I am often asked my opinion on things that involve football. The questions range from how to find which player position best suits a child to who I think will win the Super Bowl, and pretty much everything in between. I have many thoughts on the game, on coaching, and on improving performance, so I am starting Passing Thoughts to share some of those thoughts. I welcome your comments and conversation. –KR

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Things to Watch in the NFL Playoffs

There has been some great football in the NFL playoffs so far, and the Conference Championship games should continue the playoff excitement! These are a few things to watch for in the games this weekend:

San Francisco at Atlanta:

Both of these teams have worked to overcome media obstacles this season. San Francisco has been continually answering the question of whether their QB switch was the correct move or not. Colin Kaepernick clearly showed last weekend that Coach Harbaugh made the right decision in his selection. In that game, Kap became only the second player in NFL history to rush and pass for more than 150 yards in a playoff game.

Atlanta was saddled with the reputation of facing extreme difficulty in winning their first round game. This game looked to be the same as previous years when the Falcons were losing with less than a minute left in the game. This time around however, Matt Ryan was able to lead the team into field goal position with three long completions, and they made a game winning field goal with six seconds left.

So with those obstacles aside, what will we see in this game? Both teams bring a very physical style of play, but have very different styles of offense and defense. San Francisco relies on pressure from their defensive line, while LB’s Bowman and Willis make all the tackles. Atlanta will try to create pressure by disguising their looks and bringing different blitz schemes at Kap. Offensively, San Francisco relies on a balanced attack of run and pass, but they include their extremely athletic QB in the run game. Atlanta will include a balanced attack but will not feature Matt Ryan as a runner. Atlanta will look to stretch the field a little bit more with their star WR’s Jones and White. Both teams have all league TE’s in Gonzalez for Atlanta and Davis for San Francisco. These two players are the security blankets for the QB when they get into trouble.

San Francisco is favored, but they have three major elements to overcome. First: Travel. The trip from west coast to east coast will take a toll, and this is an advantage for Atlanta. Second: Visiting team. Atlanta has a very loud atmosphere inside their dome, and San Francisco makes a lot of their offensive calls at the line of scrimmage. Third: Underrated opponent. They are facing a very athletic, talented team. Atlanta is a team that has really flown under the radar this season, which is odd to say for a team that has the best record in football. Atlanta has the tools offensively and defensively to cause havoc for the 49ers.

Baltimore at New England

I believe the spread is more than nine points, which is absurd for a Divisional Championship game. We are seeing Tom Brady, one of the greatest offensive players of all time vs. Ray Lewis, one of the greatest defensive players of all time. Everyone is focused on these two players, but the really interesting matchup is going to be New England’s much improved defense vs Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, and the Ravens' new look offense. Baltimore fired their offensive coordinator during week 15 of the NFL season, and the team seems to really be responding.  That will make for some interesting football!

New England just lost star TE Rob Gronkowski for a second time, and we will see the effects against a veteran-led Ravens defense that played very well against Denver. New England does a great job of answering the call and has done an excellent job of instilling a run game in their offense this year. That run game has allowed Tom Brady to unleash one of his strengths--a play action passing attack. Look for New England to try to open the run with the short passing game, establish their run game, then try to finish the Ravens off with the play action pass.

Baltimore is trying to rally around their emotional leader on his last run at a Super Bowl title. Ray Lewis came back from injury and announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. Since this announcement, the Ravens have beaten a solid Colts team and upset the #1 seed Broncos at Denver. Baltimore was able to get the win with a solid defensive performance and some huge plays from Flacco to Torrey Smith. Baltimore struggled in their special teams vs Denver, allowing a kickoff return for TD, and a punt return for a TD. Facing New England, Baltimore will have to be clicking on all cylinders. If Baltimore hopes to win, they need Ray Rice to have a great game, they need other players to step up and make big plays, and they need their special teams to be EXCELLENT.

The Divisional Championships should give us another great weekend of NFL football! Looking forward to some excellent matchups and prime performances. Nothing better than playoff time in football...enjoy!

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