We're down to the final four teams. The conference championships take place this Sunday as the Ravens travel to New England to battle the Patriots and the 49ers take their gold rush east to Atlanta where they square off against the #1 ranked Falcons.
The Niners and Pats are both favorites to win their respective games. Vegas doesn't just a pick a number and say that they think a certain team will win by that much over the other. So when the bookmakers create these lines, they do it with the purpose to initiate even betting. But Sin City knows as well as we do that football comes down to match ups. They deviate the strengths and weaknesses of each team and make predictions based off their research.
When I do my own research, I like to look at individual match ups and what units match up well against one another. For example, the Falcons haven't been that stout against the run this year. The 49ers run the ball well and play solid defense. Therefore, despite San Francisco having to travel across country and play a relatively early game, Las Vegas has made the 49ers a 4 point favorite.
I am going to break down these individual match ups in my next article but for now I wanted to highlight the best units out of the 4 teams left in the playoffs:
Receiving: Falcons - All year long Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez have proven to be the best group of pass catchers in the league. Jones made the Pro Bowl, White should have and Gonzalez may be the best Tight End in NFL history. Great receivers usually have a great QB and Matt Ryan is certainly turning into that. His receivers are big and physical and their young stud Jones has incredible speed while Roddy White is precise in his rout running and Gonzalez could have the best hands in league history. Not only would I rather have this group of receivers out of the remaining 4 teams in the playoffs, but I would take them over any team in the entire league.
Defense - 49ers: They've said for years that playoff football is built around running the ball and playing tough defense. The main reasons for this is because a running game and defense travel anywhere, meaning a team really doesn't need to change their style of play based on weather factors. Many would have argued that the Seahawks had the best defense left in the post season but their opponent from last week put up 30 points on them. We'll see how that same opponent plays against the Niners defense when the Falcons host the 49ers in Atlanta this Sunday. San Francisco's defense has been among the leagues best all season long. They were ranked in the top 5 against the run and pass so go ahead and pick your poison Mike Smith. If the 49ers were able to shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense, then I'm sure the Niners can do the same thing to Atlanta with similar success.
Special Teams - Ravens: For those of you who have forgotten, there is a third unit on a football team that's every bit as important as the offense and defense. That group is called "Special Teams." The special teams unit plays many significant roles in the outcome of a game. We have fumbled punts and kick returns, and we have punts and kickoffs returned for touchdowns. Even something as simple as a 40 yard kick return puts your offense in great field position. Sometimes a game is won and lost by the battle for field position when two evenly matched teams are squaring off. Don't discredit the kickers in this game either. I mean it is called football after all. Kickers and punters help determine field position and can win or lose a game for you with a made or missed field goal as time expires.
The best special teams group left in these playoffs are without a doubt the Baltimore Ravens. One of the main reasons is Jacoby Jones and his ability to break a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. The Ravens ST led the league in kick return yards while returning 2 for touchdowns. They also led the league in yards per return at 27. They have a fantastic young kicker named Justin Tucker who kicked 30 out of 33 attempts good for three points including his game winner in the 2nd overtime in Denver last week. If the Ravens are to beat the Patriots then be on the lookout for some solid contributions from the special teams unit.
Head Coach - Patriots: I must say that all 4 of the remaining coaches in the playoffs are each great in their own way. Mike Smith has taken his Falcons to the playoffs 4 of 5 years and earning the top seed twice. While the Ravens never earned the #1 rank, they have gone to the playoffs all 5 years under coach John Harbaugh, each time getting at least one victory with this being his 3rd AFC title game. His brother Jim has gone to back to back NFC championship games in his first 2 seasons as a head coach in the NFL. His transition from being a great college coach has transferred over extremely well to the pro ranks.
With all that being said I would still take coach Bill Belichick over any other head coach in the league. He has an unbelievable resume. Unlike players in this league, coaches don't lose their God given abilities so quickly. As a matter of a fact coaches usually get better with age. Belichick has won 3 Super Bowls while appearing in 2 others. He coached the only team to reach 16 regular season wins. He won his first 3 Super Bowls using defense as his main weapon. Now almost ten years later he continues to progress and change with the game by emphasizing his offensive unit more. Outside of New England, there aren't too many fans of coach Belichick. Spy Gate didn't sit that well with most people and I understand that. But since that event he proved his naysayers wrong by reaching 2 more Super Bowls, continuously winning his division and coaching a team that sets offensive records almost every season. Oh, and his players love playing for him. He'll have a job there as long as he wants.