NFL Championship Weekend preview

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NFL Championship Weekend preview

From the outside looking in, the plight of a Patriots fan in the 21st century is something that very few people can appreciate, and even fewer care to.

For football fans in Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, or really anywhere around the league, the idea that folks here in New England might feel anything less than unabashed satisfaction and gratitude for all that weve been afforded is ridiculous and borderline insulting. Its like listening to your buddy with the trust fund moan about his anxiety or your boss complain about the cost of filling up his Range Rover. For the ladies, its like overhearing the twig in your office whine about being a fat cow. For the fat cows, its like coming home from a long day of relentless milking and that bitch in the neighboring pasture wont stop mooing about her sunburn.

Wait, what?

Oh, right.

My point is that no one in the NFL world gives the slightest damn about the fears associated with being a Patriots fan.

Oh, really," they'll say. "You got problems? YOU GOT PROBLEMS?! (Lifts up shirt to reveal large shoulder tattoo of Wayne Fontes) What do you think of THIS?"

And thats cool. We get it. But what are you going to do? This is our life. And no matter how ridiculous it may look from the outside, there's now some serious baggage associated with loving and caring about this team. The truth is that heading into Sundays game and if they win, the Super Bowl the overwhelming joy and confidence that was born out of those three Lombardi Trophies pales in comparison to the pain and embarrassment of the three that got away.

At this point, we know how it goes. We've been here so many times before. We know that while there's obviously a chance that Sunday's game results in a blowout, it's far more likely to be decided by a few freak plays that unfold in a matter of seconds. That before you can even catch your breath, it will all be over. That the ramifications will be permanent. That legacies will be forever built, preserved or further scarred.

Those few freak plays never used to phase a Patriots fan. We used to thrive on that stuff.

These days, it's scary as all hell.

And . . . well, with that, I guess it's time for the preview.

Hope everyone enjoys what will be a historic NFL Sunday.

The Game: THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

The Match-Up: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

The Time: Sunday, 3 pm (FOX)

The Line: 49ers (-4.5)

Believe it or not, this is the third time in the last five years that the road team has been favored in the NFC Championship. Although sadly, the results of the previous two do little to help us out.

In 2011, Green Bay was favored by 3.5 at Chicago, and won 21-14.

In 2009, Philadelphia was favored by 3.5 at Arizona, and lost 32-25.

The Coaches: When it comes to football, I don't like to play armchair coach. Especially when it's a team other than the Patriots and I know that there's so much that I don't know. But with that being said, there's not a coach in the NFL that leaves me scratching my head and screaming at the TV more than Mike Smith. The guy has a real knack for making the absolute worst decisions at least opportune times. I mean, let's face it: If Matt Ryan doesn't lead that late drive against Seattle and Matt Bryant doesn't nail that last second field goal, Smith is looking for work. (This is far from scientific, but a Google search for "Mike Smith Bad Decision" delivers 7.5M hits. Do the same for Bill Belichick? 150K.)

Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh might be out of his mind, but it's hard to argue with the results. After all, football's a crazy game, so what's wrong with having a crazy coach? As long as he's bold, decisive and undeterred as Harbaugh's been since taking over.
The Quarterbacks: Colin Kaepernick set an NFL quarterback record last week with 183 rushing yards against the Packers. On the other hand, Matt Ryan ran for 141 yards all season. (I realize that comparison's unfair and insignificant, but still thought it was funny.)

But here's a far more meaningful tidbit: The Falcons were the worst team in the league this year at defending quarterback runs, allowing 8.9 yards per rush. They also ranked 23rd in passing yards allowed. I'd say that bodes well for Kaepernick, assuming he can avoid slipping on his own slobber.

Then there's Matty Ice, who lifted a boulder off his shoulder with last week's dramatic win.

He's obviously in line for a tough test this Sunday, but for all the talk about how great the Niners defense is, weren't we all saying the same thing about Seattle? While Ryan was far from perfect, 24-35 for 250 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a miraculous season-saving drive is still pretty good. And regardless of the opponent or for that matter, the QB Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are still one of the most terrifying receiving combos in the game.

A big factor in Ryan's performance will be how long he has to work in the pocket. The Falcons did a great job of protecting their QB this year, ranking seventh in the league with only 27 sacks allowed. Meanwhile, NFC sack leader Aldon Smith continues to struggle without a healthy Justin Smith (who's playing through a partially torn triceps muscle) by his side, and hasn't taken down the quarterback since Week 14 in Miami.

The Narrative: I never bought much into the comparisons between KaepernickAlex Smith and BradyBledsoe, but I'll say this: If Kaepernick hurts his knee in the second quarter of this game, and then Smith comes in and throws a touchdown to David Patten, I might have to change my tune.

The Coincidence: Did you know that the 49ers haven't won a road playoff game in almost 25 years? Their last one came on January 8, 1989, in the NFC Championship game against Chicago and check this out: The Bears starting QB that day?

The one and only Jim Harbaugh.

OK, that's actually a lie. Jim McMahon was the starter and Harbaugh was third string behind Mike Tomzak. Still, he was there!

The Pick: Give me the Niners. Even though everyone's picking the Niners. And even though anytime everyone is picking the same team, that team invariably ends up losing.

One slightly overlooked aspect of the Falcons success against Seattle, was their success on the ground. Atlanta ran for 167 yards against the Seahawks, which was only the seventh time this season that they've broken 100 yards in a game, and the first time they were up over 150.

But I don't see a repeat performance coming against the Niners, whose rush defense ranked third in the NFL in yards per carry and fourth in yards per game. With Michael Turner rendered useless, the Falcons offense won't be as effective, giving the Niners enough of an edge to win.

Final Score: San Francisco 31, Atlanta 27

The Game: THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

The Match-Up: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

The Time: Sunday, 6:30 pm (CBS)

The Line: Patriots (-8)

As you've heard no fewer than 25,000 times by now, this is the Patriots seventh trip to the AFC Championship in the Tom Brady era. And thanks to the archives at Covers.com, here's a look at how Vegas fared the previous six times.

January 27, 2002: The Pats were 10-point underdogs at Pittsburgh, and won by seven.
January 18, 2004: The Pats were four-point favorites against the Colts, and won by 10.
January 23, 2005: The Pats were three-point favorites at Pittsburgh, and won by 14.
January 21, 2007: The Pats were 3.5-point underdogs at Indianapolis, and lost by four.
January 20, 2008: The Pats were 14-point favorites against San Diego, and won by nine.
January 22, 2012: The Pats were seven-point favorites against Baltimore, and won by three.

So, if you're keeping track at home: Tom Brady's Patriots are 5-1 all-time in the AFC Championship, but 3-3 against the spread (and have lost three straight).

The Perspective: Hey, did you know that this is the Patriots seventh trip to the AFC Championship in the Tom Brady era?

OK, that's a joke. But just hammer home how ridiculous that is

In the time since Brady took over, the Ravens, 49ers and Falcons (including this year) have combined for seven trips to the conference title. And while the Pats have five wins, the other three teams have combined for zero.

The Fears: Two things really scare me about the Ravens.

1. Ray Rice: It was a down year for Rice, who ran for fewer yards, caught fewer passes and amassed fewer yards from scrimmage than he has at any point since taking over as Baltimore's feature back. But he broke out last week in Denver with a season-high 130 yards on a career-high 30 carries. Combine that with the lingering nightmare about what he did to the Pats in that playoff game three years back, and yeah, I'm not looking forward to the Pats having to deal with that guy.

2. Deep Bomb to Torrey Smith: Every time the ball goes, all of New England will hold its breath. It will be a series of the most frightening three-second intervals of the season. Watching Flacco rear back and unload, seeing the ball fly through the air and knowing that all things being equal, the Pats will be faced with a match-up that they're unlikely to win.

Of course, Belichick knows this, and has no doubt spent the week scheming and schooling on the best ways to prevent Smith from getting free. But even then, it won't be easy.

The Reality: The world has been trained to fear the Ravens defense, and a long as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still in uniform it's damn near impossible to break that habit. You see them, and you see greatness. You see Terrell Suggs, and you don't want him anywhere near the ball. You see Bernard Pollard and you don't want him near anything. It might be for a different reason, but Pollard's the scariest guy of all.

But under the surface, we know that the Ravens D is not what it used to be. This season was the first time in five years that they ranked out of the top 10 in points allowed (they were 12th) and the first time they ranked out of the top 10 in yards allowed (they were 17th).

It still feels crazy to say out loud andor type it in silence, but the Ravens defense is no match for the Patriots offensive attack.
The Response: So, if we're going to assume that the Pats will consistently score on Baltimore, then this will only be a game if Baltimore can consistently score on the Pats. And in that event, it will come down to Joe Flacco.

That's not disregard Ray Rice after I already made such an enormous deal about him, but there will come a time when Flacco will have to make plays; most likely, plays with slightly higher degree of difficulty than last week's late-game bomb to Jacoby Jones.

And on that note: How about that trade for Aqib Talib? Honestly, how much better do you feel having that guy around to solidify the secondary? I'd say at least a little better than last year, when the Pats had Julian Edelman chasing around Anquan Boldin down the stretch.

Clearly the Pats secondary still has some issues, but there are far fewer than before.

The Pick: I mean, who knows? Obviously I think the Pats will win. Not only because they're favored by eight points, or that in situations like this I have ZERO ability to remain partial.

They're just the better team. They have the better coach (if not by much), the better QB (in a landslide) and the homefield advantage.

Final Score: Patriots 38, Ravens 28

And it's on to New Orleans.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Bennett: 'Put my pants on the same way' for preseason or regular-season games

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Bennett: 'Put my pants on the same way' for preseason or regular-season games

FOXBORO -- There seem to be some differing opinions inside Gillette Stadium as to the feel of the third preseason game. Is it a good dress rehearsal for the regular season, or is it just as vanilla as any other preseason matchup?

Example No. 1 comes from coach Bill Belichick's WEEI interview earlier this week: 

"In terms of playing time it might be a little different, but in terms of game-planning and strategy, what we see in the regular season compared to what we see the in third preseason game, I don’t even think you’re in the same universe," he said. "We’re still running our basic plays and we’d expect our opponents would run their basic plays.

"You get to the opener and start to get to game-planning and scheme, I mean you’re in a totally different ballpark, in my opinion. I don’t see any comparison at all. It’s too far away, I don’t see how you could compare them, from that standpoint. One-on-one matchups, letting the players play, yeah, I would say you have a better matchup of guys like that, but it’s nothing compared to what we’re going to see in the regular season from a total scheme situation standpoint."

Example No. 2 comes from Martellus Bennett, who opted not to meet with reporters last week when the Bears, his former club, came to town for joint practices. 

"All my snaps are full speed," Bennett said when asked about this week's game with the Panthers. "I don't slow down. I just go full speed the whole time so it's just a regular game for me . . . It's always the same whether it's the regular season or preseason. Put my pants on the same way. Put my shoes on the same way. Tie them the same way. Same gloves, same face mask."

Truth is, both can be right.

For players who are given plays and asked to execute assignments, a preseason game played at full speed may very well feel like a regular-season game. For coaches who are coming up with the plays and assignments for said players to execute, the difference between the regular season and preseason is vast. 

The third preseason game might then be the closest thing teams experience to a regular-season game this month, but it's still not close.

Garoppolo on Stork release: 'That's the business, I guess'

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Garoppolo on Stork release: 'That's the business, I guess'

FOXBORO -- Jimmy Garoppolo and Bryan Stork arrived to New England as part of the same draft class back in 2014, and over the course of the last two years, they developed a close relationship.

With Stork's release, only two of the team's eight draft picks from that year -- Garoppolo and running back James White -- have remained on the team's active roster uninterrupted. (Offensive linemen Cameron Fleming and Jon Halapio are on the current 90-man roster, but were released and re-signed since being drafted.)

"It's tough," Garoppolo said of Stork's release. "It's that time of year. There's a lot of movement between teams and players and everything, and it's tough to see one of your guys go like that. But that's the business, I guess."

With Stork no longer factoring into the picture at center for the Patriots, the starting role will fall to David Andrews, who was undrafted in 2015 but started the first 10 games of the season last year as Stork worked his way back from the short-term injured reserve list. 

Garoppolo said he has seen good work out of Andrews during training camp, and he likes the way the offensive linemen on the roster -- often subbed in and out during practices to create depth -- have worked together this offseason. 

"David, he's been doing a great job this camp," Garoppolo said. "The whole o-line as a whole, though, it's a good group of guys. No one gets mixed and matched more than those guys do. To be able to work with different people next to you all the time and everything like that. You're getting adjusted to them, they're getting adjusted to you. It's really a credit to those guys up front. They all handle it very well." 

Working behind Andrews at the center position during training camp have been Josh Kline and sixth-round rookie draft pick Ted Karras.