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End Zone

Conference Championships Stink

Conference Championships Stink
Credit: Kate

Perspective is everything. If you’re just tuning into football now, this year’s conference match-ups look fairly predictable: After all, three of the four teams who squared off last year—the Patriots, the Ravens, and the 49ers—are once again competing for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. But that analysis obscures the Patriots’ 3-3 start, the Ravens’ Week 2 loss to the Eagles and Week 17 loss to the Bengals, and the fact that the 49ers switched quarterbacks partway through the season, improbably benching Alex Smith, who was, at the time, the fifth-ranked QB in the league.

Even missing just last weekend’s games would give you a skewed take on the teams heading into next weekend’s Conference Championships. Take erstwhile backup 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. Since Smith was concussed in Week 10 against the Rams, Kaepernick’s performance has been erratic. There was an impressive 32-7 Monday Night Football victory over the Bears—whose defense was being touted, at the time, as one of the best the NFL had ever seen—during which Kaepernick not only casually racked up 243 passing yards, but also managed to sustain an average of over 10 yards per pass and a completion percentage of almost 70 percent. But there were also embarrassing losses—to the Rams in overtime just two weeks later; to the Seahawks, against whom Kaepernick averaged under seven yards a pass, with a completion percentage of under 53 percent.

In short, no previous start prepared viewers for his on-field antics last Saturday, when he averaged not only about eight and a half yards in the air but also over 11 on the ground. As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell points out, Kaepernick’s 181 rushing yards are not only the most any quarterback has racked up since 1960, they’re the 14th-most accumulated by any player—including, say, running backs—in the postseason, ever.

Or take the Falcons’ comeback against the Seahawks. First the Seahawks—who were down 27-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter—pulled ahead 28-27 with 31 seconds to go, thanks to Marshawn Lynch’s goal line fumble-touchdown.

At this point, I felt pretty confident tuning out. Certainly Matty Ice, 0-3 in the playoffs with two interceptions on the day, wasn’t going to lead a last-ditch drive down to field goal territory. But not only did he manage to do just that, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll also managed to give Falcons kicker Matt Bryant a second chance at winning the game, by calling a timeout just before the snap. Bryant’s first kick went wide; his second was good. Carroll’s desperate attempt to convince the line judge he actually hadn’t called a timeout—not to mention what looked like a furious belt-removal directly after the ball sailed through the uprights—should be enough to convince coaches to stop icing the kicker.

And that wasn’t even necessarily the most exciting divisional match-up this weekend: A strong case could be made for the Broncos-Ravens game that people are now complaining was not described as crazy enough by the CBS commenters. Much maligned Ravens QB Joe Flacco tied the score up in the last 30 seconds of regulation with a 70-yard TD pass that we’re apparently now obliged to call the “Flacco Fling,” and the game eventually ended in double overtime on a Peyton Manning interception—possibly affected by the glove Manning was wearing; his neck injury has caused nerve damage in his throwing hand that gets worse in cold weather—that set up the Ravens’ winning field goal.

In fact, pretty much the only game that went as planed was Patriots-Texans. The Patriots won. Tom Brady looked devastating in a beanie (and also a little bit like Allison Williams?).

As happens so often in the NFL, the usual outcomes were reached via unusual means. This is another reason that team narratives are so difficult to shake: You spend all season obsessing over DVOA and point differentials, but statistics won’t necessarily help even Nate Silver correctly predict who will make it to the Super Bowl. So for this weekend’s picks, I’m going back to my queasy, unreliable gut, a system no better or worse than anyone else’s.

NFC Conference Game: San Francisco at Atlanta

Bill Barnwell is right to assert that the narrative casting Matt Ryan as unreliable in the playoffs won’t die until he wins a Super Bowl, and yes, that makes no sense. But he’s also right to claim that Ryan was outplayed by Russell Wilson; Kaepernick seems capable of doing much the same. After all, even if we’re assuming that Kaepernick is to J.D. McCoy as Alex Smith is to Matt Saracen as Jim Harbaugh is to Eric Taylor, he won’t fall apart until the Super Bowl.

AFC Conference Game: Baltimore at New England

There would be a great deal of poetic justice in a Ravens win: Not only would Ray Lewis’s final season be capped by a Super Bowl, but the team would get to avenge last year’s conference defeat in Foxborough. And who wouldn’t love to see an all-Harbaugh Super Bowl, the 49ers Jim pitted against his brother, Ravens head coach John? What’s more, in troubling news for Patriots fans, be-hickied tight end Rob Gronkowki, who reinjured his forearm early in the Texans game, definitely will not be active on Sunday (though Danny Woodhead, who left with a thumb injury during the same game, may). Still, no matter how well Flacco plays—and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had another banner game; the 2012 Patriots are not known for their robust defense—Tom Brady’s aggressively excited face is very convincing. Almost as convincing as Bill Belichick’s platonically unimpressed reaction to his own team scoring:

That’s a face I expect to see a lot of on Sunday.