The last true football weekend of the season. I know, some of you will be saying: Wait, the Super Bowl is in two weeks though. True, but the Super Bowl is more of an entertainment spectacle than it is a football game. The AFC and NFC Championship games are true football games. No overproduced halftime shows, no 8 hour pre-game shows, no Entertainment Tonight or TMZ cameras. This is about football. So with that being said here’s a take on both games this weekend.
Baltimore at New England.
Contrasting styles meet up in Foxboro. A hard-hitting Ravens defence vs. a high-powered Patriots offence. The Ravens defence has built up a reputation on a menacing, take no prisoners approach with a penchant for big plays. Linebacker Ray Lewis is the unquestioned leader of this group and was the leader back in 2000 when the Ravens won the Super Bowl. Terrell Suggs led the Ravens with 14 sacks and is as ferocious as they come. Safety Ed Reed has a nose for the ball with 57 career interceptions, 6 of those he’s returned for touchdowns. Up front is the ultimate space eater, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata whose 330 pound frame can swallow up running backs faster than PacMan on speed. On offence the Ravens MUST run the ball in order to have success. Ray Rice had a fabulous season but only rushed for 60 yards in last week’s win over Houston. Rice must touch the ball at least 25 times and has to be the focal point of the Ravens offence. Quarterback Joe Flacco has struggled in big games in the past so now would be a wonderful time to shed that reputation. Flacco was OK last week going 14 out of 27 for 176 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. However Flacco still missed open receivers and was sacked 5 times. Flacco must do a better job at feeling the pressure, reading blitz packages, and throwing the ball away when necessary. Even Ed Reed was critical of Flacco’s play last week which has caused some drama in the Ravens locker room.
For the Patriots, it begins and ends with Tom Brady. The 3 time Super Bowl winner was simply brilliant last week in the Patriots destruction over Denver. Brady went 26 for 34 for 363 yards and a playoff record 6 touchdowns. Brady spread the ball around like butter on toast and utilized all his weapons with pinpoint accuracy and deadly consequences for Denver. Brady will have to be just as good against a forceful Ravens defence who will give Brady different looks and formations while being a physical presence as well. Brady’s favourite target as of late has been tight end Rob Gronkowski. Before the playoffs started Gronkowski was more famous having his picture taken with a porn star and having it go viral on the internet. Since that photo was released, Gronkowski has been an unstoppable force whose size and speed are difficult to contain. Last week Gronkowski had 10 catches for 145 yards and 3 touchdowns. He looked like the second coming of Kellen Winslow. (And no I’m not talking about the current Tampa Bay tight end.) In all 7 different Patriots caught passes so the Ravens have to be prepared for everything. Watch for Wes Welker to possibly have a big game. With Gronkowski starting to get more attention, it could free space for Welker to run crossing routes and open up holes for some big plays. The Patriots defence did struggle in the regular season but had a superb game against the Broncos, completely shutting Tim Tebow and frustrating the Broncos at every turn. If the Patriots defence can contain the running game it should open up the pass rush against a struggling Baltimore offensive line. That is when coach Bill Belichick is at his best. No one can game plan like Belichick and he’s a master and exposing the opponent’s weakness.
Prediction: The old motto is defence wins championships but I’m picking the Patriots will win for 3 reasons. I think their defence is good enough to stop a mediocre Ravens offence. Brady has too many weapons. And the Reed vs. Flacco feud will be a distraction for the Ravens.
New York Giants at San Francisco.
A matchup with some deep and fantastic history. These two franchises have engaged in some classic battles in the past and this one is shaping up to add another chapter to this rivalry.
The Giants are coming into this game as the hottest team in the NFL having won 4 in a row and 5 out of their last 6. Their most impressive win was last week’s 37-20 beatdown of the heavily favoured Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Eli Manning has proven to the naysayers that he is an elite quarterback this year. Last week Manning went 21 for 33 for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. Manning’s favourite target last week was Hakeem Nicks who caught 7 passes for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns including a hail mary TD catch at the stroke of halftime. Nicks did bruise his knee in practice this week, but should be ready to go this week. Manning has other options as well. Victor Cruz is a homerun threat every time he touches the ball while Mario Manningham is a solid possession receiver. The running game, which has struggled all season has come alive in the playoffs. The backfield tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have given the Giants a boost in the rushing attack and have balanced out the Giants attack. The defence has stepped up their game as well. Led by second year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul the Giants have recorded 6 sacks in the postseason including 4 last week against the Packers. If the Giants can stop the run, they could very easily find success with their pass rush.
The 49ers are coming off a thrilling win over New Orleans last week in which Alex Smith emerged as clutch quarterback. While comparisons to Joe Montana are still unrealistic, Smith’s poise and composure when the game was on the line was instrumental in the 49ers win. Smith went 24 out of 42 for 299 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also ran one in himself on a brilliant call in which the Saints bunched up the middle of the field, and Smith went around the end on a bootleg from 28 yards out. His main target will be tight end Vernon Davis who caught 7 passes for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. Davis has blossomed into a terrific tight end after a shady start to his career. If Davis can take up space then Michael Crabtree can find holes down the field. While Crabtree struggles at times with a case of butterfingers, he is a deep threat whom the Giants must pay attention too. In the running game, Frank Gore is a beast in the backfield. He rushed for 89 yards on only 13 carries last week and should see the football more this week. The 49ers defence is a hard-hitting smash mouth defence led by linebacker Patrick Willis. His fellow linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith bring the pain each and every play. The secondary led by cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson are superb in coverage and are very physical as well.
Prediction: This is a tough one. The Giants are an excellent road team and don’t mind playing in hostile conditions. However they haven’t faced a defence like the 49ers in the playoffs. I think the 49ers grew up last week and showed their mettle. It will be close and I wouldn’t bet huge money on it but I’m picking the 49ers to win.
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