NFL conference championships cheat sheet
Peyton Manning was back in the saddle, looking good in the preseason and donning some sharp new orange threads. Eli Manning was fresh off his second Super Bowl victory in five years, a successful “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig and throwing the ball better than ever in training camp up in Albany.
It was August, the Super Bowl was going to be played in their hometown of New Orleans in February, and it was hard not to at least imagine the madness of a “Manning Bowl” in the Crescent City.
Six months later, we’re down to the NFL’s Final Four, and Peyton and Eli have long been eliminated from the postseason.
But I’m still going with a brother-against-brother Super Bowl.
Yes, I love the road teams on Sunday. Throw the point spreads, the recent history, and the home crowds away.
In Harbaughs, I trust.
As kids, John, Jim and sister Joani Harbaugh lived under their parents’ roof in a two-bedroom home in Iowa City, Iowa. Jack Harbaugh, their father and a longtime football coach himself, used to keep spirits high in the house despite some cramped living quarters. More than just occasionally, he’d gather his three kids around him and ask them a question.
"Who's got it better than us?" Jack would scream with enthusiasm from the driver’s seat of his car or the top of the hill in the family’s backyard.
Jim, John, and Joani would then respond, in unison, with a collective shout of, "No ... body!"
It was the family cheer, the Harbaugh clan motto, and it’s since become a rallying cry for Jim’s San Francisco 49ers. After wins in the locker room, Harbaugh will gather his players together like his father did with his brother and sister so many years before and ask, “Who’s got it better than us?!”
And the 49ers — from grizzled veterans like Justin Smith to enigmatic talents like Randy Moss to young rookies like LaMichael James — respond in unison, “No ... body!”
A win away from the Super Bowl, there is actually one coach and one team that may have it better than Harbaugh’s 49ers.
That’s his older brother, John, and his Baltimore Ravens.
Both teams, bridesmaids but not brides in their respective conference championship games a year ago, return to the big one before the bigger one a year older, a year wiser and far more dangerous on offense than they were in January 2012.
It’s those offenses, long-considered the weaker of the two units for both teams, that have carried the Ravens and 49ers to where they are this weekend.
Make no mistake: The defenses are still legit. But Baltimore and San Francisco did not simply ride Ed Reed and Ray Lewis or Justin Smith and Patrick Willis to conference championship game berths this season. Quite the contrary, in fact. The offenses are leading the way.
It’s the team’s two coaches — bold, unapologetic, and quite different from one another — who are most responsible for the sudden uptick in offensive productivity.
The ballots are in, and the NFL’s Coach of the Year award is likely going to be handed to either Bruce Arians or Pete Carroll in a few weeks. But you can make the argument that no two head coaches made tougher midseason decisions than the brothers Harbaugh.
Jim’s 49ers were rolling, 6-2 on the year, when starting quarterback and former first overall draft pick Alex Smith was knocked out of a game against the Rams with a concussion. Second-year man Colin Kaepernick filled in admirably, notching a tie. He then led the Niners to a dominant 32-7 victory over the Bears.
Smith was medically cleared to play a few days later. He was good to go. He took the team to the NFC Championship Game a season ago. He played flawlessly in nationally televised wins over the Packers and Lions.
But Jim Harbaugh made the move that’d change the team’s 2012 trajectory anyway.
The same guy who’s gotten into it with Mike Ditka, Jim Kelly, Pete Carroll, Jim Schwartz and anyone else who’s ever gotten in his way over his three decades involved in the NFL decided to ride the hot hand and stick with Kaepernick. The 49ers’ narrative was forever altered, right then and there, and following Kaepernick’s record-breaking performance Saturday night against the Packers in the divisional round, it’s difficult to remember that the decision was widely panned by fans and pundits alike.
Hell, go back and check your Twitter timeline a few minutes after Kaepernick threw a first-quarter pick-six last week. The second-guessers, the armchair quarterbacks and the backseat coaches all came out of their social media caves to reconfirm their earlier proclamations.
Kaepernick wasn’t ready. He was the wrong choice.
Sure enough, by the end of the first half, those same doubters were hurrying back to their Twitter feeds to delete and erase all the evidence.
A lesser coach doesn’t have the courage to make that move in Week 12. A lesser man doesn’t even consider it.
But the Kaepernick-over-Smith decision wasn’t even the boldest or toughest one made by a Harbaugh brother this season. Prior to Week 15, already well into the month of December and just two weeks before the holidays, John Harbaugh fired his longtime friend and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Cold? Sure. But it was necessary, and for Ravens fans, Harbaugh’s holiday-time decision has led to wonderful fruits in the new year. With Jim Caldwell now calling the plays, Joe Flacco’s won three of his last four games (he barely played against the Bengals in Week 17) and the offense has looked like a well-oiled machine. Under Cameron, fair or unfair, it was a sputtering mess.
So here we are, a year later, and the Harbaughs — crushed by heartbreaking losses in their respective championship games 12 months ago — are each a win away from facing one another in the Super Bowl.
But these aren’t the same teams we saw in the AFC and NFC championship games in 2012. They’re better. They’re hungrier. They’re more potent offensively.
They’re also being run by better — bolder — head coaches.
If you were craving for a brother-against-brother Super Bowl in New Orleans back in August, I think you’re going to get your wish. The last name just isn’t what you expected.
Who’s got it better than the Harbaugh brothers? Well, Ravens and 49ers fans do. Their teams are in awfully good hands.
Divisional round record: 2-2 (Baltimore and New England picks were right; Green Bay and Seattle picks were wrong)
2012 playoffs record: 5-3
Cheat Sheet trivia question of the week: Last week, Colin Kaepernick joined two other quarterbacks as the only NFL QBs to pass for two and run for two touchdowns in one playoff game. Who were those other quarterbacks?
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
San Francisco at Atlanta: I was happy for Tony Gonzalez, one of the truly great guys in the sport, for getting the first playoff win of his 16-year NFL career last week. But I was even happier for all of the diehard Falcons fans I know who treated the victory like some sort of collective spit in my face. By Monday morning, my email inbox was stuffed with numerous "I told you so" dispatches along with several things and words I can't put in this column.
I’ve been ragging on the Falcons and their mediocre quarterback, their boring head coach and their nonexistent national fanbase for the past three years. Part of that ribbing has been tongue-in-cheek (I actually think Matt Ryan is fantastic), part of it has been real (I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when Mike Smith would outcoach Pete Caroll in a big game) and part of it has been pretty accurate (I’m fairly certain the Falcons fan base cares about NASCAR, the Georgia Bulldogs, the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks, hot dogs at The Varsity, and Buffalo wings at the Taco Mac in the Virginia Highlands more than it cares about its Falcons). Anyway, no surprise here — I think the Falcons' dream season ends Sunday.
Colin Kaepernick has been compared to Randall Cunningham this week, but Randall Cunningham never had a playoff performance like the one the 49ers quarterback put on last weekend. Atlanta’s got the home field, all the momentum, and the all-important “nobody respects us” thing going — all things I usually love in a big game like this — but San Francisco has the kid, the coach and the D. It's a huge game, and I'm picking against the Falcons. Some things never change.
The pick: 49ers 38, Falcons 23
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Baltimore and New England: The guy I was most impressed with in last week’s Patriots dismantling of the Texans wasn’t Tom Brady or Shane Vereen or even Wes Welker. It was Josh McDaniels. As both Brady and Vereen revealed after the win, the original offensive gameplan was built heavily around contributions from Danny Woodhead and Rob Gronkowski. When both players went down with first-quarter injuries, McDaniels didn’t panic or run for the hills.
He reacted and adjusted. He went to Vereen and Stevan Ridley even more than was originally expected and identified mismatches where the Patriots could exploit the Texans' overmatched linebackers. A guy to watch this week? The dude they call “The Hoo-man." Michael Hoomanawanui, a third-year tight end who only caught five balls this season, will play a prominent role in Sunday’s AFC championship game. Hoomanawanui was on the field for 50 of the Patriots’ 66 offensive plays against the Texans and is expected to see even more work against the Ravens. New England’s firing on all cylinders right now, and the shaky first-half efforts against San Francisco and Jacksonville in consecutive weeks seem like they occurred forever ago.
But I like the Ravens on Sunday.
I’ve been riding the Ray Lewis Express since it announced it was leaving the station, and I’m not getting off now. Ray Lewis factor aside (and yes, if you've been in that locker room, you know that's a real thing and not the media creation some have suggested), I also think the Ravens match up better with the Patriots than the Broncos, the Texans or even the 49ers did. Torrey Smith presents the type of deep threat that gives New England's defensive backfield fits.
In the locker room Sunday night, I asked Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib if he watched the Ravens-Broncos game on Saturday. He said he did and took note of Smith’s handiwork. “I grew up watching and modeling my game after Champ Bailey,” Talib said. “And (he) gave Champ Bailey a very tough time. If you're giving Champ a hard time, you're doing something right.”
In addition to Smith, Jacoby Jones and Anquan Boldin could present problems for the New England secondary. Toss in a pass rush that got to Peyton Manning surprisingly often last week and I like this matchup for Baltimore.
We know for certain that the Ravens won’t be scared or intimidated by the bright lights and the Foxboro mystique. Unlike the Texans — with all their swagger and false bravado — the Ravens have actually won big games like this. They’ve been through the battles. They’ve lost some; they’ve won some. Either way, they’ve played in them. They've been there.
The cannons in Foxboro aren’t going to psyche them out. They're as loose as can be. Double-digit underdogs for the second straight week, they've got nothing to lose. All they've got to do is play their brand of football.
Poke holes in my reasoning all you want. I took the Ravens last week against the Broncos; you all called me a fool. I’ve also taken the Giants in not one but two Super Bowls against the Patriots in the past five years, and you’ve all called me a fool those times, too.
I don't pick against New England often, but when I do, I tend to have a pretty fair success rate. And I’m cool with being called a fool.
I’m also cool with picking the Ravens to win the AFC.
The pick: Ravens 34, Patriots 30
Cheat Sheet trivia answer of the week: In addition to Kaepernick, Otto Graham and Jay Cutler are the only other quarterbacks in NFL history to run for two touchdowns and throw two touchdowns in a playoff game.