NFL Debrief: Sorting out championship weekend


Did we learn anything from the conference championships this weekend?

Harbaugh, Harbaugh, Harbaugh. Hope you're ready for the most brother-against-brother talk our country has had to endure since the Civil War, or at least that time "The Blue and the Gray" miniseries was on network television. We have two full weeks of Super Bowl talk ahead of us, so let's pace ourselves, find and fill every last niche we can and get ready for what should be one of the more exciting big games in recent memory.

Of course, we wouldn't be talking about all this fraternal violence without Sunday's conference championship games, so let's start our morning there.


Do not despair, people of Atlanta and Boston. Getting to the Super Bowl is a strange mix of planning and chance. All four of the franchises in the mix this weekend boast smart front offices and capable coaches that have built teams capable of posting winning records year after year. Making it to the playoffs with that kind of regularity is no fluke.

Unfortunately, winning a single game here and there, including in the playoffs, often requires a good bounce or two. The Patriots had some karma at the start of the current dynasty with the tuck rule game, for example. The 49ers know the "Any Given Sunday" principle as well as any team, having tied and lost to the St. Louis Rams during the regular season.

However, cosmic randomness does not let a team off the hook for its mistakes.

Atlanta, we have a problem

Two weeks, two games, two blown leads. That's what folks in the scientific community call a trend, and it's not a favorable one for the Falcons. Atlanta failed to add a single point in the second half of the NFC Championship, after scoring 24 points in the first two quarters.

The 49ers scored on the opening possession of the second half, when Frank Gore ran around the right end of the formation and into the end zone. The Falcons responded with a six-play drive that ended with a Matt Ryan interception, but Atlanta got a break when Niners kicker David Akers hit the upright and missed a field goal opportunity. That drive ended with an unforced error by Ryan, a fumble that's going to get him a ton of heat in the off-season.

Lost opportunities were abundant for the Falcons in the third and fourth quarter, on both sides of the ball. The defense held San Francisco scoreless with negative yardage in the first quarter. It all started to come unraveled in the second. Atlanta had no answer for Vernon Davis, and the 49ers offense seized the opportunity.

Mike Smith and his staff are going to have to spend some time soul searching in the off-season, finding answers for why, after five years, they still haven't made it past the conference championships despite four playoff appearances during that time.



Tom Brady will be 36 next season. His statistics in his 30s are as good, probably better, than his numbers from his 20s, but there's no denying that he's on the wrong side of the age equation in the NFL.

Brady was not at his best in Sunday's game with two interceptions and just one touchdown. That might not have anything to do with his advanced years. The Ravens have always had Brady's number. He has thrown 10 picks and just eight touchdowns against Baltimore.

The best comparison, the best hope for Brady at this point in his career is John Elway. He led the Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl wins at the ages of 37 and 38, his last two seasons in the league, before calling it quits. New England has as good a chance at getting back to the Super Bowl as any team, but it's clear Brady's window is closing.


Critical loss

The most important player on the Patriots just might have been Aqib Talib. Baltimore had a much better second half after Talib was sidelined with a thigh injury. Flacco was 6-for-12 with 81 yards in the first half. He was 15-for-24 with 159 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.

The Talib trade in October probably made the difference for the Patriots getting as far into the postseason as they did. Last year, the Patriots nearly bluffed their way to a Lombardi Trophy with one of the league's worst secondaries, overwhelming opponents with touchdowns instead. They fell short last year against the Giants and again this year to the Ravens. The sub-par Patriots defense for two years running makes you wonder if cracks in the foundation don't run a little deeper below the surface in New England.


Defense wins something, something

For all the talk pistol offenses are getting this year, let's not overlook what the two Super Bowl entrants have in common -- hard-hitting, stifling defenses that take away the run as well as they do the pass. In other words, both the 49ers and the Ravens each have two pretty complete defensive units.

Baltimore's stats for the season don't look particularly impressive, but there's a lesson in there about team health. The Ravens suffered a long list of injuries, including to stalwarts like Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis. It's a testament to John Harbaugh and the front office that the Ravens still managed to win 10 games during the season.

San Francisco's defense is stacked with Pro Bowl-caliber players at almost every position. The Ravens are the only other team in the league with a front seven as loaded as the one that includes Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith.


Almost elite

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the fact that the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco, aren't exactly household names. At least, not yet anyway. Meanwhile, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning are all watching the Super Bowl from someplace other than the field.

The elite quarterback debate will rage for a few days this week and probably fire up again next week as players and coaches march to the podium in New Orleans. And you can imagine the purists will be having a fit with the pistol offense making a Super Bowl appearance, too.

Ignore it. Let the cornballs on "First Take" debate cornball issues. The bottom line is that Flacco and his counterpart both played outstanding football this month and earned the right to be here. I don't know what makes a quarterback elite and neither do you, because there is no simple answer. Neither one of these guys is just a Trent Dilfer placeholder type, as they both played big parts in delivering their teams this opportunity. Enjoy it.


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