Craig: Momentum takes a knee in NFL playoffs

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2013 - 11:00 PM

Denver, Seattle and Green Bay showed how easily the postseason picture changes.

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Peyton Manning.

Photo: Jack Dempsey, Associated Press

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Once again, we've all got it figured out.

Colin Kaepernick will run and run and run some more. He'll make like a tattooed Forrest Gump, stopping only long enough to hoist the Lombardi Trophy en route to Canton, Ohio, where he'll be enshrined, still in uniform, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the man who revolutionized the quarterback position at its highest level.

Yep, momentum is planted firmly behind the "Kaeper-nicking" Kraze. It stands side by side, arm in arm, forever and ever with the San Francisco 49ers. And there's nothing that can stop momentum in the NFL, right?

Except last weekend, when ...

• The Denver Broncos rode an 11-game winning streak -- and an average victory margin of 16 points -- into the playoffs and lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens. The same Ravens who had lost four of their last five regular-season games and fired their offensive coordinator in the process.

• The Seattle Seahawks took a six-game winning streak, including a wild-card triumph at Washington, into Atlanta and lost to the Falcons. The same Falcons team that was 2-2 in its past four games and 0-3 in the playoffs with Mike Smith as its coach and Matt Ryan as its quarterback.

• The Green Bay Packers swaggered into San Francisco, fresh off a wild-card pounding of the Vikings, and lost to the 49ers. The same 49ers team who had Kaepernick making his playoff debut just 14 days after being smoked 42-13 in Seattle.

So let's dismiss momentum from this year's playoff picture. Let's just say it took a knee alongside Peyton Manning.

AFC: Baltimore at New England

Except for any and all Super Bowls against the New York Giants, no team does what we expect them to do more consistently than the Patriots of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. So here they are again, back in the AFC Championship Game for the seventh time. They are 5-1 so far, including last year's victory at home over the Ravens.

This also is a rematch of a Week 3 meeting in which Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco abused the Patriots secondary in a 31-30 victory at Baltimore. Flacco completed 72 percent of his passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns.

But wait. That was September, an early-season month that Belichick, the master molder of the bottom third of his roster, uses the way Alabama uses games against Western Carolina.

After the twists and tweaks to another roster of typical Belichickian depth and foresight, only one member of the secondary -- free safety Steve Gregory -- is still starting in the same spot he did back in Week 3. The much-improved unit now features former cornerback Devin McCourty at safety and two corners -- Aqib Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard -- who weren't even on the active roster in Week 3.

Offensively, the hot topic is Rob Gronkowski's season-ending arm injury last week. But wait. The Patriots are 4-1 without Gronk.

Belichick and Brady made this a balanced offense. They made a 1,200-yard rusher out of Stevan Ridley, a third-round pick in 2011.

And when Gronk went down last week, Belichick and Brady made running back Shane Vereen a Marshall Faulk look-alike with 124 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage.

On a conference call with Fox a week ago, a reporter asked two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson how long he thought Belichick would coach.

Johnson laughed and said, "How long do you think he's going to live?"

That's a comforting thought for Patriots fans.

Pick: Patriots 38-27.

NFC: San Francisco at Atlanta

There are several reasons the Falcons are four-point underdogs at home. The NFC's top seed had the league's easiest schedule, blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead against Seattle and has allowed a league-worst 8.9 yards per carry to quarterbacks. The latter isn't good when the next opponent has Kaepernick, who just set the NFL rushing record for a quarterback (181 yards) in a rout of the Packers.

The Falcons do, however, have a few things going for them. Such as:

• The confidence of finally winning a playoff game. Ryan drove them 41 yards in 23 seconds, setting up the game-winning field goal and Ryan's league-high eighth fourth-quarter comeback of the season.

• The resurgence of running back Michael Turner. He rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries against Seattle.

• The trio of one-on-one matchup nightmares Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones.

And, oh yeah, this:

• The 49ers are riding their sixth two-game winning streak of the season. They've yet to win a third straight game.

So much for momentum.

Pick: Falcons 30-27.

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

  • NFL PLAYOFFS CONFERENCE TITLE GAMES

    NFC: San Francisco at Atlanta

    2 p.m. Sunday • TV: Ch. 9

    AFC: Baltimore at New England

    5:30 p.m. Sunday • TV: Ch. 4

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