Posted January 17, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Keeler: Playoffs deliver marquee contests

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

If last weekend's game were any indication, the last three games of the season are going to be very exciting.

After the opening week of the NFL playoffs produced a bunch of dud games, last week certainly made up for it and I expect more of the same this weekend.

Three of the four top seeds are all in the championship games, with the exception being the Denver Broncos. After a year of ups and downs and parity in the NFL, we finally have a little order in the league.

The Atlanta Falcons are the only one of the four that were not in the championship game last year.

Of course, the Falcons had the best record in the NFL this season, but not many gave them a lot of respect. After seeing them get off to a big lead against Seattle last week, I was ready to give them their due. I was even seriously thinking about picking them to win. Then they blew the 20-point, fourth-quarter lead and trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left.

The Falcons came back and won the game on a last-second field goal (I wonder if Broncos coach John Fox was watching that drive?), but the fact that they had so much trouble putting the Seahawks away still gives me serious doubt about their team.

Atlanta's best wins in the regular season were against the Washington Redskins, and while I think they have a solid team, I just don't think they're ready for a trip to the Super Bowl.

The 49ers, on the other hand, made quite the impression on me last weekend. It was the first time I've really watched them play a whole game, and I was really impressed with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Now it's easy to see why Jim Harbaugh left him as a starter instead of Alex Smith.

To me, Kaepernick is a better version of Washington's Robert Griffin III. He can pass, but he can also run. However, the key difference between him and RG3 is that Kaepernick is big and durable. He can take the hits that RG3 can't. Granted, the Green Bay Packers defense is awful, so I'll be interested in seeing how Kaepernick does against the Falcons.

Kaepernick also has a great supporting cast. With Frank Gore in the backfield with him, and then receivers such as Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis to throw the ball to, Kaepernick has plenty of help. Randy Moss even caught a few passes against the Packers last weekend (somewhere in West Virginia, I know former NVD sports editor Chuck McGill was very happy about that).

The 49ers also have a very strong defense, and I think they will be able to put pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan and cause some turnovers.

The AFC Championship game between New England and Baltimore is a rematch of last year's AFC title game, won by the Patriots 23-20.

I expect another close game. New England quarterback Tom Brady is certainly one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and he's used to playing in these games. I expect him to play well. The Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski, but does it really matter?

Brady seems to be able to win no matter who is on the field with him. Maybe even I could catch passes from Tom Brady. It seems to be so easy.

The Ravens will be playing with emotion. With Ray Lewis set to retire at the end of the season, the whole team should play inspired football to try to keep his career going.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has looked decent in the playoffs, and while I still don't think he's an elite player, I do think he's a decent quarterback. The reality is that the Patriots' defense is not very good, so the Ravens should be able to put points on the board.

I think both games will be close, but I think the 49ers and Patriots will advance to the Super Bowl. Of course, if you've been following the football forecast all year you have probably noticed that I've managed to blow a 12-game lead, which is now down to three games with three left. It may go down as the worst choke job since former NVD staffer Craig Juer blew a nine-game lead in December in 2006-07 (Somewhere in D.C., I know Craig will be pulling hard for me to blow it).

In a season where parity has been big at the top, I expect a few more surprises will be in store for all of us as we watch the games this weekend. At least for once, we won't know for sure who will come out on top and that in itself makes it worth watching.

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com

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