Conference Championship Round Table
Eight games down and three to go in the NFL Playoffs, we took to the Round Table to discuss the upcoming action.
Which outcome from the Divisional Round weekend surprised you the most?
Lienesch: I think I’d have to say the 49ers. Not that I didn’t think they COULDN’T win, but they absolutely ran the Packers out of town in the second half. That Green Bay team that took the field after halftime looked even worse than the one that got off to the sluggish start at the beginning of the season.
Jon: I’m surprised Atlanta was able to overcome Seattle. Going into the weekend, I probably would have ranked Matt Ryan dead last on a list of QBs who might capably march his team down the field in the waning seconds of their game. Seattle left points on the board twice in the first half, then completely controlled the second half. They appeared to be the better team going into the game and during it, but after several uninspiring second half drives Ryan finally elevated his play to get his team a playoff win. Very surprising.
I’m not surprised that neither of you mentioned Houston getting beaten, because most people probably saw that coming. The Baltimore @ Denver game surprised me a bit. I figured the Broncos would win it decisively – not necessarily in a blowout – and we’d get the showdown between Peyton and Brady again. Would you rather that we were getting the New England vs Denver game instead of Baltimore in the mix?
Jon: I suppose it would have been nice to revisit Manning/Brady, but I’m rather indifferent when it comes to watching the Broncos or the Ravens play. Neither are particularly exciting. The Patriots are so creative on offense that I’d watch them play anyone. At this point, though, I think we have to figure out what storyline we want to hear for two weeks straight leading up to the Super Bowl. I’ll take Ravens and Ray Ray stories over the million I’ve heard about Brady or Manning already. Go Birds.
Lienesch: Why would I want to watch Denver-New England? To watch Tom Brady beat Peyton Manning again? This Broncos team was very good, but they didn’t have an identity. The Patriots and Ravens KNOW who they are. The Broncos in 2012 were the sum of several recently-moved pieces that ended up making a pretty darn competitive team for 16 weeks. But you can’t take regular season success with you into January. Denver learned that the hard way and Atlanta nearly made the same mistake. I would much rather watch the Ravens. This Baltimore team is incredibly fascinating. As the big underdogs still alive, think about this: the Ravens have both nothing and seemingly everything to lose at the same time. IF they can keep winning, they might just be one of the best Super Bowl stories ever.
It’s tough to tell how the two games will play out this weekend, but one things is for certain – there’s enough fire-power on all of the teams to have some high scoring contests again… and that typically involves the passing attacks of the various teams. Out of the four remaining receiving corps, into which I do include running backs who can catch the ball and tight ends to obviously go along with the Wide Receivers… Quarterbacks aside, how do you rank the teams based on their receiving corps weapons?
Lienesch: You talk about strong receiving corps. and people are instinctively talk about Atlanta, and that’s fine, but listen: this Baltimore squad is such a balanced attack. Roddy White and Julio Jones are terrific receivers, but they are practically facsimiles of one another. Baltimore, on the other hand, has a deep threat in Torrey Smith and then a tough, jump-ball possession guy in Anquan Boldin. If you think Boldin can’t contribute like he used to, you clearly haven’t seen the Ravens two playoff games. Then, there’s Ray Rice, who is arguably one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league. The only weakness here is the tight end, but again you shouldn’t necessarily sleep on Dennis Pitta.
Jon: I’d rank them:
ATL – Hard to think of a better group than Roddy, Julio and Tony
NE – Few stars, but everyone plays a role well
BAL – Smith is a budding star, Boldin still has hands of glue, and Rice is the best back out of the 4 teams
SF – VD is a stud, but I don’t trust anyone else
I agree Baltimore is a well balanced attack, but in a vacuum I think Atlanta has two stud WRs and the best TE of all time. Suffice to say, my rankings would be different if the QBs were part of the equation.
Quarterbacks are certainly the biggest stories at this point for each of the teams, and we can get to that in a minute, but aside from the QB position, who are the two guys on each of the four remaining teams who have the potential to make or break their team this weekend?
Lienesch: Aside from the quarterback? Man, that’s a tough one. In New England, I’d say probably Stevan Ridley and Wes Welker. Ridley has been a nightmare for defensive coordinators this year but let’s not forget his ball security problems last postseason. When he fumbled the ball, Belichick benched him. And if they’re down Ridley, that’s a significant disadvantage. With Welker, listen, the guy’s a playmaker, but if you don’t think he choked even in the slightest in that Super Bowl, you don’t know Wes. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t drop balls on Sunday.
Jon: For New England, I’ll go with Logan Mankins and Stevan Ridley. Their offense has become extremely dynamic thanks to the emergence of a dominant running game. If these two can continue to open and take advantage of holes respectively, it’s going to be tough for a not-so-great Baltimore defense to keep the game competitive.
Lienesch: With Baltimore, I’d have to say Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It’s been stated ad nauseum that this isn’t your father’s Baltimore defense. They’re old, and as they’ve aged, they’ve become more susceptible to the big play. If Baltimore is going to have a chance against the Patriots, these two veterans are going to have to play like it was 2005.
Jon: On the flip side, I think Baltimore’s fate can be swayed by Ray Rice and Ray Lewis. Rice must protect the football and grind yards to keep Tom Brady off the field. Similarly, Lewis needs to channel his former self and disrupt New England’s timing wherever possible. He’s lost a step, but greatness has a habit of showing up in big games.
Lienesch:For Atlanta, I’ll say Asante Samuel and Michael Turner. Samuel has been big in these playoffs, and that’s going to have to remain the case against San Francisco. If they let the 49ers score the way the Seahawks did in the second half, they’re not going to be down just one point with 30 seconds left to play, but multiple touchdowns. Michael Turner, on the other side of the ball, has to be something of a pacemaker for that offense. We saw last week how horrible inconsistent they are. Sometimes they’re unstoppable, other times a dummy defense could get them to go three and out. When the passing game sputters, Turner has to become that bulldozer that can fight and claw his way to the necessary yardage.
Jon: Atlanta needs Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez to keep bailing Matt Ryan out. When Atlanta has been dominant, these two guys have been getting first downs.
Lienesch: Finally San Francisco. I’m going to say Michael Crabtree and, in an out-of-the-blue pick, David Akers. Why Akers? Simply put, he was one of the best kickers in the league last year. He was the insurance policy for a budding offense. In the off chance Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have yet another career game, this game is going to be close and the Niners are going to need Akers’ leg. The guy who has struggled at times during this season cannot be the guy who takes the field Sunday. And then there’s Crabtree. Crabtree is a supreme talent, but the problem is between his ears. He’s young and a little bratty. It’s time for Crabtree to grow up and become the dominant receiver San Francisco envisioned him becoming when he was drafted by the organization.
Jon: The 49ers need Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis to dominate as usual. If they disrupt Atlanta early, this game could end up being a blowout quick.
Now we can get to the Quarterbacks… Assuming Tom Brady gets to the Super Bowl this season, what’s his legacy look like if the Patriots lose their third straight appearance?
Jon: I don’t think the first loss to the Giants hurt his legacy much, as he did drive the Patriots to a touchdown to take the lead just before Eli Manning returned the favor to win the game. His performance last year was very pedestrian, which I believe is the genesis of this new line of thought to question his place among the greats. As such, I think it will completely depend on how they lose. If he has costly turnovers, clearly he will take the blame and it will change how we rank him historically. If he loses based on not having the ball last, I can’t fault the guy. Regardless of the outcome, navigating the playoffs to the Super Bowl six times in today’s NFL will be remarkable.
Lienesch: I really don’t think it will factor into his legacy much. Maybe they’ll say he couldn’t get it done once he was past his prime, but who knows, that may be true. The fact of the matter is Tom Brady is right up there in terms of Super Bowl wins and nothing can really change that fact. Or tarnish it.
Joe Flacco took a lot of heat going into last year’s AFC Championship, some from within his own team. How does his legacy hinge on this year’s AFC Championship?
Jon: Not much. His legacy is currently a guy that is pretty good but not great. The only way that changes is if he wins a Super Bowl and we start thinking he’s better than just pretty good.
Lienesch: Jon is right, short of him winning the Super Bowl, he’s unfortunately going to be viewed as the guy that could just never get the job done. Maybe it’s fair, maybe it’s not. That’s just the way it is.
If Colin Kaepernick has a great performance and goes to the Super Bowl, there’s going to be a lot of talk about him for months to come. But if he has a mediocre game without getting injured, maybe has a couple turnovers, not many rushing yards and not much through the air, where does the talk go from here from national sports media?
Lienesch: Barring an absolute disaster, I don’t see one game saying very much about Kaepernick as an athlete. If you go off of one bad game, everyone will point to the Packers game as a counterargument.
Jon: I agree with Lienesch in general. The real question you should have asked is whether a dud by Kaepernick causes the conversation to be about Harbaugh’s decision to bench Alex Smith. I think we’ve seen Kaepernick deserves the job at this point and one game won’t change that.
If Matt Ryan takes the Falcons to the Super Bowl and the Lombardi trophy goes to Atlanta, do people forget all about that “Matty Ice can’t win in the playoffs” stuff just like they did with Peyton Manning? Did all of that talk already go away as the Falcons defeated the Seahawks? Or will he be talked about along the lines of Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer, where the team won in spite of their Quarterback?
Lienesch: Winning makes everything better. Of course the criticism that Matt Ryan can’t win the big games will disappear if he wins a Super Bowl. I don’t think people realize just how hard it is to do that. Tony Romo’s criticism is a lot more credible because he seems to not just win but even struggle in the big games, mightily at times. I don’t know that I’ve seen Matt Ryan struggle. He’s played to the level that I think he is: a second-tier quarterback.
Jon: A Super Bowl makes all talk fade. As a Saints fan, I witnessed my team go from hapless losers to the evil empire. The Falcons would similarly stop being a joke and start being a target.
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