Championship Sunday is upon us. After a week of previews, analysis and stories featuring this year’s final four, it’s time to get to Brass Tax, and play the games to determine who goes to Super Bowl XLVI. So, let’s get to it:
AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
Time: 3:00 PM ET
Place: Gillette Stadium – Foxborough, MA
Both teams have contrasting styles, and are best known for completely different strengths. The Patriots are known for their high-flying offense, led by QB Tom Brady. He relies on his two TEs, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, for a majority of his production. Then there are his WRs, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, who have been quite reliable all season long. However, they haven’t been known for stopping opposing offenses, having the 31st-ranked team defense during the regular season. However, they have shown that they can stop middling offensive attacks, as they did against the Denver Broncos in last week’s divisional playoff.
Meanwhile, the Ravens aren’t known for any kind of successful pass-happy offense – QB Joe Flacco has only racked up 3,610 yards through the air. However, their strength lies in their defense, ranked 3rd in yards allowed and second in points allowed. With stalwarts in LB Ray Lewis, S Ed Reed, LB Terrell Suggs and NT Haloti Ngata, they are still one of the most feared defensive units in the NFL. They also have one of the strongest running games in the league, led by RB Ray Rice. With a matchup like this one, it may come down to which “liability” plays better – New England’s defense, or Baltimore’s passing offense.
With all that said, I don’t expect a blowout either way – even with Brady’s potential for explosive games through the air. After all, he has had trouble in the past against Baltimore’s defensive front, and they may cause him fits. And, if the Ravens hand the ball to Rice enough time, they may be able to keep the Patriots offense off the field, the scores low, and the game close.
However, I also don’t expect Baltimore’s defense to hold Tom Brady in check all game – and the fourth quarter is usually when Brady shines brightest. If the game is close, and the Pats are trailing, I can easily see a motivated Brady – who had been overshadowed by stories like Tim Tebow, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees all season – get the last laugh with a game-winning drive.
Projection: New England 21, Baltimore 17
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NFC Championship: New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers
Time: 6:30 PM ET
Place: Candlestick Park – San Francisco, CA
After an unexpected run to the NFC title game, the Giants and 49ers offer another matchup of hard-hitting defenses and unexpectedly strong offensive games. Despite their struggles late in the season, there is no doubt that the Giants have been the hottest team in the league. With that hot streak comes a measure of intimidation and confidence, and the Giants are not lacking in either.
After taking the Packers’ pass defense to task, QB Eli Manning brings their scary offense to the potentially muddy field of Candlestick Park. With explosive weapons in RB Ahmad Bradshaw, and WRs Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks – not to mention sledgehammer RB Brandon Jacobs – they will prove to be another big test for San Francisco’s fourth-ranked defensive squad. Furthermore, they seem to have brought everything together, especially with their defensive front – complete with Osi Umeniyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck – they aim to knock the 49ers offense around as much as they did with Green Bay.
Despite their perceived weakness on offense, the 49ers will most likely play to their strengths on their home field on Sunday. After all, the rain is expected to pound San Francisco throughout the game, and they will need to rely on their eighth-ranked running game, led by RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, to control the clock as much as possible to keep Manning and Co. on the bench.
QB Alex Smith has proven in recent weeks – capped off with his amazingly clutch performance in last week’s divisional playoff against the Saints – that he can be trusted with the game on the line. He will need to rely on TE Vernon Davis and WRs Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams more than ever. It will help that blocking TE Delanie Walker will be back from a broken jaw suffered earlier this season, to keep the defensive waves of New York from getting to Smith. If the 49ers’ defensive front – led by DE Justin Smith, and LBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman – can get to Manning as much as they did in Week 10, they can give themselves a decided advantage.
With all that said, the conditions in San Francisco could give the 49ers enough of an edge to, at least, somewhat neutralize New York’s passing attack. If that is the case, they can use their decidedly superior rushing defense to keep the score low, and possibly create some turnovers. While it is hard to go against the hottest team in the league, with one of the best QBs in the league, it’s even harder to go against a team brimming with confidence at home, with all the tools necessary to win in rough conditions.
Projection: San Francisco 24, New York 23
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