The Falcons have made a habit of coming through in the clutch this season, but their magic finally ran out Sunday afternoon when a Matt Ryan pass to Roddy White fell incomplete on fourth down. The 49ers' superior defense came up big at the very end, and that's why they're going to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco's stop unit looked terrible early on, however. Ryan made throws of 13, 16 and 46 yards on the opening drive. He also converted a 3rd-and-10 on the second possession with a 27-yarder. Julio Jones accumulated 100 receiving yards two-thirds of the way through the first quarter. At the end of the period, the Falcons had the 49ers outgained, 182 to minus-2.
It looked like the Falcons, ahead 17-0, would be able to run away with this contest, but as Joe Buck warned, Atlanta was up 20-0 last week and managed to blow the lead. That happened again, as Colin Kaepernick was unstoppable in the second half, going 7-of-9 for 134 yards after the break. Kaepernick didn't have the unbelievable statistical performance he posted last week, but he did a great job of leading the 49ers back after a sluggish start. He finished 16-of-21 for 233 yards and a touchdown. He did most of his work aerially, rushing just twice for 21 yards.
Kaepernick needs to improve his clock management. He was guilty of two delay-of-game infractions in this contest, including one that allowed Ryan to have a last-second Hail Mary attempt. Kaepernick was also nearly intercepted once in the first quarter.
The 49ers didn't utilize as much read-option as they did last week, probably because the Falcons mostly utilize a zone defense. They still did some of it, and both Frank Gore and LaMichael James benefitted; Gore gained 90 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, while James tallied 34 yards and a score on five attempts.
Kaepernick's lone score went to Vernon Davis (5-106). Michael Crabtree, meanwhile, had a miserable performance, possibly because he was distracted by being investigated for sexual assault. He caught six passes for 57 yards, but he lost a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line. He also missed out on a touchdown because he couldn't stay inbounds.
One glaring concern for the 49ers is David Akers. In his only attempt, he doinked a 38-yarder off the left upright. He then sulked on the sideline. If Super Bowl XLVII comes down to a field goal, San Francisco fans can't like their team's chances.
As for the Falcons, Ryan went 22-of-31 for 317 yards and three touchdowns, but two costly turnovers ruined the Falcons' chances. He tossed an interception right to Chris Culliver and lost a fumble during a botched snap. Ryan wasn't as good in the second half, going just 12-of-18 for 125 yards, one pick and the lost fumble following the break. He suffered a shoulder injury on the final real drive for the Falcons, which nullified his chances of attempting a Hail Mary.
Ryan threw exclusively to only three players; in fact, a fourth target (Harry Douglas) finally caught a pass when there were seven minutes remaining in regulation. Jones (11-182, 2 TDs), White (7-100) and Tony Gonzalez (8-78, TD) dominated the stat sheet.
As expected, Michael Turner (8-30) and Jacquizz Rodgers (10-32) didn't run nearly as well as they did last week, though the latter had one carry in which he dragged San Francisco defenders for nine yards. The 49ers had a top-ranked ground defense coming into the playoffs, while the Seahawks were just too banged up to stop anything.
Ravens 28, Patriots 13
NFL teams don't like to blame losses on injuries, but three key Patriot players got hurt in the AFC Championship, which greatly impacted the result of the game.
The first Patriot to go down was Aqib Talib. The mid-season signing had great coverage on Anquan Boldin early on, and that's why Joe Flacco began the contest just 1-of-6. Talib grabbed his hamstring after an incompletion and then headed to the locker room. He returned to the sidelines, but never saw the field again. Later in the first half, safety Patrick Chung was knocked out after Baltimore's first touchdown.
Talib and Chung being out made life extremely easy for Flacco, who finished 21-of-36 for 240 yards and three touchdowns. He was 20-of-30 for 223 yards following that slow start, hitting so many key throws. It seemed like Bill Belichick had a great game plan in place for stopping Flacco, but that was thrown out the window when two starters in his secondary went down.
The third injury was to Stevan Ridley, who was knocked out with a concussion during a fierce Bernard Pollard hit. Ridley (18 carries, 70 yards) simply collapsed and lost control of the football as a consequence. The Ravens pounced on it and would go on to score a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
By the way, how happy will Patriot fans be when Pollard retires? He's already been responsible for tearing the ACLs of Tom Brady and Wes Welker, and he also caused an injury to Rob Gronkowski last year. Now, Ridley was victimized. He's a monster.
The injuries were just one of the two main storylines. The second was the ineptness of Brady. He was just extremely off in this contest. He missed open receivers all evening, whether it was via overthrows or short hops in front of them. Brady was especially bad in the second half, going 15-of-30 for 181 yards and two interceptions.
Brady's overall numbers weren't bad - 29-of-54, 320 yards, one touchdown and the picks - but he made several uncharacteristic mental mistakes outside of the poor throws. He squandered an opportunity to get into the end zone at the end of the first half when he was too hesitant to take a timeout as the clock was running out. There was finally a stoppage with four seconds remaining, so New England had to settle for a field goal.
I also don't understand why Brady refused to run on a key fourth down in the final quarter. All he had to do was outrun Haloti Ngata for four yards on a 4th-and-4, but he instead skipped a weak throw to no one in particular. It's almost as if he quit.
Brady didn't seem pleased with Brandon Lloyd in this contest. He gave the receiver dirty looks on two incompletions, though Lloyd still finished with seven grabs for 70 yards, which included some impressive diving catches. Wes Welker (8-117, TD) and Aaron Hernandez (9-83) led the way for the Patriots.
As for the Raven receivers, Boldin scored twice, as he finished with five receptions for 60 yards. He humorously stood over Devin McCourty, pointed at him and laughed following one of the touchdowns. Dennis Pitta (5-55) had the other touchdown. Torrey Smith finished with four grabs for 69 yards.
The Ravens ran the ball on first down on nearly every series in the first half. It wasn't very effective at first, but they eventually wore the Patriots down. Ray Rice had 48 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, while Bernard Pierce finished with 52 yards on just nine attempts.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.