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Divisional Judgements: Ravens like chances, Falcons in trouble

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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There's a reason Baltimore likes its chances against the Patriots. The Ravens remember what happened last year, and what happened is that Flacco outplayed Brady in the conference championship game and would've led the Ravens to the Super Bowl if Lee Evans held on to a touchdown pass or Billy Cundiff didn't blow a game-tying field goal. They also know they rallied from nine points down on them earlier this year and hung the first home playoff loss ever on Brady in the 2009 playoffs. "It's definitely hard to take that loss," wide receiver Torrey Smith said of the Ravens' 2011 setback. "But everything happens for a reason. If we make those plays we're not talking about this. We know what it's like to be there. We just need to make the plays. But we definitely believe. You don't go into anything expecting to fail. That's the way we are. We believe in ourselves, and we've been working hard for it."

2. Not long after Saturday's victory, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis acknowledged Peyton Manning for what he is -- a marvelous quarterback. "He's probably the greatest of all time," Lewis said. Question: So where does that leave Tom Brady, Ray?

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3. The big winner of that Atlanta-Seattle game? San Francisco. There's no way the 49ers wanted to meet Seattle again, and, OK, so they're 1-2 in domes this year and quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 2-2 on the road. Big deal. Tell me the 49ers didn't watch Russell Wilson shred the Falcons in the second half and salivate. Atlanta didn't have an answer for Wilson. I don't see how they have one for Kaepernick.

4. The Falcons couldn't cover tight end Zach Miller, either. So how do they cover Vernon Davis?

5. Matt Ryan can exhale. He finally won a playoff game. But don't tell me he and the Falcons didn't gag in the second half. They blew a 20-point lead in one quarter. And what was with that fourth-quarter interception? Ryan redeemed himself on that last drive, but I still don't trust the guy ... especially against that 49ers' defense.

6. I'll tell you why I like San Francisco in next week's NFC championship game: Defense. The last two Super Bowls proved that defense matters, and the 49ers are superior -- far superior -- on that side of the ball. There is no way Michael Turner dissects them as he did Seattle, which means Ryan must beat them ... and good luck.

7. Two more teams are going to interview Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, and here's one question I wish they'd ask: If we play Atlanta, you think you might have someone cover Tony Gonzalez?

8. I don't care what happens next. Joe Flacco -- with seven touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 110.46 in his last three playoff games -- just made himself a chunk of money.

9. I look at what Atlanta did in the last 31 seconds of the fourth quarter and wonder why Denver couldn't try the same thing with 31 seconds left Saturday. The Broncos didn't even try. They had two of their timeouts, yet chose to take a knee and go to overtime. Huh? "The thinking was with 30 seconds it's hard to go the length of the field," said coach John Fox. But they didn't have to, and Atlanta just proved it. Plus, isn't that why Denver signed Peyton Manning, for moments like this?

10. Look, Manning had a remarkable season and may pick up his fifth MVP award in a few weeks. But consider this: The guy is 9-11 in the playoffs, and in eight of his 12 playoff appearances he bowed out after one game. He also committed three turnovers vs. Baltimore that the Ravens turned into 17 points -- including the game-winning field goal.

11. With that loss, Denver has one more playoff victory with Tim Tebow than it does Manning. Just saying.

12. Now I know what I give Russell Wilson next Christmas: A watch.

13. If I'm Denver's Rahim Moore, I enter the Witness Protection Program.

14. One more New England victory, and we're talking Joe Montana and Brady again.

15. If you want to go back to college, I suggest you contact Philadelphia owner Jeff Lurie. One conversation should do the trick.

16. I think we just witnessed the beginning of the end for Champ Bailey. It's not just that he was beaten by Torrey Smith. It was that he was beaten again ... and again ... and again.

17. I don't know who should feel better about Monte Kiffin taking over as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator -- Dallas or USC.

18. The last time I saw anyone named Vereen perform that well it was in "Godspell."

19. With Tom Telesco in as the new San Diego GM, you'd think Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians would be a lock as the Bolts' next head coach. But I wouldn't undersell Ken Whisenhunt. I can't believe nobody's hired the guy, and the San Diego media is pushing for him.

20. I have a feeling this is the year Bill Parcells makes it to the Hall of Fame.

Five things I like

1. A Harbaugh-Harbaugh Super Bowl. With Seattle eliminated, I like San Francisco's chances of getting there, and I wouldn't discount Baltimore. The Ravens believe they're destined to reach the Super Bowl, and after what happened to them with Rahim Moore I'm not so sure they're not right.

2. New England's hurry-up offense. More than once, the Patriots lined up before Houston was set -- including both plays that sprung Shane Vereen for touchdowns. You'd think the Texans would have been prepared for it. They weren't.

3. Tony Gonzalez's concentration. Look at that first touchdown catch, and you know what I'm talking about. Great hands, better feet. I bet this guy can walk and chew gum at the same time.

4. Marc Trestman finally getting attention. Trestman is the head coach of the CFL Montreal Alouettes, and he has a record of success there. He also has a record of success as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. Cleveland interviewed him for its head-coach opening, and so did the Bears, and hallelujah. That's thinking outside the box, and it's about time. I just wish Buffalo had thought to bring the guy in.

5. Baltimore's offensive line. It's a different group with Jah Reid out, but it looks like a better group. All I know is that Denver didn't sack Joe Flacco until overtime, and the Broncos had Von Miller and Elvis Dumvervil pushing the edge all afternoon. "I can't say enough about our offensive line," said Flacco, sacked just twice in the playoffs. "They kept those guys off me all day, and that is a good pass-rushing football team." Good? The Broncos tied for the league lead with 52 sacks.

Five things I don't

1. Rob Gronkowski's arm injury. He re-injured that left forearm while reaching for a deep pass, and that's not good -- especially if, as reports suggest, he must undergo surgery and is lost for the rest of the playoffs. Gronkowski is a huge part of the league's best offense, and he will be missed. I know, the Patriots managed when he was sidelined five games this season, but look what happened when he tried to tough it out in Super Bowl XLVI with a high-ankle sprain. The offense was handicapped, and it will be handicapped against a Ravens' defense that is healthy and improved.

2. Marshawn Lynch's hands. That's three fumbles in two games, including two at the goal line. Fortunately for him, officials ruled Sunday's apparent game-winner a score. But his first one led to an Atlanta score, and, yeah, it made a difference.

3. Seattle in a 1 p.m. kickoff. Bad enough the Seahawks have to fly across country for the second time in a week; the NFL schedules them for a 10 a.m. (PST) start. It took Seattle one half to wake up, and tell me that's a coincidence. The Seahawks haven't cried foul, but I will. You telling me the league couldn't have made them the second game Saturday or Sunday? Please.

4. The chances of a wide receiver getting tapped for the Hall of Fame. It's not that Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Andre Reed aren't deserving. It's that they're among the 15 finalists almost every year and don't make it. Reason: They split votes. Until one guy is pushed through as a finalist, they'll continue to split them.

5. Seattle icing Matt Bryant. Pete Carroll called timeout just before Bryant tried a game-winning field goal ... that he pushed wide right. But it didn't count because Carroll signaled for the T.O. So Bryant tried again, and this time he nailed it. At some point, opposing coaches are going to stop this nonsense and just leave kickers alone.

Five guys who have some 'splaining to do

1. Atlanta coach Mike Smith. I understand squibbing a kick with eight seconds left, but an onside that lands near mid-field? You gotta be kidding me. Dumb, dumb, dumb. The Falcons got lucky when Seattle didn't get close enough for a last-second field goal.

2. Houston coach Gary Kubiak. He's the guy who called that deep shot down the field on fourth-and-1 at the Houston 33 -- a pass that fell incomplete. You have Arian Foster in your backfield, and that's your best call? I don't get it, especially when it led to another New England TD.

3. Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. He has one yard to gain a first down, and two chances to get it, yet he doesn't give the ball to Marshawn Lynch? All the guy did was run for 1,590 yards this season. I didn't realize Mike Mularkey was calling plays for Seattle.

4. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. When you have no timeouts, desperately need points and have 13 seconds left in the first half what you can't do is take a sack. Hear me? What you CANNOT do.

5. Denver safety Rahim Moore. I still can't believe what happened to him and the Broncos, and I've seen the replays a zillion times. I mean, how in the world do you let a receiver get behind you when you're playing centerfield? "I just misjudged it," Moore said of Jacoby Jones' 70-yard touchdown pass. "I'm speechless right now. I don't even know what to say." That makes two of us.

Just asking but ...

 Since when did Colin Kaepernick start doing Pizza Hut commercials?

 Is that the end of discount double checks for Aaron Rodgers?

 Which Harbaugh has the better chance of making it to the Super Bowl?

 What's the deal with John Abraham's ankle?

 Um, Dom Capers, got a minute?

Numbers to remember

3 -- Playoff games with at least two Matt Ryan interceptions

4 -- TDs by New England running backs, including three by Shane Vereen

4 -- Straight playoff games with Arian Foster TDs

4-1 -- New England without Rob Gronkowski this season

8-5 -- Baltimore's road playoff record, best in the NFL

10-2 -- Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs

13-10 -- The record of AFC top seeds in the divisional round of the playoffs since 1990

17-6 -- Tom Brady in the playoffs

83-17 -- New England's record at Gillette Stadium, including the playoffs

Weekend's best

Offense: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle. So the Seahawks lost. Don't blame him. The defense flat-out stunk. All Wilson did in the second half was complete 14 of 19 passes for 241 yards, lead the Seahawks to touchdowns on four of six second-half possessions (each of 60 yards or more) and rally his team from a 27-7 deficit to a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left. Wilson wound up with 386 yards passing and the respect of everyone who witnessed his heroics. "He's an amazing football player," said coach Pete Carroll. "I think he proved it again. I can't even imagine how he can get better."

Defense: Corey Graham, CB, Baltimore. He returned one Peyton Manning interception for a touchdown. He had another in overtime, setting up Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal. A special-teams star, Graham was signed away from Chicago this spring after coach John Harbaugh convinced him he would play more regularly on defense. "I knew from the beginning that this was the best decision I ever made in my life," he said. "I showed I deserved to be out there."

Coach: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco. He gambled on Kaepernick at midseason, making the change from Alex Smith after the starter bowed out with a concussion, and he cashed in big with a 45-31 blowout of Green Bay. That doesn't mean Harbaugh is home free. He still must win next weekend. But the 49ers produced 579 yards in offense, with Kaepernick responsible for 444 himself (including 181 yards rushing), and moved on to their second straight conference championship game -- the first time that's happened since the club went to three consecutive NFC title games 1992-94.

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