The Ravens and Broncos played one of the most thrilling games in the last 20 years. Was this a matter of Baltimore stealing one or Denver blowing it?
Jesse Campigotto: Both. The Ravens' offence stole it from the Broncos' defence, who blew it. The game was all but over with Baltimore trailing by seven with less than a minute left in regulation and facing 3rd-and-3 at its own 30. Then Joe Flacco somehow completes a de facto Hail Mary to Jacoby Jones to send it to overtime, with the Broncos' secondary somehow letting Jones get behind them and somehow failing to bat the ball down in almost comical fashion. Run that play 100 times and I bet Baltimore scores a TD on maybe one or two of them.
Tony Care: Broncos coach John Fox and safety Rahim Moore have a lot of explaining to do this week, but I'm going to give most of the credit to the Ravens' defence. Remember, this unit only allowed 21 points -- the other two touchdowns were due to special teams meltdowns. The key was the amount of pressure the Ravens put on Peyton Manning, specifically up the middle. It was similar pressure that flushed Manning outside the pocket before he attempted the ill-advised, cross-body interception in overtime. The Broncos also had three possessions in the two OT periods, but they never crossed midfield once. Baltimore defensive co-ordinator Dean Pees certainly earned his pay in this one. Jason Davidson: I'm leaning towards a steal here. Talk about a tough day for Champ Bailey in the secondary. One of the league's best at the cornerback position and he struggled immensely on Saturday. The Broncos had the chance to put this game away but they kept allowing Baltimore to stick around. But the shortcomings for Denver weren't all on defence. Late in the first overtime, Manning made the huge mistake of throwing across his body and his intended pass for Brandon Stokley up the middle ended up in the arms of corner back Corey Graham. That essentially sealed the deal right there. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was simply too good for the Green Bay Packers to handle. How far can the 49ers go with Kaepernick playing this dominant?
Jesse Campigotto: Kaepernick is getting all the press (deservedly so after that brilliant performance) but the 49ers were a Super Bowl contender before their win over Green Bay, so I don't think this should change their status that much. The public seems to disagree: San Francisco is a 4.5-point favourite (already bet up from the opening line of 3) for the NFC title game at Atlanta. That's quite the swing from the divisional weekend, where Seattle (a team I consider roughly equal in quality to San Fran) was a 2.5-point underdog at Atlanta. I wonder if the public is crowning Kaepernick and the Niners a little too quickly.
Tony Care: I agree, Jesse. The 49ers were Super Bowl contenders before Kaepernick even took the job from poor Alex Smith, mostly due to that suffocating defence. What Kaepernick adds is a duel threat that takes the burden off a receiving unit which relies too heavily on Michael Crabtree. It seems every week Crabtree catches at least six more balls than Randy Moss or Vernon Davis. If Kaepernick can continue to strike the right balance of passing and running, the 49ers should beat the Falcons on Sunday. Heck, if they play like they did against the Packers, they'll win it all.
Jason Davidson: Sky's the limit I suppose. Kaepernick can run and now there is no doubt that he is the No. 1 guy under centre in San Francisco. Dom Capers and his Green Bay defence had no answer on Saturday night. None. Kaepernick can run the ball and throw it, especially to Crabtree, who had nine receptions, including a pair of touchdown catches. That said, he can still be erratic in the passing department and for that reason, I'm not ready to give the 49ers the NFC crown just yet.
It wasn't easy, but the Atlanta Falcons finally won a playoff game by holding off the stubborn Seattle Seahawks. Does this win get the Falcons over the hump?
Jesse Campigotto: That's the narrative, but if Matt Bryant misses his go-ahead field goal try with seconds left (which he initially did, only to get another chance because Seattle's Pete Carroll did that annoying coaching move of calling a timeout just before the snap in a futile attempt to "ice" Bryant), then we're talking about the Falcons as playoff "chokers" who "can't win the big one." Just shows you how thin a line NFL teams walk , especially in the playoffs. Tony Care: Well, Atlanta got over the hump with the help of Carroll. Wow, when will coaches learn? I'm still not sold on this team. I see a lot of soft coverage over the middle, an area the 49ers should exploit. This game will come down to how well QB Matt Ryan can handle the extra passing load because I don't anticipate Michael Turner or Jacquizz Rodgers doing anything significant on the ground.
Jason Davidson: It's a definite possibility. Once the Seahawks went ahead, we all had the "playoff choker" label painted all over the Georgia Dome. However, Ryan showed some poise on that final drive after making a couple of very questionable passes earlier in the fourth quarter. Yes, they blew a 20-0 lead at halftime, but they recovered and got the win. That momentum will carry into this Sunday when the 49ers come into town. Atlanta's pass defence has to be better, though. They gave up way too many yards in that department. Seattle's Zach Miller and Golden Tate combined for 14 catches and 245 yards. The probable return of John Abraham should help the Falcons' pass rush.
The Patriots easily disposed of the Texans but lost TE Rob Gronkowski, who re-injured the left forearm he broke on Nov. 18, for the remainder of the playoffs. How big of a loss is this for the Patriots?
Jesse Campigotto: I want to say it's big, but the Patriots just waxed the Texans with Gronk out for most of the game, and I think they can take care of Baltimore without him. Much was made heading into this season about New England's unique two-tight-end offence, with the super-athletic Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez creating all kinds of matchup problems for opponents. That lasted about a week, with Hernandez going down with an injury and not returning until Gronk was out of the lineup (save for a two-game stretch in October where Hernandez tried to play but did not seem healthy). Still, the Patriots once again figured out a way to field one of the league's best offences, with an improved running game compensating for the injuries to the tight ends. As if we needed another reason to praise Bill Belichick, the NFL's best head coach showed us once again how good he is at adjusting on the fly. Tony Care: On any other team I'd say it's huge. However, New England has so many weapons that it's the one club which can recover from a devastating injury to one of the NFL's premier offensive talents. Don't get me wrong, losing a guy who's amassed 39 touchdowns in three years is big, especially in the red zone. But with pass catchers Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd -- and throw in running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen while your at it -- in the fold, there are no shortage of targets for Tom Brady play with. That's the beauty of Belichick: he doesn't rely on one guy to carry the burden. As long as No. 12 is under centre, the Patriots can win in any fashion.
Jason Davidson: With all due respect to Gronk, it's not an enormous loss. Hernandez is fully capable of stepping up. He caught six of Brady's passes for 85 yards on Sunday. Hernandez filled the void in the regular season and he'll be able to do it again. New England can more than compensate as far as receiving targets go with Welker, Lloyd and Vereen, who has become more versatile in the backfield. He had five catches and two receiving touchdowns to go along with a rushing TD on Sunday. It's been an impressive ride for Ray Lewis and the Ravens given their injuries, but their season will likely end at Foxborough in the AFC championship game for a second straight year.
Jesse CampigottoJesse Campigotto is a senior writer and editor for CBCSports.ca, which he joined in 2005. He leads the site's Olympic sports coverage, co-hosts the CBCSports.ca Podcast and contributes to the hockey and football sections. Jesse was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ont., and now lives in Toronto.
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