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Ten NFL storylines to follow this Offseason

From a slew of head-coaching changes to an unpredictable draft (even more so than usual), there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on this NFL offseason. Here are 10 to follow over the next few months.

1. RGIII’s health.
Robert Griffin III vows to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season but in addition to damaging both his LCL and ACL, the dynamic quarterback also suffered a medial meniscus tear in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. While Adrian Peterson proved that ACL tears aren’t always a two-year injury, “All Day” was also a medical marvel. We’re talking about a guy who suffered a sports hernia injury in Week 10 and questioned whether or not he would be able to continue by Week 16, only to rush for 596 yards over the Vikings’ final four games (including playoffs). Not everyone is Adrian Peterson.

According to reports, RGIII was seen walking without a limp at “Media Week” down in New Orleans. But no matter how quickly he’s progressing with his rehab, the Redskins need to first be concerned with his the long-term health. If they rush him back and he suffers even further damage to his knee(s), his career could be in jeopardy. Mike Shanahan and Co. have a couple of months to evaluate the situation but at some point they’re going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to place RGIII on the regular season PUP list. While that would cost them their starting quarterback for the first six weeks of the season, riding Kirk Cousins over that stretch is a lot better than installing him as the franchise signal caller because RGIII’s knees are shot. For the Redskins, there’s more at stake here than just six weeks.

2. Newsome’s unenviable task of re-constructing the Ravens.
Whether anyone thinks Joe Flacco should be paid like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is rather moot. The going rate these days for franchise quarterbacks is $20 million per season, and Flacco proved in the postseason that he’s Baltimore’s franchise player. He may never put up the same jaw-dropping numbers that Brees has, but Flacco is worth his weight in gold to a team like the Ravens, who consistently draft well and will continue to compete under John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome. When you find a quarterback in this league (particularly a quarterback coming off one of the finest postseason performances in NFL history), you hang onto him. And in order to hang onto Flacco, the Ravens will pay the $20-plus million-a-year asking price.

No, the real storyline in Baltimore is whether or not Newsome can build another Super Bowl contender after he gets done paying Flacco. Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bryant McKinnie all helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl this year and all four of them are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Receiver Anquan Boldin is also set to make $6 million, so he could be forced to either restructure his deal or become a cap casualty. (He said he’ll retire if Baltimore releases him.) Newsome build two entirely different Super Bowl winners over the past 12 years. But this offseason might offer him his biggest challenge to date. As one of the finest general managers in the NFL, Newsome is certainly up for the challenge but the pressure will also be on Harbaugh and his staff to win with younger players as Baltimore re-stocks through the draft.

3. No consensus No. 1 pick.
Ask 10 NFL analysts who they have rated No. 1 in this year’s draft and you might be supplied with 10 different answers. Some believe Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is the safest pick in the draft but if the Chiefs re-sign Branden Albert than they have no use for Joeckel at No. 1. Besides, some think Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is the best offensive tackle in the draft, not Joeckel.

Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore and even Florida State’s Bjorn Werner’s names are atop some analyst’s rankings. Why so much uncertainty? Point to the fact that there’s no consensus top quarterback in his year’s draft class. Twelve of the last 15 first-overall selections have been quarterbacks, with only Jake Long (2008), Mario Williams (2006) and Courtney Brown (2000) being the exceptions. With no potential franchise signal caller to be had, the ultimate crapshoot is even more unpredictable than ever this year.

4. Veteran quarterbacks in limbo.
Flacco is the best free agent quarterback this offseason but the Ravens won’t allow him to escape Baltimore without at least slapping him with the franchise tag. That means backups will litter the open market, unless you still consider guys like Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Moore capable starters. (And why would you?)

The more intriguing names are Alex Smith, Michael Vick and Matt Flynn, who are all currently under contract but could become available either via trade or release at some point this offseason. While the 49ers will certainly honor Smith’s desire to start elsewhere, at the end of the day they don’t owe him anything (non-monetarily, that is). If they don’t acquire what they feel to be decent compensation for the 28-year-old veteran, they could use him as insurance behind Colin Kaepernick for another season. That may not be fair for Smith, but the Niners will ultimately do what’s best for the franchise.

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Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Quick-Hit Observations from Super Bowl XLVII: Ravens 34, 49ers 31

In one of the more entertaining games in Super Bowl history, the Ravens held on to beat the 49ers, 34-31. Here are some quick-hit observations from Baltimore’s upset.

+ There’s no question that Jimmy Smith held Michael Crabtree in the end zone on that fourth-down play. We’ve all seen cornerbacks flagged for less and if there’s a penalty on the play, then throw the flag, period. (That statement is in reference to those suggesting that the refs were right by “letting the players play.”) But a game is never decided by one play. Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio’s defense gave up 34 points after surrendering the second-fewest points during the regular season, and the Niners saved one of their worst performances for the biggest game of the year. They have every reason to be upset with the non-call on Smith, but they were also in control of what happened for 58 minutes prior to that play and they simply didn’t do enough to win the game.

+ The power outage was a disaster for the NFL. Millions of people had to wait 30 minutes for someone at the Superdome to find the fuse box and this was after waiting for what felt like an hour for Beyonce to wrap up her halftime show. Considering the NFL has priced out its fans at local stadiums and doesn’t allow any business to utter the words “Super Bowl” without wanting a fee in return, the delay was embarrassing for Roger Goodell and Co. The situation was most likely unavoidable, but embarrassing nonetheless.

+ Of course, I don’t know which corporation should have been more embarrassed during the outage – the NFL or CBS. The network supplied 10 hours worth of pre-game coverage but all of a sudden it had nothing to say during a 30-minute delay. Steve Tasker played the role of Monty from the “Major League” movies, painfully giving TV viewers his best play-by-play of the scene. If this situation didn’t expose television sideline reporters for how useless they are, I don’t know what will. To be fair, it’s not as if CBS was planning on having a 30-minute show four minutes into the third quarter. But something tells me FOX would have handled the situation with more aplomb.

+ There was one good thing to come out of the power outage: Twitter. People’s tweets during the delay were 10-times funnier than any commercial that was aired during the game. And it isn’t even close.

+ It’s going to be debated ad nauseam whether or not the power outage allowed the 49ers to settle down and avoid what seemed to be a surefire blowout. And hey, maybe it did. If they go three-and-out following Jones’ kickoff return, maybe Baltimore wins the game running away. Instead, the delay stunted the Ravens’ momentum and allowed the 49ers to regain their composure. Then again, it’s not as if San Francisco hadn’t shown the ability to battle back from double-digit deficits before. Two weeks ago it looked like the Falcons were going to soar into the Super Bowl after building a 17-0 lead in the first quarter of the NFC title game. It’s hard to quantify how much the delay meant to the Niners, but they’re not a team that’s easily rattled. Outage or no outage, the 49ers weren’t going to waive the white flag after trailing by 22 points and an entire second half yet to be played.

+ By completing 73-of-126 passes for 1,140 yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, Joe Flacco had one of the most impressive postseasons by a quarterback in NFL history. And now that he’s a Super Bowl MVP with a dazzling 9-4 postseason record, he’s worth every penny the Ravens will pay him this offseason.

+ Considering he’s never thrown for over 4,000 yards or 25 touchdown passes in a single season, there’s an argument to be made that he still doesn’t belong in the same category as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. But he holds tremendous value to a team like the Ravens, who evaluate talent as well as any franchise in the NFL and who contends on a yearly basis. Baltimore needs a quarterback that can win in the postseason, which Flacco has now done for five straight years. He may continue to battle with consistency throughout his career, but given his contributions in the postseason he’s proven that he’s a franchise player. And in this day and age, franchise quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings can command $17-plus million a year.

+ Imagine how much money the Ravens could have saved had they paid Flacco at the start of the season instead of waiting to see how the year panned out. Stupid hindsight.

+ What was most impressive about Flacco’s performance was his ability to extend plays. There were multiple times during the course of the game where you would have thought he was gearing up to throw the ball 20 yards into the stands and instead, he chucked it downfield for huge, drive-sustaining completions. For as much as the Niners’ secondary was exposed the past two games, it’s not fair to ask defensive backs to cover receivers for 20 seconds downfield. Flacco consistently put pressure on San Francisco’s defense throughout the game.

+ For as well as Flacco played, there’s an argument to be made that Jacoby Jones deserved MVP. Had the power not gone off at the Superdome, his kickoff return to start the second half may have spurred a Baltimore blowout. Flacco’s longest touchdown pass was a pass that he under threw to Jones, who made a great adjustment and had the wherewithal to get up, make a move on Chris Culliver and sprint to the end zone for a touchdown. Considering that was the only catch Jones made, the MVP award probably wound up in the right hands. But Jones’ contributions cannot be understated.

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Watching Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Ray Rice

Most people agree that today’s Super Bowl offers up a pretty good matchup. You have two of the more physical teams in football led by strong-armed quarterbacks. Sure, there are big differences in style between Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick, but both of them can beat you with their big arms, and they both have an excellent stable of receivers at their disposal.

Even with San Francisco being the favorite, there are good arguments for both teams if you’re thinking of putting some money on the game. For me, however, I keep coming back to Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Ray Rice. The talent at the skill positions for Baltimore is pretty special, and we’ve seen some issues in the 49ers secondary. Boldin completely dominated the Patriots, and we’ve seen incredible plays from Smith and Rice as well.

Everyone is focused on the Kaepernick factor for good reason. But Baltimore’s offense is really clicking right now and has just as much balance. Flacco is having a field day now working with these weapons, so the Ravens with the points doesn’t look like a bad bet. The lines started at 5 and now it’s down to 4 or even 3.5 as more money has gone towards the Ravens.

Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Five Storylines to Follow

Two months ago not many people envisioned the Baltimore Ravens making a run at the NFL title game. They were dysfunctional offensively, they lacked playmakers defensively, and they employed a quarterback that was costing himself offseason dollars with each poor performance. But as the Packers and Giants proved the previous two postseasons, sometimes all you have to do is catch fire.

Here are five storylines to follow for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, where the Ravens will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

The defense of Kaepernick.
The Falcons may have won a key battle in their loss to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game but they became so consumed by winning that battle that they wound up losing the war. After watching Colin Kaepernick rip off 181 yards on 16 rushes versus the Packers the week prior, the Falcons were dead set against allowing the quarterback to beat them with the option read. So they aligned linebacker Stephen Nicholas or defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann at the edge and sent them right at Kaepernick. On the first two series of the game, San Francisco was befuddled by the Atlanta’s game plan and it wound up punting on back-to-back three-and-outs. But the Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick running at the edges that they lost sight of the fact that Frank Gore was gaining over four yards per carry up the middle. Abraham or Nicholas would fly up the edge and straight at Kaepernick, who repeatedly handed the ball off to Gore or LaMichael James and watched them run through the lane that Atlanta’s defenders had created. And when they weren’t running, Kaepernick exposed the one-on-one matchups that were available to him in the passing game (such as tight end Vernon Davis on safety Thomas DeCoud). In the AFC title game, the Ravens were physical with the Patriots’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and it disrupted Tom Brady’s rhythm in the passing game. But Green Bay got burned playing too much man versus Kaepernick, who often ran for long gains once the Packers’ defenders turned their backs to him. It’ll be interesting to see what approach the Ravens take on Sunday in terms of shutting down this prolific San Francisco offense. If they were smart they would take a page out of what the Rams and Seahawks did in the month of December when the 49ers lost twice in their final five games. Both St. Louis and Seattle won the battles on first and second down and thus put themselves in favorable third down situations. Both teams also got great play out of their linebackers, who not only stopped the run on early downs, but also generated pressure when their number was called for blitz assignments. But it all starts up front. If the Ravens can’t win their individual matchups versus the Niners’ outstanding offensive line, it’ll be a long night for Ray Lewis and Co.

The next step and the transformation of Flacco.
Two months ago Joe Flacco couldn’t win on the road and couldn’t play at a consistent level play to play nevertheless week to week. But thanks to the firing of Cam Cameron and the promoting of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Flacco is now 60 minutes and one enormous victory away from joining very elite company. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams vertically and outside the numbers, which is difficult to do on a weekly basis. And because Baltimore’s offensive line wasn’t playing at a consistent level either, Flacco turned in some rather ugly performances from Week 11 through Week 15. But while Caldwell has kept the same formations as Cameron (mostly the use of either a two-back, one tight end set, or a one-back, two-tight end set), he’s also simplified the offense. He has allowed Flacco to work the middle of the field more and spread the ball out to several different players. Not only is Torrey Smith heavily involved in the vertical game, but Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta are allowed to work the middle of the field and/or the seam of a defense. Caldwell has also brought more balance to the Baltimore offense. For whatever reason, Cameron would often get away from his running game, which is inexcusable when you have backs like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. With the pressure of having to win games by throwing the ball versus defenses that knew what was coming, Flacco would often be frustrated in the middle of games. Now he’s playing his best ball of the season and most importantly, he’s comfortable and in command of the offense.

Are cracks starting to form in the Niners’ defensive foundation?
The Falcons didn’t average 26.0 points per game this year by accident. Matt Ryan is knocking on the door of playing in a Super Bowl himself and his receivers – Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez – are some of the best in the game. That said, you have to wonder if Dashon Goldson wasn’t exposed a bit in coverage last week. On Julio Jones’ 46-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, there was a communication breakdown between Goldson and cornerback Tarrell Brown. For whatever reason, Brown passed Jones off to Goldson and jumped on an out route by Tony Gonzalez, even though the tight end was clearly covered. Jones then got behind Goldson for an easy score, putting the Niners in a hole early. But even if Goldson and Brown could share the blame on that touchdown, Goldson was also victimized on a 16-yard reception by Roddy White, as well as another 40-yard pass play to Jones later in the game. Again, in White and Jones we’re talking about two of the better receivers in the NFL. But with how well Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have played this postseason, it has to be a little concerning to Jim Harbaugh that his defense was shredded 477 yards in the NFC title game. Don’t forget that San Francisco also gave up 31 points in the second half versus New England in mid-December, and 42 points to the Seahawks in Seattle one week later. Granted, the Niners didn’t have Justin Smith for that Seattle game but you have to wonder whether or not the blueprint on how to beat San Francisco’s defense hasn’t been laid out over the past month and a half. The good news is that even though he’s not generating sacks, Aldon Smith is still putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and there has been no dip in the play of linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Ravens still have their work cut out for them on Sunday.

Which offense can stay balanced?
For as much as fans and the media want to dissect how well a quarterback can orchestrate a dynamic passing attack, balance is still the key to any NFL offense. The Saints finished tied for seventh in terms of rushing attempts the year they won the Super Bowl and were sixth in total rushing yards that season. Yes, they won in large part because of Sean Payton’s playcalling and Drew Brees’ ability to orchestrate that offense. But they were extremely effective throwing the ball because they were also a threat to pound it between the tackles with Pierre Thomas or on the edges with Reggie Bush. Defenses were constantly playing back on their heels that season, which is one of the reasons why New Orleans hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. For as much as everyone wants to talk about Flacco and Kaepernick when it comes to XLVII, the “matchup” between Ray Rice and Frank Gore might be more important. As previously stated, the Falcons did a great job of taking away Kaepernick’s ability to hit the edges on the ground in the NFC title game. But Gore killed them running between the tackles so if the Ravens want to focus on tying a lasso around Kaepernick’s legs too, then they better be ready to man up in the middle. That said, if Gore can’t gain traction on first and second down, the edge now swings in Baltimore’s favor because it’ll have Kaepernick in constant third and longs (which is what the Ravens want). On the other side, if Rice can’t get going against that stingy San Francisco front seven, then Flacco may become buried underneath the pressure of having to win the game on his own. Also, Baltimore can’t expect that San Francisco will be as poor tackling as New England was in the AFC title game. The Patriots missed a handful of tackles, which either kept drives alive for the Ravens or set up scores (like Rice’s 2-yard run in the second quarter when Jerod Mayo whiffed on a takedown). Rice will have to earn every yard he gets but if he’s effective, it’ll go a long way in setting up Flacco and the passing game.

The intangibles.
Ray Lewis has racked up a ton of tackles this postseason but he’s also looked slow in coverage and he’s obviously not the same impactful player he was earlier in his career. That said, it’s apparent that his teammates want to win for him (as well as fellow veteran Ed Reed). He’s the heartbeat in that Baltimore locker room and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of an effect he’ll have from an emotional standpoint. Turnovers have also been a key to deciding wins and losses in the postseason, as no team has won a playoff game this year while losing the turnover battle. San Francisco and Baltimore came into the postseason plus-nine in turnovers, which is the lowest margin of the 10 playoff teams, so which team will avoid costly mistakes (and/or produce them in a positive way)? Special teams will undoubtedly play a factor in the outcome as well. David Akers missed a makeable field goal in a controlled environment in Atlanta and his body language following the miss would have you believe he’s a kicker with zero confidence right now. And don’t forget that Baltimore allowed a kick and punt return for touchdown in its win over Denver in the Divisional Round. Finally, how will the “Har-Bowl” factor play into the game? Considering there are only 32 head coaching positions in the NFL and so few siblings in sports (at least ones that coach against each other), it’s truly remarkable that Jim and John Harbaugh will square off in the Super Bowl. While Jim arguably has the better team, John has more postseason experience and more postseason wins. Which Harbaugh will get the leg up on the other before the clock reads double-zero on Sunday?

PREDICTION: The 49ers are the better team, at least on paper. They have the more complete offense, the better defense, and they have the ability to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But the Ravens have saved their best football for the end of the year, which is exactly what the Packers did in 2011 and what the Giants did in 2012.

Since Baltimore fired Cam Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Joe Flacco has been a different quarterback. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams by throwing outside the numbers and refused to stay balanced with his playcalling. But while Caldwell is running the same formations as Cameron (i.e. 12, 21 and 22 groupings), he’s also simplified things. Flacco is now instructed to use the entire field to beat defenses, including up the seam with tight end Dennis Pitta, in the short-to-intermediate game with Anquan Boldin, and yes, down field to Torrey Smith. Caldwell hasn’t forgotten about Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce either, as he’s gotten both running backs in the mix while staying balanced.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons exposed the 49ers’ safety position in the NFC title game, specifically Dashon Goldson. Where they screwed up is becoming too focused on Colin Kaepernick’s running ability. While constantly sending defensive ends and linebackers straight at Kaepernick, Atlanta created huge rushing lanes for LaMichael James and Frank Gore, who killed the Falcons up the middle. Look for the Ravens to take their shots downfield against Goldson and to stay balanced offensively. Defensively, Baltimore needs to win the battle on first and second down and force Kaepernick to make mistakes on third down. Call it a hunch, but I believe Kaepernick’s inexperience will show through at a critical moment on Sunday.

Ravens 24, 49ers 20.

Ten Observations from Championship Sunday in the NFL

49ers 28, Falcons 24

1. The Falcons may have been overly concerned about Kaepernick.
The Falcons went into the NFC title game knowing they had to at least contain Colin Kaepernick. They did that – it’s just too bad that they didn’t defend anyone else in the process. The Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick beating them with his legs that they lost sight of the fact he was killing them with his arm. His receivers were either left wide open or in one-on-one mismatches with Atlanta defenders like Thomas DeCoud, who couldn’t tackle a trashcan on Sunday. Football, as with all sports, is a game of adjustments. The Falcons had the right game plan coming in but it became apparent after halftime when the 49ers scored a touchdown on their third straight drive (save for the one play at the conclusion of the first half) that Mike Nolan didn’t make the right adjustments. It’s easy to make coaches the scapegoat but I refuse to believe Atlanta’s game plan defensively was to allow Vernon Davis to run free in the secondary – especially after Seattle tight end Zach Miller torched them for 142 yards and a touchdown the week before. Credit John Harbaugh and Greg Roman for playing things straight up, allowing the game to come to them and for taking what the Falcons gave them.

2. Four plays cost Matt Ryan a trip to the Super Bowl.
According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan took 67 snaps from center on Sunday. On 63 of those snaps, he was damn-near brilliant. It was the other four that cost him and his team a trip to New Orleans. The interception and the fluke fumble in the second half were killers. They didn’t lead to points for the 49ers but they also occurred in San Francisco territory, meaning they didn’t lead to points for the Falcons either. It became clear in the second half that Ryan and Atlanta would need to outpace Kaepernick and without those two turnovers, they probably would have. But the other two plays that cost the Falcons were the controversial catch by Harry Douglas and the fourth down throw inside the red zone. Forget whether or not Douglas caught the ball – if he keeps his feet he probably scores because there was no defender within six miles of him. Instead, he stumbles and while the Falcons were fortunate to have the call go their way, they were hardly lucky in that instance. Four plays later, Ryan forces a pass to Roddy White at the San Francisco 10-yard line and the game is essentially over. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback but if Ryan sees an open Tony Gonzalez on that play, the Falcons score and go up by 3 with under two minutes remaining. It was just one bad event after another for Ryan, who nearly willed his team to the Super Bowl. When your quarterback completes over 70-percent of his passes while throwing for nearly 396 yards and three touchdowns, you should win.

3. What mobile quarterback?
Can a mobile quarterback ever win a Super Bowl? Sure they can, just as long as that mobile quarterback is Colin Kaepernick, who oh-by-the-way also can beat opponents with his arm. Kaepernick’s running ability makes him dangerous but not as dangerous as his ability to force an opponent to get out of its comfort zone defensively. The Falcons hired Mike Nolan so that he could implement a defense that would stop pass-heavy teams like the Packers, Saints and Giants. During the regular season they intercepted Peyton Manning three times in one quarter, Drew Brees five times in one game, and Eli Manning twice in a 34-0 shutout late in the year. But they were undone by Kaepernick, not because he’s mobile but because he was accurate throwing vertically. He only rushed twice for 21 yards but his average pass went for 11.1 yards, which made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. The Niners eventually wore down the Falcons’ undersized defensive line in the second half, but they would have had a hard time keeping pace with Ryan and Atlanta’s offense had Kaepernick not had the ability to pick up huge chunks of yards through the air. Is his mobility a factor? No question. Could the Niners have won on Sunday if Kaepernick weren’t also a dangerous passer? That’s debatable, especially with the way their defense was playing. He’s headed to a Super Bowl not because of his mobility but because he’s the complete package.

4. It was a great time for Davis to re-join the San Francisco offense.
After Zach Miller torched the Falcons’ secondary last week Vernon Davis had to be licking his chops. But there have been times this season when he’s disappeared and San Francisco’s passing game over the past two months has really run through Michael Crabtree. With Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel doing a nice job to limit Crabtree’s involvement, it was a great time for Kaepernick to rediscover his relationship with Davis, who destroyed safety Thomas DeCoud and linebacker Stephen Nicholas in coverage. DeCoud is fast enough to stay with Davis, but he missed too many tackles and was usually a split second late getting to the tight end in coverage. The loss of Mario Manningham late in the season hurt, but when Davis is a threat down the seam the Niners have more than enough weapons offensively. The talented tight end was outstanding on Sunday.

While we’re discussing tight ends, it would be a shame if Tony Gonzalez does retire now that Atlanta has been eliminated. He’s coming off his best season as a Falcon and while he isn’t the same player he was earlier in his career, he’s still playing at an elite level. He’s always said that he would keep coming back as long as he was still physically able to compete and for those that watched him all season, that’s certainly still the case. Plus, with Julio Jones and Roddy White flanking him on the outsides, Gonzo should continue to be productive.

5. Stop all the Mike Smith replacement talk.
It’s asinine to suggest that Mike Smith should be on the hot seat after his team came up short on Sunday. The Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons before Smith arrived in 2008 and they haven’t had a losing season since. He’s a good coach that added two excellent coordinators in Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan last offseason. With both back in the mix for 2013, there’s a good chance Smith will have the Falcons playing in January again next year. Does he have his flaws? Absolutely. This postseason proved that he needs to do a better job of coaching with a lead. Too often he’ll take his foot off the pedal instead of going for the jugular and he still has a hard time weighing risk versus reward in certain situations (such as calls on fourth down). But 30 teams are eliminated every year before the Super Bowl and there’s no shame in coming up short in the NFC title game. You don’t fire a man that has compiled a 56-24 record over his career because he’s struggled in the postseason. The people that say he should have had the Falcons in the Super Bowl this year are probably the same ones that called Atlanta a fraud No. 1 seed. Despite what the records indicated, Smith didn’t have the best team in the NFC this year. In fact, he probably had the third best team behind San Francisco and Seattle. And yet, the Falcons were one more Matt Ryan touchdown away from playing in the Super Bowl. For those that want Smith gone, remember that another June Jones, Jim Mora or Bobby Petrino could be right around the corner.

Ravens 28, Patriots 13

1. Brady simply wasn’t good enough.
The absence of Rob Gronkowski and the injury to corner Aqib Talib hurt the Patriots on Sunday, but the bottom line is that Tom Brady didn’t play well enough for New England to advance. As usual, he did a nice job stepping up in the pocket when he felt the rush and he constantly kept his eyes downfield. Credit Baltimore for finding a way to bring pressure in his face and for locking down his receivers in key moments of the game. Granted, his receivers did drop four balls, including two by Wes Welker. But while Joe Flacco came up with some huge passes in the second half, Brady simply failed to make enough plays. He should also be vilified for his scissor kick to Ed Reed right before halftime. It was an embarrassing moment for the future Hall of Famer.

2. Flacco is playing the best football of his career.
Joe Flacco didn’t have a very strong first half but he consistently challenged his opponent downfield for the second straight week. Granted, he was aided by another outstanding game by his offensive line, Anquan Boldin’s heroics, and a New England defense that couldn’t tackle Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce, but the bottom line is that Flacco out-dueled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the past two weeks. He also now has six road playoff wins in his career and whether he wins the Super Bowl or not, he’s set himself up for a huge payday in the offseason. It isn’t always pretty when it comes to Flacco, but it’s hard to argue with his production over the past five years. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against a San Francisco defense that was torched by fellow 2008 first-rounder Matt Ryan.

3. Boldin doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves.
Anquan Boldin is a fantastic player that is constantly overlooked when the discussion turns to who the best receivers are in the NFL. He doesn’t have elite top-end speed and yet he can still beat a defense vertically. He also has some of the best hands at the position and his body control is outstanding. On both of his touchdown receptions, as well as the catch he made early in the third quarter for a 26-yard gain, Boldin had perfect body control and made great adjustments to the passes. At this point in his career he’s more like a tight end than a receiver but he remains a mismatch on linebackers and safeties.

4. Baltimore’s defense clamped down when it needed to.
Judging by the stats you would have thought the Ravens’ defense played poorly on Sunday. Brady threw for 320 yards, the Patriots gained 108 yards on the ground and Wes Welker finished with 117 yards receiving and a touchdown. But the Ravens held New England to a field goal right before half, which was huge, and despite allowing 428 yards they forced three huge turnovers in the second half. Whenever there was a big play to be made, it was Baltimore’s defense coming up huge – not Tom Brady. For the No. 1 scoring offense to be shut out in the second half on its home turf is a major credit to the defense.

5. Tackling played a huge part.
The Patriots’ tackling (or lack thereof) was horrendous. Safety Steve Gregory had a night to forget in coverage but he also missed multiple tackles, as did linebacker Jerod Mayo (one of which resulted in Ray Rice’s first touchdown). But it wasn’t just those two players – Alfonzo Dennard, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes whiffed as well. What’s interesting is that the Ravens only rushed for 3.7 yards per carry but the Patriots made life worse on themselves by not wrapping up.

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