It sure isn't what we expected.
Those feisty old Baltimore Ravens just wouldn't say die in Denver. So here they are, one win away from the Super Bowl, again, playing in New England, again, against a team favored to beat them, again.
No one expected John Harbaugh's club to roll, other than rolling over for the top-seeded Broncos. Meanwhile, a lot of people expected the Atlanta Falcons to be one-and-done over in the NFC. Nonetheless, two clubs that haven't received a ton of respect this season -- Baltimore and Atlanta -- are part of the NFL's final four, playing for a trip to Super Bowl XLVII.
Putting Stagger McTipsy's Caliendo Madden logic aside, and before we get to my picks, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that one of the conference championship games will not feature a No. 1 seed, which has become quite the trend: a top seed has been eliminated prior to Championship Sunday every year but one since 2006.
So, how will the remaining top seed fare in the Georgia Dome? Below are my picks. Feel free to distribute your dissent at the usual place: @Harrison_NFL.
Elliot Harrison went 1-3 in the divisional round, giving him a 145-70-1 record since taking over this space in Week 4. How will he fare on Championship Sunday? His picks are below, with home teams listed second:
Seeing a high-scoring second half in this one, but only after both teams feel each other out in the first 30 minutes. Call it 10-3 or 10-7 Niners in the opening stanza. Both of these clubs are proficient at making halftime adjustments,
Seattle's comeback in Atlanta last week aside. Take a look at the top teams in second-half scoring differential this season:
1. Broncos: plus-161
2. Patriots: plus-81
3. 49ers: plus-77
4. Seahawks: plus-76
5. Bears: plus-64
6. Packers: plus-59
7. Falcons: plus-58
Although Atlanta is "only" seventh, when you laser in on the fourth quarter alone, they're fifth. If we were to nitpick the Falcons, the only problem they've had in this area is getting off to slow offensive starts in the third quarter. With the wide-open offense they've showcased this season, that could be attributable to taking that extended halftime break, i.e., losing their mojo. They've been good enough to overcome that all season, though, including last week in the divisional round.
Mike Smith's club also has been a good enough team to overcome some cruddy run defense; Atlanta allowed 4.8 yards per carry during the regular season, ranking 29th. The 49ers just racked up 323 yards rushing last weekend, and no, that wasn't all Colin Kaepernick, although he put up 181 by himself. With John Abraham ailing, the Falcons are going to have an even harder time setting the edge defensively. Abraham is more of a pass rusher at this point in his career, but he's a smart player, and that's precisely what Green Bay lacked last Saturday -- football IQ -- when it came to stopping the read option (or any other phase of Greg Roman's offensive attack, for that matter). Moreover, Atlanta linebackers and safeties got destroyed in zone coverage by Seattle pass catchers Zach Miller and Golden Tate.
Maybe Matt Ryan can overcome all this with a wicked showing in the fourth quarter. He and tight end Tony Gonzalez did it last week, and have some of the best chemistry I've ever seen between a quarterback and tight end. But I worry about San Francisco tight ends Vernon Davis (who's been quiet) and Delanie Walker -- along with receiver Michael Crabtree -- doing the same thing the Seahawks did in their second-half comeback. That might be too much for Matty Ice this time around. #SFvsATL
Both conference champions get to 30 on Sunday. That doesn't mean the
Ravens will have a bad day defensively; it's more a recognition of how the
Patriots are able to run 70 plays with no problem. Their high-octane offense will be a little much for some of the 30-somethings on Dean Pees'
Ravens defense. What could those veteran guys do to steal this AFC title bout -- on the road, no less?
Let's start with one guy, or one question: Where was Ed Reed last Saturday? He must ball out for Baltimore to have a shot. Bait Tom Brady into a bad decision to give Joe Flacco a short field -- something that would also force Brady to check down more often. Brady won't have mismatch nightmare Rob Gronkowski at his disposal, and another short-field weapon, Danny Woodhead, is questionable. Aaron Hernandez is generally productive, but he has been known to drop some passes in traffic. The less gimmes, the harder Brady and his fast-track offense must work. The more work, the harder it is to score touchdowns. The logic being that, eventually, they won't convert a third down.
A big turnover or two in the first half can turn this into the Ravens' perfect scenario: get an easy score off a takeaway, run Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce 35 times and unleash the deep balls that Flacco delivers nicely off play action. New England gave up 74 passes of 20-plus yards this season. Guess what? That was the most in the NFL, 14 more than the next-closest team (Miami). You can bet the Pats secondary got a lesson in Rahim Moore, I mean, a lesson in playing center field. All this might mean Flacco finds Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta open on underneath stuff, because the Pats will do everything to plug the leak back deep.
Offensively, I anticipate the Patriots will run the football. Counting the playoffs, the Baltimore defense has allowed 2,242 yards rushing this season. New England has scored the most rushing touchdowns this season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will exercise the running option without slowing the game down. No catching of breath, Ray Lewis.
That's where I think this AFC championship will reside: in the bellies of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Brady makes his money off free plays against an unsettled, sick-of-the-hurry-up defense, and the Pats win. #BALvsNE
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.