Red-Zone Execution Sends Baltimore & San Francisco To Championship Sunday Wins

It wasn’t a Championship Sunday that the football sabermetricians will love, as both Baltimore and San Francisco were outgained in total yardage. It underscores the big distinction both teams drew from their opponents yesterday, and it was execution at key points in the game. It was what ultimately decided the 49ers’ 28-24 win in Atlanta and it was the overriding theme all night long in the Ravens’ surprisingly easy 28-13 win in New England.

We’ll start with Baltimore, because while San Francisco-Atlanta was the better game, the most intriguing storylines—not just leading up to the game, but within the game itself—were in the AFC Championship. I got the feeling the Patriots were in trouble late in the first quarter. They were doing everything they needed to do defensively, and were moving the ball on offense, but the Baltimore defense came up with two key stops—one in the red zone to force a field goal, the other at the 35-yard line to force a punt. Despite controlling play, New England only led 3-0, and you could extend the logic all the way to halftime when the lead was just 13-7.

Joe Flacco’s performance in the first half had been fairly pedestrian and early in the third quarter it again looked like New England would get a second chance to open up some distance. They drove into Baltimore territory, and Wes Welker dropped a third-down pass that would have been a first down. Unlike last year’s Super Bowl play, there was no doubt this was on the receiver and not the quarterback. Sitting on the 34-yard-line, New England again opted to punt.

The pattern was clear—the Ravens defense was bending and not breaking. And while sabermetricians might call that luck, I would differ. When you have a group of veterans that play smart, going against an offense, that for as good as it is, has no real deep threat, you can execute this game plan. We’ve seen New England play flawless offensive football enough times that when they don’t, it takes you off guard. I didn’t feel like the Patriots played a bad offensive game, but in the areas of the field when points were being decided, it was no contest—Baltimore owned the game.

It was the same story when the Ravens had the ball. New England had played good defense in the first half, and the fact Baltimore put together two drives in the third quarter and early fourth, could not be seen as surprising. But it was Flacco who suddenly looked like a boxer, who had been laying back in the early rounds and then delivered a flurry of punches. Baltimore delivered on red-zone execution, put it in the end zone twice and went up 21-13. And while the Patriots’ next drive was halted by what I felt was a bad call on a Stevan Ridley fumble, the ensuing results showed how thoroughly Flacco had taken control. He marched it right in again and it was 28-13.

Both New England’s total yardage, as well as the turnovers, were basically padded by the remainder of the game. The Patriots moved it into the red zone and Brady was intercepted twice. The Baltimore defense is not what it once was, a reason I didn’t believe in this team at the start of the year, or even at the start of the playoffs. But what they showed was you either have to make big-time playmakers on the outside or you have to execute flawlessly in the red zone. New England doesn’t, and they didn’t.

Baltimore’s success has almost an NBA-like feel to it. By that I mean, it’s the group of veterans who paced themselves through the regular season and then hit their stride in the playoffs.

On the NFC side, the game was great, the storyline similar to the AFC, although without nearly as much nuance. Matt Ryan missed a throw on third-and-four in the red zone on Atlanta’s second drive, meaning they settled for a field goal. That was the difference in the game, along with San Francisco’s final stop at the 10-yard line, when I thought the 49ers got away with a little pass interference. Although in fairness, I also disagreed with a call on a completed pass that had put Atlanta in that position to begin with, so it all evened out.

San Francisco was able to score four touchdowns, while Atlanta only got three, because the 49ers have a running game and the Falcons don’t. San Fran rushed for 149 yards. Frank Gore rushed for 90 yards, giving him 209 for the two NFC playoff games. Colin Kaepernick’s running ability got the attention in the win over Green Bay, but don’t forget that this team’s original offensive identity came on pounding the ball with Gore.

And speaking of this team’s original identity—can Alex Smith’s defenders finally concede that there’s no way he would have brought this team back from 17-0 down? Kaepernick made San Francisco an explosive offensive team, along with playing great defense and running the ball. I thought his inexperience would trip him up on Sunday, although I never doubted that Jim Harbaugh was doing the right thing by getting him that experience. As it turns out, the head coach had his cake and ate it too.

Now we’re on to the Super Bowl. TheSportsNotebook lays low on the pregame buildup for this—I trust you may occasionally hear in some other media outlets that two brothers are coaching against each other, so I don’t have to reiterate it. NFL coverage will return late next week, while the sports focus here is on college basketball, the NBA and the NHL. In the meantime, congratulations to the Harbaugh Family, and to the 49ers and Ravens.