the same when it comes to looking at the wins and losses. Rice was involved in the same two wins as Flacco, rushing 42 times for 260 yards and three touchdowns. In the three loses he rushed 60 times for 258 yards and zero touchdowns. Rice needs to score and Flacco needs to avoid sacks or the Patriots will win again.
Things to remember this weekend:
• The Ravens are the only team Tom Brady has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns against in his career.
• Since Jim Caldwell took over the Ravens' offense, Baltimore has had eight more rushing plays per game, while averaging 2.5 more points and 88 more yards.
• Flacco is 7-4 in playoff games with one interception in the wins and seven picks in the losses.
• The last time the Ravens played the Patriots, Torrey Smith caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Aqib Talib was not on the Patriots then but he is now and should reduce Smith's production this time around.
• John Harbaugh is one of three coaches to reach the postseason in each of his first five seasons. The other two were Chuck Knox and Bill Cowher. Neither coach won a Super Bowl in those five seasons.
• If Brady throws for 227 yards and five touchdowns he will have the most postseason yards and TD passes in NFL history.
• The 49ers haven't won a road playoff game since January 1989 and are 2-9 overall in road playoff games. Kaepernick was two years old and Aldon Smith was eight months old the last time the Niners won a road playoff game.
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