The NFL Playoffs gave fans three out of four great games last weekend. Throw out New England’s blowout win over Denver and the other three games were close till the end or late into the fourth quarter.
Best game of the weekend was the San Francisco 49ers upsetting the New Orleans Saints. The final five minutes of that game was back and forth the whole way.
Baltimore survived against the upstart Houston Texans. The Ravens used their familiar formula of defense to carry the day.
Green Bay was off on offense and defense and the New York Giants took advantage of the miscues to knock off the defending Super Bowl Champions.
Tom Brady played lights out against the Denver Broncos in a game that was over by halftime. The Patriots offense was unstoppable against the Denver defense.
The top favorites (preseason) in the NFC, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, are gone. One of the top favorites in the AFC, Pittsburgh Steelers, didn’t survive past Wild Card weekend.
Left in the NFC is the 49ers who are having a resurgent season under Jim Harbaugh in his first year. Harbaugh has revived the career of quarterback Alex Smith and got tight end Vernon Davis to play up to his talent.
In the 49ers way is a Giants team everyone left for dead after a four game losing streak in mid-November till early December. New York got healthy and got on a roll late to make the playoffs and have looked good against the Atlanta Falcons and the Packers.
The AFC has two of the top three teams left. New England finished the season winning their final eight games and is on a nine game winning streak.
The Patriots haven’t lost since a 24-20 defeat to the Giants, which came after a loss to the Steelers. New England wouldn’t lose again on their way to the number one seed in the AFC.
Baltimore wanted to get past the Steelers to win the AFC North. The Ravens defeated Pittsburgh twice in the regular season to own the tie breaker.
No question the Ravens have some head scratching loses this season. Baltimore showed up flat against Tennessee, Seattle, Jacksonville, and San Diego.
The great part of NFL Playoffs is each game is: win or go home. In the divisional round of the playoffs winning teams only had four turnovers combined and losing teams had 14 turnovers combined.
Only one team has lost the turnover battle and won a playoff game this year: New England. The rest either tied in turnovers or outright won.
Five teams that won the rush battle won the game. Only teams that won rushing battle was Pittsburgh (wild card), Green Bay (divisional) and Houston (divisional) all lost, mainly due to the turnovers that set the winners up for easy points.
The eight that teams that won playoffs games averaged 33.4 points and eight losing teams averaged 17.3 points. Old school football says, run the ball and force turnovers to win games.
In this pass happy NFL season, the post season is showing that no matter how much things change they stay the same. Championship Sunday could bring defense back into vogue as the Ravens and 49ers will try to defense to beat Patriots and Giants offense.
The road to Indianapolis is nearing the end. Could it be that in the house Peyton Manning built his brother Eli or his biggest contemporary Brady playing for a trophy he has only won once?
John and Jim Harbaugh be vying for the first Super Bowl title that one brother can hold over the other brother. After this weekend we will find out.
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots (2p.m. CBS, Sunday January 22)
New England is trying to add to their dynasty with another AFC Championship and Super Bowl win. The Patriots are look to distance themselves from the Steelers with another Lombardi Trophy.
Tom Brady is playing some of the best football of his career. Brady has a ton of different weapons like Wes Welker and Deion Branch at wide receiver.
The biggest weapons for Brady have to be his two tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both create matchup problems all over the field.
Gronkonwski and Hernandez can line up in a traditional formation (at the end of the line) and be a mismatch against a linebacker because of their speed. Both tight ends can line up wide (in the slot like a wide receiver) and create a mismatch against smaller safeties and corners with their size.
The Patriots do not rely on one running back but a large stable of running backs. Kevin Faulk and Benjarvus Green-Elis will get the bulk of the work but Danny Woodhead, Shane Vareen, and Stevan Ridley all could get touches.
New England was the second overall offense in the NFL piling up 317.8 yards per game. The Patriots were also ranked second in passing with 318 yards a contest but ranked 20th in rushing with 110.3 yards on the ground.
Baltimore will try to counter the Patriots offense with one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Ravens defense has been one of the best for about a decade and as unit should be considered one of the best all-time.
Ray Lewis is entering the twilight of his career but can still make plays. He has lost a step but made up for in football smarts.
Lewis makes sure the Ravens get into the right defense on each and every play. Ed Reed is a great safety and a ball hawk but he can be tricked into taking chances (much like Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu).
Any quarterback must know where Reed lines up before every play and try to get him to commit early to what he is doing. Baltimore can rush from all over the field with their 3-4 defense.
The Ravens will try to confuse offensive lines with who is coming and who is dropping into coverage. Baltimore has a stable of front seven players they can rush.
Against the potent Patriots offense the Ravens counter with the third rank defense that only allows 288.9 yards per game. Baltimore has the fourth best passing defense allowing just 196 yards a contest and the second best rush defense giving just 92.6 yards.
The weaknesses of these teams are defense for New England and offense for Baltimore. This game will be won by the unit that plays better than their perceived weakness.
New England has the 31st ranked total defense that is giving up 411.1 yards. The Patriots are ranked 31st in pass defense allowing 294 yards and ranked 17th in rushing giving up 117.1 yards per game.
Baltimore is ranked 15th in total offense putting up 338.7 yards a contest. The Ravens offense is ranked 19th in passing with just 214 yards and tenth in rushing with 124.8 yards per game.
Running the ball is how the Ravens make hay on offense with Ray Rice and Ricky Williams getting the bulk of the work. Baltimore needs to run the ball to set up their passing game with play action.
Joe Flacco wants to be considered elite but he cannot get into a one up man’s match with Brady throwing the ball. Flacco has to take what the defense gives him and not make mistakes.
New England plays its best defense when they get a total defensive effort. It starts with the defensive line stuffing the run and getting pressure on the quarterback.
Linebackers have to know the roles in rush and pass defense on each play. The secondary must cover and not give up easy scores with bad tackling or blown coverage.
The Patriots are looking for their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 years. New England would also have their fourth Super Bowl victory in that time.
Baltimore has made the playoffs eight of the last 12 seasons but only have one Super Bowl to show for their playoff trips. The Ravens have been bounced in the playoffs by the Steelers or Colts in five of their eight playoff appearances.
The Steelers were knocked out by the Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts didn’t even make the playoffs. This could be the best chance the Ravens have at winning their second Super Bowl.
It is hard to tell how healthy the teams are, since the Patriots list nearly every player on the injury report.
New England has listed quarterback Tom Brady (shoulder), tight end Aaron Hernandez (concussion), Wes Welker (knee) and Brandon Spikes. Baltimore only lists safety Ed Reed (knee) and wide receiver Anquan Boldin (knee).
All the players listed should play.
Everyone thinks the Patriots win games with their passing game. Consider this, since Brady and Bill Belichick have gone on their run starting in 2001, New England is 12-0 when they out rush their opponent.
When the Patriots do not win the rushing battle they are 3-5. The stat to watch is can New England run the ball which gives them the ability to mix the run and pass to keep a defense on their toes.
Defense is what carries Baltimore but it is more than just defense. It is turnovers. Since John Harbaugh took over the Ravens he has led them to four straight playoff appearances.
Baltimore is 5-0 when they win the turnover battle and the Ravens are 0-3 when they have more turnovers than their opponent. Those two stats are the common thread in Ravens and Patriots losses.
The last two meetings between these teams can in the 2009 playoffs and 2010 regular season. They spilt the games.
In the playoff game the Ravens won the game by rushing for 234 yards (Patriots 64 rushing yards) and forcing four New England turnovers (Ravens had 2 turnovers). In the regular season matchup last season, the Patriots won out rushing Baltimore 127 yards to 99 yards (to be fair the Ravens won the turnover battle which sent the game into overtime).
Figuring out the winner is easy, can the Patriots run the ball for more yards than the Ravens or can Baltimore force more New England turnovers for easy points.
New England was the best team in the AFC at forcing turnovers in the regular season at plus 17 turnover margin for the season and Baltimore was fourth with just a plus two turnover margin.
Texans showed how to run the ball against the Ravens defense. Look for New England to do several similar things. Baltimore cannot force turnovers if they do not get to Brady.
Tom Brady wants another Super Bowl. It would put him on the same level with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with four rings.
Pick: New England
New York Giants @ San Francisco 49ers ( 5:30p.m. Fox Sunday, January 22)
It is time to jump into the way back machine for this game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. These two teams were two of the best teams in the 1980- early 90’s.
In that time the Giants won two Super Bowls (1986 and 1990) and the 49ers won five Super Bowls (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, and 1994). Teams that also won the Super Bowls in the same time period were the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys.
Except for the Raiders, Washington, Dallas and Chicago had to go through San Francisco or New York to win a championship. Only twice (1982-83 and 1990-91) during the Giants and 49ers both failed to make the playoffs.
Every other year one or both made the playoffs and in the years above one won the Super Bowl. San Francisco and New York were a big part of the NFC’s dominance in the Super Bowl as the NFC won 13 straight titles and 15 out of 17 Super Bowls.
Players like Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Phil Simms, and more became household names from the 80’s to 90’s. Giants had Bill Parcells as head coach and the 49ers dynasty featured both Bill Wash and George Seifert as the head coaches.
Since the last San Francisco in 1994, the 49ers were beginning to decline. The 49ers only reached one NFC Championship game (1997 loss to Green Bay) and missed the playoffs 10 out of 17 years.
The last time San Francisco was in the playoffs besides this year was in 2002. That season ended in a loss to Tampa Bay in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
During the same time period the Giants made the playoffs eight years and went to two Super Bowls, winning one (New England 2007) and losing one (Baltimore 2000). It has been feast or famine for New York in the playoffs.
The Giants have either gone all the way to the Super Bowl or lost their first playoff game. New York defeated the Atlanta Falcons in their first playoff game.
For NFL standards the Giants have been able to sustain success over a decent period of time. From 1994 to 1996 is the only time New York missed the playoffs for more than two straight seasons. The longest streak since they failed to reach the post season from 1964 to 1980.
Much like the AFC Championship Game, this game will be decided by defense against offense. The Giants eight ranked offense averaging 385.1 yards a game will face off against the 49ers fourth ranked defense allowing just 308.1 yards an outing.
New York is ranked fifth in pass offense putting up 296 yards through the air and ranked 32nd in rushing (dead last) with just 89.2 yards. San Francisco is ranked 16th in pass defense giving up 231 yards passing and ranked first against the rush allowing only 77.3 yards per game.
The weakness for the 49ers is their offense that is ranked 26th in the NFL with 310.6 yards a game. San Francisco only puts up 183 yards passing for the 29th ranked passing attack but puts up 127.8 yards in the rushing attack that is ranked eighth.
San Francisco will pit their weak offense against New York’s weak defense. The Giants are ranked 27th on defense allowing 376.4 yards per game.
New York is ranked 19th on rush defense giving up 121.3 yards and ranked 29th on defense in passing yards allowing 255 yards. Both teams do share one common trait on defense.
The Giants and the 49ers both can get quarterback from their front seven. New York had 48 sacks in the regular season and San Francisco was not far behind with 42 sacks.
Both teams were solid at getting interceptions. New York had 20 interceptions and San Francisco had 23 interceptions. The Giants gave up 28 touchdowns through the air and San Francisco allowed 20.
Scoring on the 49ers rush defense is tough and the unit has only allowed three rushing touchdowns all year and the Giants gave up 15 rushing touchdowns. Blocking rookie Aldon Smith and Justin Smith in the pass game is a big key for the Giants.
The 49ers play good team defense and tackle well. Carlos Rogers has jumped started his career in San Francisco and overall the secondary does a decent job and at times can be very good.
New York will counter with Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora to pass rush Alex Smith. The Giants can play great rush defense and tackle when they want to put forth the effort.
In the secondary the Giants are not great but again can cover very well if they want to put in effort. They can be one of the better coverage teams when they want.
Both teams come in to the game very healthy.
San Francisco has running back Frank Gore (foot), wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (knee) and tight end Delanie Walker (jaw) all listed on their injury report. New York had quarterback Eli Manning (illness) and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) on the injury report.
All the players should play.
These teams have met in the playoffs seven times. San Francisco has won four of those meeting and the Giants have three wins.
The 49ers and New York have meet twice in the wild card round for a 1-1 spilt, four times in the divisional round with San Francisco winning three of four and once in the NFC Championship with the Giants winning the only meeting.
Overall the Giants are a perfect 4-0 in the NFC Championship Game. Their closest victory (15-13) came against San Francisco in 1990-91 season.
This game will come down to one key stat for both teams. The 49ers were the best team this season at forcing turnovers.
San Francisco had an NFL best plus 28 turnover margin. This team forced 38 fumbles and only turned the ball over 10 times. San Francisco doesn’t give up easy points off turnovers but does get easy points forcing turnovers.
New York on the other hand needs to force turnovers as well. Since Tom Coughlin became head coach in 2004, turnovers have been a part of the Giants playoff success.
The Giants are a perfect 6-0 when the win or tie (get as many turnovers as they give up) the turnover battle. New York is 0-3 when they lose the turnover battle.
What each team does with those turnovers is just as important. San Francisco has won the turnover battle and lost games or kept teams in games because they have settled for field goals and not touchdowns.
The 49ers kept the Saints in last week’s game by just kicking field goals or not scoring off of five turnovers and not putting the Saints away early. Eli Manning needs to make the most of his possessions and any 49ers mistakes.
I have to go with the Giants in this game. They are nearly the same team that won the Super Bowl in 2007 and are the hottest team in the playoffs.
It doesn’t hurt that the Giants have won every NFC Championship game they have played in as well. Eli Manning is like Tom Brady. Both are on a mission and a collision course.
Pick: New York (but only if they win the turnover battle)