The Case of the New England Patriots
Of the four, this team has the weakest “Team of Destiny” case, but there are two major factors in their favor that they haven’t had in their recent Super Bowl runs:
1) NO Eli Manning this year
2) NO Peyton Manning this year
That’s right…as I indicated in my post last weekend, their road got a lot easier with their 2 main “nemeses” (plural) out of the action. No David Tyree helmet/stickum catch coming. No Amhad Bradshaw “backing in” either. The 2012 Patriots, if memory serves, are the third-highest scoring team in the regular season in history, so they have the usual firepower although they lost TE Rob Gronkowski as he re-broke that arm. However, they spent much of the season without him in the first place. They’ve also added enough defense in the draft, plus CB Aqib Talib, to slow opponents’ offense perhaps just enough to be a factor in a shootout. Pats’ fans probably see the stars beginning to align in their favor, and for good reason.
The Case for the Baltimore Ravens
This team has the most emotional impulse for their stretch run as their beloved team leader, Ray Lewis, had announced about 6 weeks ago that he’d retire at the end of the season. He has always been the leader of the team – not Flacco – and is a sure-fire future Hall of Famer. For good measure, he had 17 tackles against the Broncos, and we’ve seen what emotion can do for a team: Look at how the Indianapolis Colts responded, with their VERY young team, to their own Head Coach’s battle with cancer. The Colts were thought to be a 2-14, 4-12-ish team in their first year post-Manning, but found some Luck on their way to a playoff run of their own.
Furthermore, they tied the Denver Broncos with a highly improbable 70-yard TD pass with 30 seconds left in the game and down by 7. Call it a Bronco defensive breakdown if you wish – it really was the defensive back badly mistiming his leap for an apparent interception that did it – but in that situation I think I’d have played a deep quarters (4-deep zone) and told those 4 deep players just to not let anyone get behind them. Somehow, it all came together and makes you wonder if this isn’t a Team of Destiny now.
The Case for the Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are as much a mystery as anyone this year. They got their top seed in the NFC by winning a few games that looked like they most certainly should have lost (recall the first Carolina game??) but pulled out enough wins to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now that “Matty Ice” won his first playoff game in 4 or 5 attempts and actually has now earned that nickname, they’re going to be a tough opponent for the Niners to face on the road.
“Matty Ice” is 34-6 in the Georgia Dome, which is the second-best home field advantage in the NFL – next to Seattle.
Speaking of Seattle, the Falcons defeated them in classic fashion. Up 27-7 in the 4th, they blew the lead and very nearly lost on a missed field goal if not for the Seahawks calling a timeout before the snap. Matt Bryant pushed the long field goal a few feet to the right and if that had stood, the Falcons would have lost 28-27.
You give a veteran kicker a second shot 30 seconds later and he’s made mental adjustments and zeroed in on a better kick, which is exactly what Bryant did. His second kick…the one that actually COUNTED…was the game-winner.
The Case for the San Francisco 49’ers
This team is the one shrouded in mystery the most, and that works in their favor. Since Jim Harbaugh yanked the consistent but low-ceiling Alex Smith in favor of Colin “the Sky’s the Limit” Kaepernick, they’ve transformed their offense from a 3 yards and a cloud of plastic particles of prescription athletic turf to an explosive team that can hit you with a big play at any time. With Colin under center (or in the gun), they’ve completely transformed themselves. The only question mark would be about Kaepernick’s ability to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory with so little experience but he responded to THAT with 181 yards rushing in his first playoff game.
That’s a record for QB rushing yards in a game. Ever. His 257 passing yards, 2 TDs to the finally-producing Michael Crabtree and no turnovers means he accounted for well over 400 yards of total offense. He has the team and the whole Niner Nation energized, rising, and very dangerous to face off against.
Which one will be wearing Cinderalla’s slipper in early February?
We’ll know the answer to that one soon enough.