49ers

How Will Falcons, 49ers, Patriots, Ravens Deal with Playoff Pressure?

At this point in the week, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said.

The Falcons need to stop Kaepernick.

A Ravens victory depends on stifling the Patriots’ up-tempo offense.

Will Matt Ryan play 4 quarters of great football?

Can New England establish a ground game against a resurgent Baltimore defense?

Lennay Kekua, an avid Falcons fan, bravely uttered “stop Kaepernick” before she lost her battle with car- accident-leukemia-fake-person-syndrome.

Yup, we get all of it. So what is left to talk about? The storylines have been ingrained in our minds, but in the end none of that will end up mattering much.

Playoff football has a life of its own, and it doesn’t seem to be subjected to normal rules of football analysis. The common stats and storylines show up in the regular season, but playoff football has its own set of rules.

Of course, the Falcons do need to stop Kaepernick, the Ravens undoubtedly need to slow down the Pats’ offense, and no one could ever dispute Lennay Kekua’s last, fictional words (ok, I’ll stop). But the playoff element, the atmosphere that takes over a football game in January or February, is the real factor to discuss. It’s what separates today’s games from Weeks 1-17, and it adds something to the equation that is hard to measure.

We saw it when Peyton threw that fateful interception in the second overtime and when Atlanta stormed down the field for an improbable (and nearly undeserved) victory. The playoffs give us moments that would have been hard to fathom in the regular season, and they elevate great moments to immeasurable stakes.

Playoff stakes change the way many players and teams play, and that is what is so fascinating to see. We all know that Kaepernick is fast, but will he respond to last week’s game with another fantastic playoff performance? Will Atlanta allow him to go Mike-Vick-In-Peewee on them, or will they deliver the playoff performance that reminds us Kaepernick is a kid playing some of his first professional games?

I’m inclined to pick the 49ers because they are an all-around better team, and Kaepernick forever gained my respect by bouncing back from a potentially devastating pick-six early in last week’s game. I’m also inclined to pick the Falcons because they are at home, and maybe just maybe they’ve cooked up the perfect scheme to confuse the young San Fran signal caller. I could pick either one of those scenarios, in turn making a prediction about the winner, but I just don’t know what will happen.

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