At least I was .500 last week. The AFC games went as anticipated, but NFC favorites, New Orleans and Green Bay, both made earlier than anticipated exits.
New Orleans @ San Francisco
What a way to start the weekend. New Orleans was able to put 30+ points despite being outdoors and 2,000 miles from home, but it wasn’t enough as San Francisco mustered 36, their second highest point total (48 v. TB) of the year. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis had the game of their lives, but the bigger story may have been just how much went wrong for the Saints. They had 5 turnovers, all of the excruciatingly costly variety. It all started when Pierre Thomas got knocked out by Donte Whitner at the Niners’ 2 yard line, causing the Saints to leave 3 or 7 points on the field in their first possession. Then there’s a Brees INT that was returned inside the 5. After the Niners scored, Courtney Roby fumbled the ensuing kickoff. An Akers FG later, and the Saints are down 17-0 and without Pierre Thomas. The Saints got back into the game and seemingly had it won, but they left too much time on the clock, as their defense couldn’t hold the Niners to a FG attempt and a shot at advancing in overtime. What a dramatic win for the Niners.
Denver @ New England
Contrary to popular belief, the NFL season did not end when the Broncos season fizzled out in a 45-10 yawner that saw Tom Brady complete 26 passes for 6 TDs while the holy hype train completed just 3 more passes than Brady tossed TDs despite playing catch up for the entirety of the contest. Hell, the Patriots even dabbled with Aaron Hernandez as a ball carrier, giving him 5 totes which he turned into 61 yards and a near rushing score. Rob Gronkowski continued his dominance over opposing defenses, catching 10 passes (1 more than Denver’s QB completed) for 3 TDs. It was laughable how easily New England marched down the field and scored at will on the overmatched Broncos. This one was well decided at halftime, where the Patriots led by 28 and put it on cruise control the rest of the way. Tom Brady moves on and continues his drive for a 4th ring while John Elway gets to start his heartburn of an offseason attempting to put more lipstick on his pig.
Houston @ Baltimore
Guessed this score correctly (20-13). Baltimore was clearly the better team in this one, but they’ve got an ugly way of playing not to lose. Despite being the inferior team starting a rookie QB on the road in the playoffs, the Texans had a shot of tying it up ahead of the 2 minute warning before TJ Yates’ was intercepted by Ed Reed. Yes, the Ravens are moving on to the AFC title game, but there were a few negatives to take from this one. Joe Flacco continues to wilt under pressure. I like Flacco, but I’m put off by his inability to improvise when the play breaks down. He’s got to get a lot better in that area if this team is going to be able to match points with the Patriots. Ray Rice was held to under 3 yards per carry and was held out of the endzone on three straight runs inside the 5 in what could have been a huge empty drive. Arian Foster pretty much did what he wanted against their defense, totaling 154 yards and a score. Torrey Smith was held to just 9 yards on 1 reception. He’s got to be productive, regardless of who’s covering him, if the offense is to be productive. Again, it’s a win, but Baltimore can’t feel great about their mo heading into the showdown at Foxboro.
Giants @ Packers
Wow, I’ve got to say that even though I called the Giants as my surprise playoff team, I’m shocked at how easily they had their way with the Packers, shutting down Aaron Rodgers and his arsenal of weapons. Despite playing catch up for the majority of the game, no Packers receiver was able to tally more than 45 yards, and Donald Driver was the only one to find the endzone. Hakeem Nicks caught as many passes as Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson together, more than doubled their combined yardage total, and scored twice. This one went so not as expected for the Packers. Rodgers not only threw an INT but turned the ball over on a sack. I quit counting the dropped passes, but the one by Jermichael Finley on 3rd down inside the Giants’ 40 down 7 was a dagger. The next time they got the ball, Ryan Grant fumbled, and Mario Manningham scored on the next play. The Packers were done after that. The Giants are an extremely opportunistic team firing on all cylinders right now, and I truly believe that Eli is one of the elite QBs in the league. He has come miles in the confidence standpoint, and it’s as if the game has finally slowed down for him.
Conference Championship Predictions
Ravens @ Patriots (Sunday, 3:00)
In the first of what should be two tremendous matchups, the Ravens travels up the east coast to face a Patriots team that they beat the last time these two hooked up in the playoffs. When the Ravens won at New England two years ago, they dominated the Patriots on the ground and made life miserable for Tom Brady. Ray Rice ran for 159 yards and scored twice. Flacco wasn’t at his best, throwing for 34 yards and an INT in that one. You know Baltimore won’t be overwhelmed in that atmosphere, but Brady and that offense are on fire.
When the Patriots have the ball I think you’ll see Lardarius Webb take on Wes Welker and for Jimmy Smith to cover Deion Branch. That Webb-Welker matchup should be entertaining. Flashing back to the game from two years ago, what stands out most for me in that one is that Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski had yet to become Patriots. Who is going to stop those guys this time around? While, the Ravens will mix coverage all game to give Brady different looks, I expect to see them put Cary Williams on Aaron Hernandez, matching speed with speed, as often as possible. Spending most of the game shadowing Gronkowski should be safety Bernard Pollard with some help from Smith and the linebackers. Look for Pollard to beat on Gronk early and often, trying to cut him down before he’s able to make plays after the catch. I expect Pollard to be the key to their success defensively Sunday. If those DBs can keep their heads above water, that will free up Ed Reed to do what he does best – roam the field and make plays.
When the Ravens have the ball they’ve got to establish Ray Rice on the ground, for multiple reasons. One, it keeps Joe Flacco from having to win the game or spend the most of it trying to make too many plays. Two, it keeps Brady and those receivers on the sidelines. Last week, the Texans focused on shutting down Rice and making Flacco beat them. They were able to slow Rice and keep Flacco in check, but unfortunately the Texans didn’t have enough offense to be completely successful. The Patriots won’t have that problem, so everyone on the Ravens’ offense must step it up this week. It’s going to be tough. Anquan can catch in traffic, but he’s not separating from anyone. Torrey Smith doesn’t have much of a route tree in his arsenal, so he’s not maximizing his speed and elusiveness. No one’s confusing Dickson and Pitta for Gronkowski and Hernandez. Like it or not, Flacco is going to have to make some plays in this one. Will he wilt under pressure, or will he extend plays and perhaps write a new chapter in his legacy?
I’ve been on the Ravens all year, but it’s going to take a near perfect game on both sides of the ball for them to leave Foxboro victorious. Tom Brady is going to get his, but I’m expecting the Ravens to take the run game out of play and make shutting down the TEs a priority. The more they can force Brady to throw deep, the better off they’ll be. Make no mistake, I obviously view Gisele’s guy as one of the game’s elite of all time, but if I can make Ed Reed more of a factor and force Brady to look more for Branch and Welker than Gronk and Hernandez, I like my chances.
Everything looks to be in New England’s favor right now. They destroyed Denver, and Baltimore barely got by Houston. No contest right? New England will have a much tougher time against Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs than they did against the Broncos, while the Ravens should find New England’s defense more giving than Houston’s. The Ravens’ defense slows down Brady just enough, and Ray Rice finds the endzone three times, lastly on the game’s final drive, as Baltimore exits Foxboro with another road playoff win.
Giants @ 49ers (Sunday, 6:30)
I wonder what the preseason odds would have been on these two teams meeting up in the NFC title game. The Giants needed a win against Dallas in week 17 to just make the playoffs, and here they stand, one game away from getting back to the Super Bowl. The Niners are the league’s most surprising team, going from 6-10 last year to 13-3 this year, good for the second best record in football. These two teams met back in week 10 with San Francisco pulling out a 7 point home victory when the Giants were unable to pick up 2 yards on 3 plays from the Giants 10. That would have given them first and goal from very close and a great chance of forcing extra football. Justin Smith batted down an Eli Manning pass on 4th down, and Alex Smith came out for a few kneel downs before the celebration ensued. With all of the veterans on the Giants, that loss is surely serving as at least a bit of motivation this week.
The key to San Francisco’s success this year was, on paper, simple – run the ball and stop the run. Jim Harbaugh hinted at a more open offense last week, asking Smith to make the plays championship QBs must make, and he obliged with 4 total TDs and a shade under 300 yards passing. If there was a big play to be made by the Niners last Saturday, Alex Smith was front and center – from the 2 TDs to Davis and the play of the game, his 28 yard keeper TD. Can he pull it off two weeks in a row, this time against a much stouter defense? I don’t believe they’ll be able to establish much on the ground, and I think Harbaugh knows that. I’m sure he’s been feeding and prepping Smith all week on ways to expose and beat that aggressive Giants defense. If the Niners are to advance to their first Super Bowl since Steve Young and Jerry Rice torched Junior Seau’s Chargers almost 20 years ago, they’ll need to repeat last week’s A+ performance on both sides of the ball. Will Davis bust loose for a third straight game (15 catches, 298 yds)? Will Justin and Aldon Smith put enough consistent pressure on Eli and company to disrupt the offense’s timing? If so, All Pro Patrick Willis, breakout backer Navorro Bowman, and super safety Dashon Goldson will be able to do what they do best – cover a lot of ground and make big plays.
Do the Giants look determined or what? After embarrassing the Falcons and stifling the champs, you’ve got to like the defense’s chances of making things hard on the Niners. The front four, specifically JPP, Tuck, and Osi, should be able to put quite a bit more consistent pressure on Alex Smith, forcing him into more mistakes and less big plays downfield. Davis is SF’s biggest passing weapon, but the Giants pretty much shut down Tony Gonzalez and Jermichael Finley in their last two games. Also, Davis had one big play on a defensive breakdown against the Niners in their last matchup. Surely, Coach Coughlin has brought this up a few times during the week. Offensively, if that line doesn’t collapse on Eli, you’ve got to like his chances of making plays downfield with Nicks, Cruz, and Manningham. Nicks is in a zone right now, looking like a guy putting together a playoff run we’ll remember for a while. New York will need Jacobs and Bradshaw to loosen up the defense, at least a little bit, and I think the former will end up being a factor in this one; if nothing else than to keep the Niners a little more honest defensively.
The Giants began a four game losing skid with that week 10 loss. Will the Niners be the team to end their current 4 game win streak? While San Francisco returning to prominence is nostalgic, I can’t get all the way on board just yet. They needed an abundance of turnovers and a couple of career games to get this far, and with the Giants wreaking of positive mojo, I can’t see the Niners being as fortunate this week. I don’t think Smith will be able to match scores with Eli, and no one has abused defenses the last three weeks as much as Nicks. The Giants hold Vernon Davis in check and are able to generate enough pressure with their front four to force Smith and the Niners into too many 3rd and unmanageables. Eli and a stout defense get New York one step closer to another storybook championship.