By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Here’s my take on how the NFL conference championship games are going to shake out.
(Home team in CAPS)
PATRIOTS 27, Ravens 20 – 2PM
No. 1 versus No. 2. Offense versus defense. Who has what it takes to represent the AFC in Indianapolis? We’ll find out Sunday, when the enigmatic Ravens travel to Foxboro for a match-up against the prolific Patriots, with a trip to Super Bowl XLVI on the line.
There’s no debating the fact that the Patriots have both the best quarterback and best offense of the four remaining teams. Forget testing players for HGH, test them for silicon chips in their brains, as I’m convinced that Tom Brady is a football robot. In his past nine games, Brady has thrown 25 touchdowns, three interceptions, while posting a sparkling 115 quarterback rating. Brady’s favorite target – tight end Rob Gronkowski – has also posted Nintendo-like numbers over this stretch, with 876 yards and 14 touchdowns. In a strange way, the genesis of this seemingly unstoppable combination came from an unfortunate twist of a knee.
In the 2009 season finale in Houston, on his first reception of the game, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker’s knee awkwardly buckled, tearing his ACL and MCL in one step. This was a devastating blow that the Patriots didn’t recover from. The following week, the Patriots hosted the Ravens in the Wild Card round and without a complimentary receiver to Randy Moss, the Ravens limited Brady to a mere 154 passing yards en route to a convincing 33-14 rout.
For those of you who watched NFL Network’s production of “A Football Life” chronicling Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, there was footage of Belichick and his coaching staff doing their 2009 season post-mortem. In a sobering tone, Belichick admitted that without a proper compliment to Moss, this offense just didn’t work. That April, the Patriots spent a second-round selection on Gronkowski, and a fourth-round selection on tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Most NFL team’s best playmakers in the passing game are wide receivers who line up on the edge of the line of scrimmage, but in turn, draw the opponent’s best cover corners. By selecting two gargantuan, athletic tight ends, the Patriots attack the biggest area on the field – in between the numbers – and draw weaker coverage in the defensive secondary, the safeties. 9,797 yards and 83 touchdowns later, Brady has the Patriots one game away from the Super Bowl, and once again, the Patriots were a step ahead of the NFL, exposing vulnerability in NFL pass defenses.
As impressive as the Patriots nine-game win streak has been, there is reason for doubt. Other than two games against the Broncos, they haven’t faced a playoff team since Week 9, when they lost at home to Eli Manning and the Giants. Furthermore, they only played two teams that ended the season above .500 – the Steelers and Giants – and dropped both of those games. Over this nine-game stretch, they’ve faced some of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL and have allowed them to compile impressive stats, but not wins in the standings. So how battle-tested are the Patriots?
Will Baltimore’s Joe Flacco rise to the occasion? For those of you who have followed me this season, you know how I feel about Flacco, he’s good enough to break your heart. Very rarely – if at all – have I personally watched a Ravens game, and concluded that Flacco was the reason they won. In fact, more often than not, in games I’ve personally watched the Ravens lose, I’ve concluded that Flacco was the primary reason they lost (Jaguars on Monday night football, anyone?). Flacco has all the tools to be an effective quarterback, size, arm strength, enough mobility to move the pocket, but his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. The clear weakness on the Patriots is their secondary, but I’m not certain if Flacco will be able to exploit it.
The Patriots best offensive weapon is running back Ray Rice. Rice is a shifty, powerful back, with quick cuts, and the final gear needed to take it to the house. Last weekend, Houston’s impressive front-seve was able to bottle up Rice and put the game in the hands of Flacco. Were it not for some Texan turnovers, I’m not sure if the Ravens would have won that game, against a third-string rookie quarterback. Performances like this give me pause in endorsing the Ravens as championship-caliber.
Does the Ravens defense have one more dominant performance left in them? There’s a strong possibility that this could be the last game that linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed play in the NFL, so expect another quality, emotionally-charged effort from both of them. Reed suffered an awful-looking ankle sprain at the end of the Texans game, but unless his foot was amputated this week, Reed will line up on Sunday. How effective Reed will be is the real concern here. You can count on him to bracket Gronkowski everywhere on the field, but this will open up opportunities for the Patriots to exploit a questionable Ravens secondary.
For opposing defense, it’s become pick your poison with the Patriots, as if you double Gronkowski, you’re forced to play single coverage on Welker, Hernandez, and to a lesser extent Deion Branch. Short of lining up and playing ball-control, smash-mouth football, the Ravens’ offense isn’t explosive enough to hand with the Pats. In a quarterback’s league, with Brady at the helm, I like the Patriots in this game.
Giants 24, 49ERS 17 – 5:30 PM
I’m sure everyone out there expected the San Francisco 49ers to be hosting the NFC Championship game against the New York Giants. If you did, I hope you wagered on this scenario as you’d be owed a nice sum of money. Alas, that’s how it worked out, and two former top overall selections – quarterbacks Eli Manning and Alex Smith – square off for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI.
All season, I’ve doubted the 49ers. To be clear, I never doubted this team’s defense; my lack of faith is attributed to what I consider to be a very pedestrian offense, led by a career underachiever in Smith. The 49ers are a power running team – which may be becoming passé in the pass-happy NFL – dedicating several early draft selections to bolstering their offensive line, and re-investing in productive, yet injury prone running back Frank Gore.
Former Bears, Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh have been at the helm of this franchise, and have tried to mold this team much in the image of what they’re both familiar with from their playing days, physical teams that run the ball and stop the run. The 49ers defense sure has the stopping the run part down. In fact, until Week 17 this season, they didn’t allow a rushing touchdown or a 100-yard rusher (even longer on the 100-yard rusher, that streak was 37 straight games). These are remarkable accomplishments, and speak to the 49ers’ level of talent, gap discipline, and tackling abilities on defense.
The 49ers’ defensive front seven may be the best in football, led by All Pro linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and defensive ends Justin Smith and rookie sensation Aldon Smith. Bowman’s ability to “sift through the mess” and play in the box has really transformed the defense. He’s allowed Willis – arguably the best defensive player in football – to play more pass coverage, and supply the underneath coverage on tight ends requiring double teams. Smith’s ability to fight through double teams and get to the quarterback has been a huge benefit to a defense that is designed to get pressure on the quarterback with their outside linebackers. The 49ers will put a sturdy Giants’ offensive line to work this weekend.
The 2011 Giants remind me a lot of the 2010 Packers. A team that endured some injuries that affected their running game, went through a bit of an identity crisis and became a pass-first team, found themselves in a do-or-die situation to end the season, met the challenge, then hit the gas pedal in the playoffs.
Quarterback Eli Manning has taken his game to an entirely new level this season, standing strong in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield and working the ball to weapons like Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, and Jake Ballard. The Giants want the ball in Eli’s hand in crucial moments, and he’s rewarded them handsomely all season, setting an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns and a 110 quarterback rating.
Defensively, the Giants are rolling right now. It was quite a role-reversal last weekend, as their secondary carried the load against the vaunted Packers. Not too long ago, the Giants secondary was out of sync, suffering numerous lapses in communication, coverage mix-ups, and in some instances, individual performers just not being up for the challenge presented by the receiver lining up across from them.
Over the past three weeks, the secondary has shut down the likes of Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers. Alex Smith isn’t better than any of those three quarterbacks, and other than Vernon Davis, not a single 49ers’ receiver requires double coverage. Over this same stretch, the Giants have not allowed a touchdown to a tight end, nor have they allowed a pass over 34 yards.
Of these two teams, the Giants are more balanced. They have a better offense than the 49ers, and when their defense is able to get consistent pressure with just their front four, dropping seven into coverage makes it challenging for any offense to move the ball through the air, just ask Rodgers. The Giants are white hot right now, clicking in every phase of the game, so I like Eli to set up a re-match of the 2007 Super Bowl against the Patriots.
Season Record: 174-90
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.