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One Harbaugh in, one out for Super Bowl picks

One Harbaugh in, one out for Super Bowl picks

For those fans clamoring to see someone new in the Super Bowl, the NFC is giving you what you want.

Sorry about the AFC.

Yep, same old, same old is ahead, with the New England Patriots hosting the Baltimore Ravens for the second straight conference championship game Sunday. With a similar result, too.

New England (13-4) is a 9 1/2-point favorite to reach its sixth Super Bowl in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. The Patriots' quarterback and coach are 3-2 together in the big game, but the last two appearances have been losses to the Giants.

That surely must irk the two men who otherwise have dominated the last 12 NFL seasons.

The Patriots have never lost an AFC title game at home (4-0, three of those in those 12 seasons). They certainly came close last January when Lee Evans couldn't hold onto a pass in the end zone in the final moment that would have sent the Ravens to their second Super Bowl and first since the 2000 season, when they won it all.

New England will move the ball on Baltimore (12-6) and could resort to running it more often than in the past. Not only is Stevan Ridley a 1,000-yard rusher, something very rare for the Patriots, but the Ravens aren't nearly as stout as they once were at stopping the run. With the emergence of Shane Vereen and consistency of Danny Woodhead if he is healthy, the Patriots are deep in the backfield, too.

The loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski will be damaging for the Patriots, but not overwhelmingly so. Aaron Hernandez will pick up the slack in receptions and the blocking of Michael Hoomanawanui against Houston was exemplary.

Where the Ravens could prosper is in a revitalized pass rush. Terrell Suggs finally is approaching his top defensive player status of 2011 after returning from a partially torn Achilles tendon. Paul Kruger already is a dynamic sack guy.

Ray Lewis' pending retirement adds an emotional boost for Baltimore.

But in the end, New England's offense will be too persistent, too sharp and too deep for Baltimore to stop. Look for Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Hernandez to have strong games, and for the Patriots' defense to keep Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Baltimore's dangerous offense from doing too much damage.

And look for the Patriots to be in New Orleans next month.

PATRIOTS, 30-24

San Francisco (minus 3 1/2) at Atlanta

Had the Falcons kept the rout going against Seattle in last Sunday's divisional round, the spread here would be different. But Atlanta (14-3) nearly blew it, raising questions among the odds makers about how good the Falcons really are.

They're plenty good, as their last-minute rally to Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal to beat the Seahawks proved. The issue: San Francisco (12-4-1) simply is better.

Of the remaining four teams, the 49ers are the most balanced. They have the best defense by far; only Seattle's unit really challenged them among all the playoff qualifiers.

Atlanta will struggle to run against Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Co. So the Falcons will take to the air, a wise decision when you have playmakers Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones.

Problem is, the Niners' secondary is as good as any, even if the interceptions were down this season. And the pass rush, sparked by Aldon Smith (19 1/2 sacks), is formidable.

Where San Francisco has an edge over last year, when it lost at home to the Giants for the conference crown, is in its passing game. Second-year QB Colin Kaepernick has added a dynamic dimension with his strong arm, escapability and overall athletic skills. Michael Crabtree has developed into a dependable receiver with big-play abilities.

Add that to Frank Gore's running, and Atlanta's D will be overmatched.

49ERS, 23-16

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2012 RECORD:

Against spread: 3-1 (117-127-7). Straight up: 2-2 (164-95-1)

Best Bet: 9-8-2 against spread, 13-6 straight up.

Upset special: 11-8 against spread, 9-10 straight up.

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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John Harbaugh defends Lamar Jackson's playoff performance

John Harbaugh defends Lamar Jackson's playoff performance

Coach John Harbaugh, just six days after his team’s disappointing 28-12 loss to the Titans in the AFC playoffs, has already had to defend his quarterback.

Faced with some criticism after Jackson finished 31-of-59 passing, and three total turnovers, Harbaugh mentioned how far Jackson has come in the last year — which also ended in an early playoff loss at home.

“It’s really interesting to look at Lamar Jackson, because look at the progress he made in the last year,” Harbaugh said Friday. “Because the same question, I think you might have asked it last year, how is he going to get better going forward? And he did a good job, right? He’s 23 years old. He’s younger than Joe Burrow. So, he has a pretty good head start right now.”

Jackson is now 0-2 in the playoffs with a 19-3 regular season record. 



He’s likely the MVP this season after he passed for more than 3,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 yards, setting the single-season rushing record for a quarterback along the way. He led the NFL in passing touchdowns and carried the most prolific offense in the league to a league-best 14-2. 

Harbaugh isn’t worried that his quarterback, who is just 23-years-old, hasn’t found his playoff success yet.

“The Manning brothers combined to, they had five losses in their first five playoff games before they won one,” Harbaugh explained. (Joe) Montana, (Steve) Young and (Brett) Favre didn’t start a playoff game until their third season, (Drew) Brees and (Troy) Aikman, until their fourth season, and (Aaron) Rodgers until his fifth season.”

After the season ended, Harbaugh added that Jackson went to his office to discuss the offseason and what he needed to do to improve. 

While Harbaugh and the offensive coaching staff had a plan for Jackson to improve, Jackson “nailed” each and every single critique that the coaches had laid out for him.

“I’m really confident in Lamar and his understanding the things he needs to do to get better, and that he’s going to work really hard to keep building himself up as a player,” Harbaugh said.

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Harbaugh reflects on resting starters: 'I might go the other way' next year

Harbaugh reflects on resting starters: 'I might go the other way' next year

If the Ravens can pull off winning the AFC North division title three years in a row, their starters might be on the hook for Week 17 next time around.

In head coach John Harbaugh's season-review press conference on Friday, the Ravens leader of 12 years was asked if resting his starters in Week 17 vs Pittsburgh contributed to their AFC Divisional Round loss to the Tennesse Titans. 

"I mean, we didn't play well," he said.

Harbaugh went on to explain how he dove into the numbers of football's past in order to make decisions ahead of hosting the Steelers in their regular-season finale. The Ravens ultimately won 28-10 before two weeks off and then losing to Tennessee, 28-12.

"You look at the history, and I did that, went back and looked at the history," Coach Harbaugh said. "And the history is about 50/50. You know, teams have held their guys out and won and then won the Super Bowl. Teams have held their guys out and lost. It's gone both ways. We held our guys out and won and we won the Super Bowl [in 2012]. I was probably leaning on that in all honesty."

"Going forward after this, I might go the other way, you know?" Harbaugh offered. "Right now, if I had to do it today, and it's next year and we're in this situation, God willing we're in the same situation, we'll probably go the other way in all honesty."

Analytics can only tell you what has happened in the past, not what will happen next. A predictive guide at best, resting starters is likely best exercised as a case-by-case, team-by-team situation.

Since coming to Baltimore in 2008, Harbaugh has only been faced with this specific decision twice, establishing a 50/50 track record himself. It worked for the Ravens in 2012 as they went on to beat the 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII.

It did not work in 2019. 

"The disappointment ... is that we didn't play our best football," Harbaugh continued. "That's the thing that really sticks to us. We're way better than what we played in both those games, and we're gonna have to grow from that." 

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