On we go to Championship Sunday, which possibly has the best football of the season. The games this weekend should be pretty close, so we should have a good weekend of entertaining games leading up to Super Bowl XLVI in Indy.
AFC Title Game: 2 Baltimore Ravens @ 1 New England Patriots 3 PM CBS
Do you think Tom Brady was annoyed with the media coverage of Tim Tebow? Based on his performance on Saturday night, I'd guess so. He lit up a bad Denver defense, and he likely won't have near the success level against Baltimore. But that doesn't mean Tom Brady still doesn't want this game really badly. Joe Flacco has had to deal with faux criticism about his game, so can he face the music and get the Ravens over the hump?
Baltimore Offense vs. New England Defense
The Ravens offense last Sunday was... well, pitiful. They never got anything established up front, and couldn't throw the ball down the field. The Texans owned the line of scrimmage on defense, and Bill Belichick was surely paying attention to that. The Ravens have to be able to establish Ray Rice on the ground in order to give themselves a chance to stretch the field vertically at some point. The Patriots got great play from their linebackers on Saturday, and they will need that again in order to take away the Ravens Tight Ends, who can provide some trouble in the teeth of the Pats defense. Rob Ninkovich was especially good, and if he can take away Ray Rice, he'll be able to take away the Ravens major offensive threat early, and limit their chances with the passing game with receivers that really struggle to break away from tight man coverage. That's how New England shut down Tim Tebow, and that's how they'll shut down Joe Flacco. The Ravens offensive line was whipped for 5 sacks against Houston, and if the Patriots can get at least half of the pressure Houston did, the Ravens are in some trouble. This just seems like a matchup New England can win, but if they don't, they are of course vulnerable, because they are the 31st ranked defense in the NFL. But, it can have good moments, and against a not so potent offense, I'd expect some good moments from this unit.
New England Offense vs. Baltimore Defense
"You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them" is a popular refrain when talking about an amazing offense, and New England has one of them. They provide so many matchup issues because of their receivers and tight ends, and yet they still cut open defenses with surgical accuracy. The Patriots have not faced a defense like they will with the Ravens coming to town since the Giants left town back in early November, however. The matchup issues that the Patriots bring are only exacerbated if you can't stop the Patriots running game, and the Ravens should be able to do that. The one thing Baltimore has to do, is get pressure on Tom Brady. Easier said than done, but in their 3 losses this season, New England's offensive line hasn't held up very well. If the Ravens can get pressure with their front 3, then they will be in very good shape, but down count on that. They'll be getting pressure with blitzing, but that's a double edged sword considering the matchups you give up in the process. New England will score points no matter what, it's just a matter of whether the Ravens can generate pressure and force turnovers to give their offense a chance to keep up.
The Ravens have beaten New England in the postseason in Foxborough before, but the teams were very different back in 2009. The Patriots can dominate at home, and they should be able to here. The weather shouldn't be a problem, and that favors New England. Because the Patriots don't really have any disadvantages to deal with, they have an advantage here.
Player to Watch: Torrey Smith
He was here a week ago, and he will be once again. If he can separate on deep throws and loosen up the Patriots defense... well, it will be a far cry from what happened against the Texans. The Ravens need to stretch the field with a passing attack that isn't intermediate routes to tight ends and flare screens to Ray Rice, and Torrey Smith is the way for the Ravens to get that.
Prediction: Patriots 28 Ravens 13
The Pats will have just too much for the Ravens to deal with on both sides of the ball, so let the talk begin about Joe Flacco's skill, and the Ravens receiving corps in general. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can only do so much.
NFC Title Game: 4 New York Giants @ 2 San Francisco 49ers 6:30 FOX
I will now eat my crow that I deserve for my Saints and Packers predictions. I underestimated both teams, but I really underestimated the 49ers. My opinion of Alex Smith is changing from a glossy Trent Dilfer, to a glossy Elvis Grbac. Next, he'll graduate to the level of a glossy Joe Flacco. He's really moving up the ladder, isn't he? Eli Manning doesn't really have to deal with that though, because this has been far and away his best season of his career. What wins out in the 8th all time playoff meeting between the two NFC Giants (no pun intended)?
Giants Offense vs. 49ers Defense
The game will be won on this side of the ball. The Giants offense has a passing game which is even 10 times better than the group that won the Super Bowl back in 2007. Eli Manning's ability allows him to stretch the field with a very deep receiving corps, and really lackluster tight ends with no running game to back him up. The 49ers defense has been lights out this season, but don't let the yards the Saints racked up last week fool you, because they forced Drew Brees to throw the ball on every down. Their secondary is still vulnerable, but they forced 5 turnovers against Drew Brees, so they should be able to force 1 or 2 against the Giants, who still have the prospect of watching Eli Manning make a "typical Eli" throw. The Giants can't run the ball, so there's that out. The Giants offensive line has to be able to protect well against the 2 Smith's, Aldon and Justin, and also keep up against the blitzes from the very deep linebacker corps. I would expect a similar result to what happened a week ago, with the 49ers giving up yards through the air but overall having a pretty good game. If the Giants are able to run the ball, then that will add a much needed dimension to an offense that may very well need it.
49ers Offense vs. Giants Defense
Alex Smith (almost) shook the dreaded "Game Manager" label after his impressive performance down the stretch against the Saints. It will be tougher against a Giants defense that has enjoyed an amazing resurgence since their embarrassing loss against the Redskins a month ago. They're getting amazing pressure on the opposing QB, and their battered secondary has played very well. The 49ers offensive line did have some trouble dealing with Gregg Williams' blitzes, and they will surely then have trouble dealing with the Giants fearsome front 4. The Giants only really have to take away Vernon Davis in order to force Alex Smith to try to make something happen with his lackluster receiving corps. They can run the ball with Frank Gore too, and they'll have to, because Alex Smith will likely have troubles throwing the ball. Gore only got 13 carries last week, and he will possibly double that on Sunday. He has to have a big game, which is hard to do against the Giants defense, which has consistently shut down the run all season. The Giants should have some success against the 49ers, but I should never underestimate the anti "Game Manager" Alex Smith anymore.
San Francisco can win at home very easily, but the Giants are proven road warriors, so there's that out. The major X-Factor in this game that doesn't have to do with FOX shamelessly plugging that show will be the weather. There's some big time rain in the forecast, and that favors the more physical team on both sides of the football, and that's San Francisco. They can run the ball better than the Giants can, and that will be a huge key in this game. The receivers for the Giants will have trouble on the bad track, so this could be something interesting to watch.
Player to Watch: Ahmad Bradshaw
Based on what I talked about with the weather, the passing game will be harder to really use in full force. Ahmad Bradshaw and his counterpart Brandon Jacobs will have to be able to run the ball very well in order to take pressure off Eli Manning in the bad weather. They could also be important in the short passing game.
Prediction: 49ers 20 Giants 17
The weather threw me here, so I picked the 49ers for that reason. They are the more physical team, which will really help them here. I know the Giants are red-hot right now, but I still am not totally confident with the Giants. They could always have one of those games like they had against Vince Young, or the two against Washington.
Enjoy Championship Sunday!