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Silverman: Underrated Stars May Decide NFL Championship Games

Alex Smith. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Alex Smith. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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By Steve Silverman-

(CBS) Preparing for Championship Sunday is like playing Jeopardy for NFL coaches. If John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and Jim Harbaugh ask the right questions, then their teams are likely to end up traveling to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI.

Don’t expect to see Alex Trebek in Nap-Town, however.

Some of the questions are obvious. Start off in the AFC where John Harbaugh’s first order of business has to be to find a way to slow down the explosive New England offense. Baltimore’s defense should match up with the Patriots as well as any team in the NFL. But while the Ravens play a very physical and hard-hitting brand of defense, they are not going to shut down the Patriots. It’s a matter of slowing down New England.

The key to that aspect of the Ravens’ game is outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Pressure on Tom Brady as he sets himself in the pocket is the only way to keeping the Patriots from lighting up the scoreboard. Suggs can do this extremely well. He had 14.0 sacks and seven forced fumbles in the regular season. But it’s not just the numbers that tell the story with the man known as T-Sizzle in the Baltimore locker room. He not only gets to the quarterback, he does it quickly. A very quick first step with a shoulder dip sends Suggs around the corner with momentum and he gets into the pocket before the quarterback takes the last step of his drop. That’s the only thing that will slow down the Patriot offense.

The Ravens are going to have to come up with a credible offense. The best athlete the Ravens have on this side of the ball is running back Ray Rice. While you can’t win in the NFL with just a running attack, Rice’s explosiveness makes him a much better option than quarterback Joe Flacco. Rice rushed for a career-high 1,364 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. He also caught 76 passes for 704 yards. He scored 15 touchdowns and Rice needs to get involved early to get the Ravens a lead and run late to help them hold on to the ball in the game’s late stages.

The Patriots offense averaged 32.1 points per game (3rd in the NFL) and 317.8 passing yards per game (2nd) and can score from anywhere on the field. The key to this passing game is the depth of talent at the receiver position. The two-headed tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 24 touchdown receptions and has to be the top priority for the Ravens defense. That means that Wes Welker should be able to get open any time he wants. If the Ravens are going to give Welker single coverage, Gillette Stadium becomes his personal playground. He had 122 catches during the regular season for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns.

On the defensive side, linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes are going to have to play the games of their lives. Belichick wants to slow down Rice and his two best linebackers must keep him from breaking long runs. Ninkovich (74 tackles) is a harder hitter and a more impactful tackler, but Spikes (47 tackles) runs better and has the best chance of keeping Rice from getting into the secondary.

The Giants are trying to reprise their 2007 Super Bowl run and while critics may scoff at a 9-7 record that included getting swept by the Redskins and one-sided home loss to the Seahawks, they are scorching hot with four straight wins. Coughlin’s team is filled with swagger after crushing the Packers in Green Bay. The receiving trio of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham have the ability to take over the game. Nicks has four receiving touchdowns in the two playoff wins, but it’s Cruz who can make the circus catch at the big moment.

Defensively, no team in the playoffs can match the Giants’ all-around ability to pressure the quarterback. Second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has lightning speed coming around the corner after recording 16.5 sacks during the regular season. He has not recorded a sack in the postseason, but the Niners know he could easily ruin Alex Smith’s day if he can get an early sack or two.

The Niners have earned their spot of hosting the NFC championship with a consistent performance during the year that led to a 13-3 record. However, Jim Harbaugh is not thinking about his team’s pedigree. He is hoping that Alex Smith can pick up from where he left off in the fourth quarter against the Saints in the divisional playoffs when he ran for a touchdown and passed for the winner with 9 seconds left. That may be too much to ask since San Francisco had the 29th-rated passing game in the league, averaging 183.1 yards per game during the regular season. However, Smith overcame years of mediocre play and is playing the best football of his career.

The Niners’ strength is their physical, hard-hitting defense. In a league where the quality of tackling has slipped dramatically, San Francisco refuses to go along with the program. Keep your eye on linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He was a tackling machine with 143 tackles and seven passes defended this season. Bowman plays in Patrick Willis’s shadow, but he is one of the most dependable players in the league and may play a huge role if the Niners are going to get to Indianapolis.

steve silverman small Silverman: Underrated Stars May Decide NFL Championship Games

Steve Silverman

Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.