Conference Championship weekend is here. Two trips to the Super Bowl are on the line. And yet, the Wiz is nowhere to be seen. According to an e-mail he sent me this morning, he’s sick. (I can just picture it now: the Wiz sitting at home on the couch in his customized Troy Polamalu Snuggie, blowing his nose while watching his Super Bowl XLIII DVD and remembering the good times. Oh well, get well soon, buddy!) But enough about the Wiz, we’ve got two playoff games to break down. Here we go.
New England Patriots (1) vs. Baltimore Ravens (2)
If you want to boil this down to Joe Flacco vs. Tom Brady, the pick is easy: Patriots in a landslide. But this game is about way more than just the QBs. While Tom Brady has been playing out of this world lately, he returns to this planet when confronted with a fierce pass rush. The Ravens have just that. Baltimore’s gigantic defensive lineman, guys like Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding, regularly get in opposing quarterback faces. And then there’s linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has taken over as the Ravens best all around defender, racking up sacks, picks and everything other defensive statistic known to man. If the Ravens can generate some chaos in their pass rush, look for the Pats offense to slow down. (Of course, even a slowed down Pats offense can still put up 30 points.)
Baltimore’s offensive line is almost as effective as their defensive front. The Ravens like to run the ball until they lull their opponents to sleep then—POW!—pop the other team in the face with a deep bomb down the sideline to speedster Torrey Smith. New England’s biggest defensive weakness is their secondary. With all 11 men on the field dedicated to stopping Baltimore’s super-back Ray Rice, the Ravens might be able to pick on the Pats’ lackluster defensive backs. Then again, the above mentioned Flacco has only one career playoff game with more than 200 passing yards, so I don’t think the Ravens can necessarily take advantage of the Pats patchwork secondary.
Big-time games come down to big-time players. The Pats have the biggest time player in Brady, but they also have enough receiving weapons to fill a Pro Bowl roster—the two-headed monster tight end of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, shifty wide receiver Wes Welker and former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, to name a few. In Baltimore, Ray Rice is the only offensive star, and while they have all the big names on defense in this matchup, I don’t think it will be enough to keep up.
The Pick: Patriots 28, Ravens 17
The Ravens will make Brady uncomfortable, but he’ll still figure out ways to get into the end zone. Baltimore won’t have enough firepower on offense to match touchdowns.
San Francisco 49ers (1) vs. New York Giants (4)
In this unmatched era of passing offenses, the NFC Championship matchup will be determined by two defenses playing at their peaks. Yes, the Niners gave up 32 points last week, but that was to Drew Brees and the Saints, who can score 32 points in their sleep. The Giants, meanwhile, are coming off a huge upset on the road, where they shutdown the 15-1 Packers and their (presumed) MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. So who’s going to the Super Bowl?
True, Alex Smith outdueled Drew Brees last week, but let’s not kid ourselves, this San Francisco team wins and loses with its defense. The defensive line is anchored by two outstanding Smiths, Justin and Aldon, who eat quarterbacks for breakfast. The middle of the field is locked down by the twin terrors, linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers anchors a secondary that sticks to opposing wide receivers like glue. The Giants offense relies on big plays, but Eli Manning and his stable of standout wideouts won’t always have the time or the space to operate against San Francisco’s suffocating D.
The Giants D is all about the pass rush. Osi Umenyiora and his cronies on the D line brought Rodgers down four times last week and are constantly in the QB’s face. New York’s ability to bring heavy pressure with just its down linemen opens up more coverage options in the passing game. While their pass rush was key to bringing down the high-flying Packers, it might not be as big of an advantage against the run-heavy offense of the Niners. Alex Smith also possesses the kind of athleticism to throw on the run, so if the pocket breaks down, he can still find his favorite target, tight end Vernon Davis. Running back Frank Gore was also a non-factor the last time these two teams played after getting injured during the game. With a healthier Gore, the Niners can keep Eli and the Giants big-play offense off the field.
The pick: Niners 19, Giants 13
San Francisco’s defense has been one of the NFL’s most consistent units all season. Look for Eli to make just enough mistakes in the face of heavy pressure to send San Francisco to its first Super Bowl since 1994.