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PICKING THROUGH THE WEEKEND TRASH: CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND EDITION

Baltimore is THAT team
We all know this familiar tale by now. There’s always that one team that has their backs against the wall in late December, and to make up for some of their late-season struggles, they have to win a crucial game or two in Weeks 16 or 17 to determine their playoff fate. Upon reaching the postseason, they quickly tear through Wild Card weekend, before upsetting the favorites in the Divisional Round. Then, when you least expect it, they shock the world in the championship round en route to the Super Bowl. The New York Giants were that team last year. The Green Bay Packers were that team the year before. The Baltimore Ravens are that team right now.

It’s too early to tell if the Ravens will ride this wave to a victory in Super Bowl XLVII, but Baltimore’s story is eerily similar to that of the Giants and Packers these last couple of years. This year, the Ravens were a mess when the calendar turned to December. They opened the month with three straight losses, before picking up their biggest win of the season over the Giants in Week 16. Even though they dropped four of five games to end the regular season, and even after meandering lackadaisically through the month of December due to injuries and underachievement, the Ravens got hot at the right time. That is the key to the NFL Postseason! If a veteran team gets hot in early-January, they’ll stay hot through January, and in this case, into February.

Baltimore gained all this momentum from the Ray Lewis Farewell Tour, and then gained more momentum following an unbelievable, morale-boosting, come-from-behind victory against Denver the week before. Of course, factor in that the Ravens have a genuine hatred for the Patriots and were seeking revenge from last year’s disappointing AFC Championship loss, and it all adds up to one conclusion: we should have seen this coming. The Ravens were apparently destined to be THAT team this year, just like the Giants and Packers before them, and it doesn’t appear that they are cooling down anytime soon.

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The Patriots didn’t show up to play
It’s hard to pinpoint one aspect of the game that screwed New England on Sunday, but if you start by looking at the second half as a whole, you can see that the Patriots didn’t deserve to win that game. In fact, that might have been the worst half of football this team has played in decades. New England had six second half drives that added up to two punts, two interceptions, a fumble, and a turnover on downs. Baltimore had six second half drives and three of them ended in touchdowns. Give the Ravens a ton of credit for clearly making the right halftime adjustments, but in my opinion, this game is about a handful of recurring weaknesses for the Patriots that once again came to light late in the game on Sunday.

For starters, after Aqib Talib went down in the first quarter with an injury and didn’t return, New England’s secondary returned to its “old ways” if you know what I mean. Baltimore shifted to the hurry-up offense and exploited a defensive backfield that seemed lost without their number one cornerback. Furthermore, injuries to Kyle Love and Chandler Jones up front exposed what has been the true weakness of this team all year; the lack of a pass rush. Aside from Rob Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork, this team was soft on the defensive line without Love or Jones in the game. Even though this Patriots defense was better than it had been in previous years, New England just didn’t have the talent to backup the loss of three key contributors. When healthy, this defense is one of the better units in the AFC, believe it or not. They’ve proved they can shut down the run all season, and held strong against Baltimore’s ground game on Sunday. They also didn’t let Joe Flacco and company beat them with the deep ball, but unfortunately for Pats fans, the Ravens picked apart the Patriots secondary with the intermediate routes instead, and put an emphasis on targeting Kyle Arrington and Marquise Cole.  To make a long story short, when Talib left and didn’t return, it all unraveled in a hurry.

Secondly, the Patriots were exposed on the offensive end without Rob Gronkowski for, in my humble opinion, the first time all season. They had faired fine without him for the most part this year, but the Ravens picked up on the fact that Tom Brady was only targeting three players down the stretch. Lock down Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd, and Brady doesn’t have anywhere else to look. That trio combined for a whopping 24 catches on 40 targets. After that, Brady was looking at Deion Branch, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead; not exactly a group that will wow you. Once again, it’s clear that New England needs another downfield threat opposite Lloyd, in case Gronkowski and/or Hernandez is unable to stay healthy next season. Or if Welker leaves via free agency, because, you know, there’s that elephant in the room too.

If you take this game, however, and summarize it into one sentence, it would lead to this: the Patriots, as a team, did not show up to play. There were lackluster performances all around, and it starts with the quarterback and trickles on down. New England needed Brady to pull a gem out of his ass in the fourth quarter, yet, he did the opposite in crunch time. Brady, the king of clutch, melted when it mattered, and so did the rest of his team. This game featured awful interceptions, an untimely fumble, horrible clock management, dropped passes, blown coverage; the second half in particular was a conglomeration of a season’s worth of awful football rolled into one 60 minute game.

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There’s always next year, Pats fans
Sure, I just trashed the Patriots for an awful display in the AFC Championship game, but consider this: they only lost by 15. Tom Brady isn’t going anywhere. Bill Belichick isn’t going anywhere. The Patriots will continue to add to this young defense in the draft, they’ll continue to bolster that surprisingly stout offensive line, and they’ll probably add another receiving threat for Brady in the draft as well. Josh McDaniels will get yet another season to work with this offense. Hopefully they’ll bring back Talib and Welker. They’ll develop this same group of young running backs for another season. We’ll continue to watch these awesome linebackers blossom. Yeah, the Pats will be alright next year. So quit your bitching and go buy some 49ers gear for the Super Bowl, kapeesh? The Bruins are back, the Celtics are in the thick of their season, all is well in Boston! I do not want to hear any whining in the Dumpster!!!

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The San Francisco 49ers are badass
Speaking of the 49ers, I’m glad that the Patriots don’t have to play San Francisco in the Super Bowl. Have you heard about their fans? There’s at least one stabbing every week. Some dude got sliced in the throat in Atlanta just for talking shit to a Niners fan. The way Pats fans run their mouth, it would have been a bloodbath in New Orleans. In all seriousness, San Francisco is indeed returning to greatness. After not reaching the Super Bowl since 1995, that organization is set up for another run at being the next dynasty in the NFL. They have the coach, the quarterback, the defense, the winning culture; it’s hard to not be impressed. Colin Kaepernick, for instance, might just be the best young quarterback in the league. Not kidding! Andrew Luck aside (he’s a robot so he doesn’t count), Kaepernick could have a better career than RG III, Cam Newton, or Russell Wilson. Here in the Dumpster, we’ve liked Kaepernick since he starred at Nevada. He has all the tools to be successful; the arms, the legs, the attitude. But I can’t say I saw him becoming this successful this soon.

Well, it should be mentioned that Mr. Kaepernick certainly has plenty of tools to work with. Vernon Davis at tight end is a good start. Frank Gore at running back helps. Michael Crabtree and an old Randy Moss at wide receiver? Sure why not.  The best offensive line in football? That’s nice too. Even if the Niners didn’t have any of these weapons for Kaepernick to work with, they would still be relatively successful because of their defense alone. Here’s a stat for you: of the 12 players named to the 2012 First Team All-Pro Defense, four of them were 49ers (Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Aldon Smith). Two more Niners (Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks) were named to the second team, while Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers also received consideration. Here’s another stat for you: after allowing 24 points in the first half to one of the league’s top offenses, San Francisco shutout the Atlanta Falcons in the second half of the NFC Championship game. This unit helped San Francisco erase a 17-point deficit and is the main reason why the Niners are one game away from winning their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history. I get the feeling they’ll be in the mix for years to come.  They some badass mothafuckers.

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The Falcons can’t get out of their own way
Julio Jones and Roddy White are all kinds of nasty. The filthiest of the filthy. But wide receivers don’t win football games, quarterbacks do. Matt Ryan still has a long career in front of him, but right now, all signs point to Matty Ice being a choke artist in the playoffs. He simply couldn’t get it done when it mattered. The Falcons are a good team with a bright future, but dumb penalties, a couple bad turnovers, and a horrible running game led to the demise of their season. You know what probably kills Matty Ice the most? The Niners practically begged Atlanta to stay in the game after failing to score on a couple of clutch drive late in the game. Yet, the Dirty Birds couldn’t put it together when it counted. Actually, they couldn’t even put a single point on the scoreboard when it counted. After being forced to turn into a one-dimensional offense (again their running game was atrocious), the Falcons high-flying offense fell hard in the second half of Sunday’s game. Tough times in Atlanta today I’m sure, but much like the Patriots, they’ll be back next year.

The Dumpster does want to give a quick shout to Tony Gonzalez for playing what could very well be the final game of his career. He’s been an afterthought given the constant parade that is surrounding Ray Lewis’ retirement, but Gonzalez is a sure-fire Hall of Famer who redefined the tight end position. His 1,242 receptions are the second most in NFL history, while he is also the all-time leader in receptions, receiving yard and receiving touchdowns among tight ends. If his career has indeed come to a close, Tony Gonzalez will go down as the greatest tight end to play the game.

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