|ESPN.com: NFL Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
It is as it should be: Ray Lewis' Ravens and Bill Belichick's Patriots meet Sunday night to decide the AFC champion in what could be the final game for one of the greatest players in NFL history.
And if it wasn't for Belichick, Lewis would not be in Baltimore.
Follow along. Belichick was the Browns' coach in 1995, when Cleveland traded a No. 1 pick to San Francisco in exchange for several picks. The 49ers used the 10th overall pick, which they got from Cleveland, on UCLA wide receiver J.J. Stokes.
But Belichick never got to use the second No. 1 pick he got back from San Francisco. Before he could, Cleveland fired him and moved the franchise to Baltimore, which inherited the 1996 first-round pick that Belichick had acquired from San Francisco.
Baltimore used its own first-round pick in 1996 on UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. Then it used its second first-round pick, the one Belichick acquired from the 49ers, on Miami linebacker Ray Lewis. Baltimore believed, accurately and wisely, that in one draft it had acquired building blocks for its defense and offense.
|Ray Lewis has had the attention of Bill Belichick's Patriots for a long time.|
The other irony to the pick was that Lewis nearly wound up with Belichick anyway. After Cleveland fired Belichick, New England and its coach, Bill Parcells, hired him as defensive coordinator in 1996. One of the Patriots' missions that offseason was to upgrade their linebackers.
So on a spring day in 1996, Belichick flew to Miami and spent nearly a full day watching game tape with Lewis, having him read and react to defensive plays, getting to know him in case New England wanted to draft him. And it did -- in the second round. But before Lewis could slide to the Patriots' spot in that round, the Ravens drafted him in the first round with the 26th overall selection -- with the pick Belichick had acquired for Cleveland from San Francisco.
New England then opted to use its third-round pick on another linebacker, Arizona's Tedy Bruschi. It is another sign of the funny bounces football sometimes takes, affecting lives and legacies.
As Baltimore and New England each stand 60 minutes from New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII, the ultimate irony is how much Belichick has to do with the Ravens being positioned where they are. Without Belichick, Lewis would not have spent 17 memorable seasons in Baltimore.
Now the two men get to spend one more evening together, with the AFC championship at stake.
1. Four possibilities: Heading into the best day of the NFL season, there are four possible outcomes, whose stories will be told for two straight weeks up until the kickoff of Super Bowl XLVII. A look at each of the four:
• New England vs. San Francisco -- A rematch of maybe the single best regular-season game in 2012, when San Francisco beat New England 41-34. This matchup would feature two of football's top franchises: the team of the 1980s versus the team of the past decade. Two teams that have combined for eight Super Bowl titles would be vying for one more.
• New England vs. Atlanta -- Atlanta's ties to New England run deep. For starters, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan starred at Boston College. But even more significant, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff cut his teeth in the Patriots' organization, learning at the feet of Belichick. A franchise aiming to win its first Super Bowl title would be doing it against a team that has won three.
• Baltimore vs. San Francisco -- Forget the Manning brothers, even in New Orleans. The Super Bowl would be all about the Harbaugh brothers -- Baltimore coach John facing San Francisco coach Jim. This game would pit veteran stalwart linebacker Lewis against young stalwart linebacker Patrick Willis. Yet the Super Bowl would be about a brother combination that, for at least two weeks, would supplant Eli and Peyton as the most publicized in the game.
• Baltimore vs. Atlanta -- The least attractive of the possible Super Bowl matchups still would hold some intrigue. Two quarterbacks from the same draft class, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Atlanta's Ryan, would vie for the title of valedictorian of that class. The winner would be that much better positioned for a lucrative new contract.
|The Broncos could have learned what not to do from Randall Cunningham's Vikings in the 1998 playoffs.|
2. History lesson: Some contrasted Denver's passiveness during Saturday's divisional playoff loss against Baltimore to Atlanta's aggressiveness throwing downfield in the closing seconds to beat Seattle. But the more appropriate comparison comes from the 1998 NFC Championship Game, when the No. 1-seeded Vikings hosted the Falcons. Back then, when the Vikings had the highest-scoring offense in NFL history with Randall Cunningham at quarterback and Randy Moss and Cris Carter at wide receiver, they got the ball back at their 30-yard line with 30 seconds remaining, two timeouts and the score tied at 27. They sat on the football, taking a knee and drawing widespread criticism when they eventually lost in overtime.
But the situation was almost identical to the one Denver was in last Saturday. The Broncos, with quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, got back the ball at their 20-yard line with 31 seconds remaining, two timeouts and the score tied at 35. They sat on the football, taking a knee and drawing widespread criticism. Denver's decision was similar to the one that former Vikings coach Dennis Green made nearly 15 years ago. Minnesota didn't play to win; it played not to lose. And that was how the Broncos played, and lost, Saturday.
3. Unlikely influence: It's hardly thought of as a football hotbed like Michigan or USC, but few schools are as well represented in the NFL's final four as John Carroll University. The offensive coordinators for the 49ers and Patriots -- Greg Roman and Josh McDaniels, respectively -- attended John Carroll. So did the directors of player personnel for the Falcons and Patriots, David Caldwell and Nick Caserio, respectively.Even teams not in the playoffs have John Carroll ties: Jacksonville has hired Caldwell as its general manager, and San Diego hired John Carroll graduate Tom Telesco as its general manager. Must be something in the water in University Heights, Ohio, where the school's football stadium is named after Don Shula, another famous alum. All that's missing from these playoffs is Washington advancing further than it did with Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who also starred at John Carroll.
4. Home cooking: It hardly means that New England and Atlanta are destined to meet up in New Orleans, but Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Falcons quarterback Ryan are a combined 120-21 in home starts, including playoffs. Among quarterbacks to make at least 20 starts at home and begin their careers in the Super Bowl era, Brady has the best winning percentage in home starts (86-15, .851) and Ryan has the second-best (34-6, .850). Past records are hardly guarantees of future success. But it is going to take some very strong efforts from the Ravens and 49ers to beat two quarterbacks who usually do not lose at home.
5. One bargain QB: After this season, Baltimore must deal with the expiring contract of Flacco, who will get the franchise tag or an extension, and Atlanta must address Ryan's deal, which has one year remaining. The biggest quarterback bargain in this weekend's final four is Colin Kaepernick, who is making $607,000 this season. It's not bad, but it pales in comparison to Flacco's $6.7 million, Ryan's $11.5 million and Brady's $11.75 million. And it also points out one of the most attractive parts of the new collective bargaining agreement for teams. They do not have to overpay rookies, and they do not need to address their contracts until after the player's third season. So even if Kaepernick leads the 49ers to a Super Bowl title this season, he is locked into his contract for next season. There's nothing that he nor his team can do about it until after the 2014 season, which shows what a bargain he -- or any rookie -- can turn out to be.
|Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree won't be celebrating like this for a while.|
6. Coveting Crabtree: When former Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree entered the draft in 2009, New England had him rated as the top player on its draft board, according to a league source. The Patriots might have been on to something. Even though Crabtree slid down to San Francisco's spot at No. 10, he has played more and more like a top pick this season, especially after Kaepernick became the 49ers' starting quarterback in Week 11. Since then, Crabtree ranks fifth in the league with 50 catches, fourth in the league with 714 receiving yards and tied for second with seven touchdowns. His hands have been as impressive as Kaepernick's legs. Even though San Francisco lost wide receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams to season-ending knee injuries, Crabtree has made up for their absence -- and then some. He now has San Francisco 60 minutes from a game against a team that thought he was the best player in his draft.
7. Scheduled destiny: Not to discourage Atlanta, because it does have home-field advantage Sunday, but San Francisco might just be destined to be the NFC champion, based on its schedule. In each of the past six seasons, an NFC team from the division that played its non-division games against the AFC East during the regular season has wound up in the Super Bowl. In 2006, the Bears played their non-division games against the AFC East and advanced to the Super Bowl; in 2007, the Giants did it; in 2008, the Cardinals did it; in 2009, the Saints did it; in 2010, the Packers did it; and last season, the Giants did it again. This season, it was San Francisco, which seems to mean the 49ers must be considered the favorite to become the NFC champion. Next season, the honor falls to the NFC South and the Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers. Any one of those teams might have a real advantage and shot to make it to the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey.
8. Playing it clean: Though Atlanta nearly let its game against Seattle slip away, the Falcons rarely beat themselves. One of their hallmarks is how well coached they are. The Falcons were the least-penalized team in the league, drawing only 55 penalties for 415 yards -- what might be a month's worth of penalties for a team such as Detroit or Oakland. During a postseason in which each team needs every little advantage it can find, Atlanta has one -- its discipline. No other team this weekend -- or even in the league -- draws fewer penalties for fewer yards than the Falcons.
|Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards in the regular season to complement Tom Brady's passing attack.|
9. Dangerous balance: Here's the biggest difference in New England this season compared to others: Its offense is balanced. The team can run the football as well as it can throw it. In fact, the Patriots finished this season seventh in the NFL in rushing. Everyone knows how good Brady is. But combining Brady with a formidable rushing attack makes New England's offense downright lethal. In other years, New England struggled to run the ball, and it cost the Patriots in the playoffs, most notably in their two Super Bowl losses against the New York Giants.But this season, they have recommitted to the run, and it shows. New England threw for 34 touchdowns and rushed for 25. The Patriots even are running out of the no-huddle attack, finding bigger lanes and keeping defenses such as Houston's way off-balance. And if there's one area in which Baltimore's defense has been vulnerable this season, it is against the run. The Ravens ranked 20th in the NFL in run defense. It has a tough matchup against New England's newly vaunted rushing offense.
10. Caldwell's impact: After the firings of Lovie Smith and Romeo Crennel, there is mounting concern around the league about the dwindling number of minority head coaches, which in the past two years has dropped from eight to four. The issue will attract a lot of attention this offseason, starting in meetings at next month's scouting combine in Indianapolis. Part of the problem is that teams want offensive-minded head coaches and the league's only minority offensive coordinator is Baltimore's Jim Caldwell. After the Ravens fired Cam Cameron and handed their offense to Caldwell, he has elevated Baltimore's output, and it now has two playoff wins, including a 38-point performance in Denver. Caldwell's performance has put him back on the radar and has been a boost for minority coaches at a time when their hiring has regressed rather than progressed.