You can sift through a game tape and find all sorts of interesting things, but after watching the Atlanta-San Francisco NFC Championship Game over and over again, three plays stood out.
Of course, the rest of the game impacted it as well. But the three plays I wanted to highlight were huge.
One was Matt Ryan's drop of a good snap as Atlanta was driving toward what could have been a 10-point lead in the third quarter.
|More on NFL|
|Pro Football 360|
|NFL coverage on the go|
This isn't to pin the loss on Ryan. Unlike most, I think he played his ass off. If not for him, the Falcons aren't even in the game. He was calm. He was poised. He was accurate. And, truth be known, he should have had a touchdown pass on that play to Harry Douglas on the final drive. But Douglas fell down. I will show that play a little later.
Ryan threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns on a defense that many felt was impenetrable. That's playing good quarterback. His lone interception came when receiver Roddy White fell down.
But these three plays were huge. They will be three that Ryan and the Falcons see in their sleep for a long time.
We'll look at each of them in order, starting with the fumbled snap.
The Falcons had a second-and-9 at the San Francisco 29. The 49ers showed man-under, two-deep at the snap against a three-receiver look for the Falcons. But the 49ers did something on this play they didn't do much of during the game, which is to shoot the two inside linebackers on a blitz. That left man coverage for safety Dashon Goldson (blue X) on Tony Gonzalez (red circle), who was lined up in the left slot after motioning there. It should have been an easy completion for Ryan as you can see by the first two pictures. But what the third picture shows is Ryan peeked at what appeared to be a free runner in blitzing linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers (white circle) had to get over and block Bowman, which he did, but Ryan looked up for a millisecond and it led to the fumbled snap and a turnover.
The next big play came on the final drive. Facing third-and-4 from the San Francisco 10 with 1:18 left, the Falcons called for a rollout pass to the right. Ryan, you might recall, separated his left, non-throwing, shoulder on the previous play. But he stayed in the game, which you would expect, and ran the rollout to the right and tried to get a pass to White, who ran a short out. White was open, just outside of Carlos Rogers, but Ryan's pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage by outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who did not get blocked by receiver Drew Davis on the play. If Ryan happened to look back to the other side, he might have been able to throw across the field to Gonzalez, who was wide open. It would have been a tough throw, especially with a separated shoulder, but Gonzalez, as you can see by the black circle, would have walked into the end zone.
The fourth-down play was a pass that Ryan tried to fit in to a covered White. On the play, White lined up in the slot inside of Douglas and Julio Jones. On the other side, Gonzalez was lined up across from corner Tarell Brown. White ran an inside crossing route, but he was jammed by Bowman. No flag came, but Bowman clearly mauled him as he tried to get across the field as you can see by the picture below.
I still think if Ryan is healthy, he would have come off White and found Gonzalez (yellow circle) on an inside slant against Brown for a first down and maybe a score if he broke a tackle. Instead Bowman broke up the pass to White and the 49ers were going to the Super Bowl.
There you have it. Three plays. Three huge plays that just might have kept the Atlanta Falcons out of the Super Bowl.
1. Here's a look at the Douglas play on the final drive. I still don't think he caught the ball, but it was tough to overturn. It should have been a moot point. Why? It should have been a touchdown. Here's a look at the play. Douglas was lined up in the slot inside of Julio Jones. The 49ers were in man coverage. At the snap, Jones ran a hard inside route to try and pick Rogers, who was on Douglas (yellow circle). Douglas ran outside of that pick, and Rogers fell down. Douglas was wide open and should have gathered in the pass for a score. The only player between him and the end zone was safety Donte Whitner (blue x). But for some reason, Douglas opened up to the inside instead of continuing to run his route. That forced him to make a dive at the ball to catch it. If he runs through his route, it's a potential touchdown.
2. When Frank Gore ran in from the 9-yard line for a touchdown against the Falcons, the score looked so easy. It was because of the blocking -- not the scheme as some would make you believe. On the play, the 49ers got a great block from right tackle Anthony Davis, who caved in the left side of the Atlanta line, and also a fantastic block from Bruce Miller, who pulled through the hole to take on linebacker Stephen Nicholas. The mistake on the play was made by safety Thomas DeCoud, (black circle) who spent too much time outside on Vernon Davis, rather than coming down for the run. End John Abraham (yellow circle) came up the field, and they ran inside of him. This was to take away a Colin Kaepernick keeper. But without the two blocks, and without the bad play by DeCoud, the run doesn't happen.
3. One of the biggest improvements in the Ravens' defense has been the play of tackle Haloti Ngata. He is considered one of the best inside players in the league -- when he's healthy. He struggled some early this season because of injuries, but in the playoffs he has been much better. His ability to hold up against the run and to get some pressure is a big reason why the Ravens have done such a good job on two high-scoring offenses in the Broncos and Patriots. Terrell Suggs is also starting to round into shape after missing the first half of the season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
4. I love the way the Ravens move around Dennis Pitta to get him into favorable matchups. On one deep shot to him last week, they lined him up in the backfield and he ran a wheel route that should have been a touchdown. He was open, thanks to a pick inside. Later, he lined up in the slot in man coverage with Steve Gregory and faked inside and ran and quick out for a 5-yard touchdown pass. Pitta will be huge against the 49ers.
5. Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin had a field day in the slot against the Patriots. But when he faces the 49ers, it will mean he's matched up against Rogers, the 49ers' best cover player. The 49ers always move Rogers inside in their nickel package, which means he will be on Boldin most of the time. That should help Torrey Smith get favorable matchups outside with Chris Culliver and Brown.