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NFL Conference Championships Review

Joe Flacco was surprisingly the most impressive quarterback on Sunday. The 49er defense was the most disruptive and imposing unit. Unfortunately, neither Flacco nor the 49er defense advanced to the Superbowl because their special teams fell short.

(2) Ravens 20 at (1) Patriots 23
I was shocked by a number of things on Sunday, but none were as unexpected as Tom Brady’s off day. Sure, even the best quarterbacks don’t always have their greatest days in the postseason. Aaron Rodgers struggled last week. Ben Roethlisberger the week before. Even Brady himself has had his share of forgettable postseason performances. Sunday’s lackluster day felt different, though. Brady’s poor play was self-inflicted. He missed opened receivers, never looked comfortable in the pocket, and threw a couple of picks to top it all off. When he missed a streaking Rob Gronkowski for an easy touchdown in the 1st quarter, you knew Brady was in for a rough afternoon. After all, Brady hasn’t missed that throw all season.

It’s not as if Brady was under intense pressure all afternoon, either. In fact, I expected more from Baltimore’s pass rush. Brady had time. His receivers were open. He just couldn’t find them. And when he did, he often missed. That’s what was most shocking. Brady typically takes advantage of opportunities. If a defense takes those opportunities away and beats him, then so be it. But for Brady to essentially defeat himself and scuttle another promising season was as unexpected as Joe Flacco’s play.

Flacco outplayed Brady. Go figure. If you’re the Ravens today, you’re killing yourself (not literally) for losing a game when Flacco outplayed perhaps the greatest postseason quarterback of all time. I’ve been as hard on Flacco as anyone. Yesterday he was great. He still missed on a few deep plays but he had the Raven offense humming in the 3rd quarter. Even on Baltimore’s final drive, with their season on the line, Flacco was poised and firing bullets. You could even argue Flacco won the game for the Ravens until Lee Evans nonchalantly allowed a defender to slap away a trip to the Superbowl. Yes, Billy Cundiff would go on to miss the game-tying field goal, but Evans’ drop was the bigger mistake.

Not only does Evans propel the Ravens to a Superbowl by hanging on, but he changes Flacco’s career, too. With a catch, Flacco finally proves he’s no phony in big games. What better way to prove one’s self than to march down the field in the final seconds of the AFC Championship game and pull out a win on the road? There is none. Flacco had successfully completed the task. He made an unbelievable throw. All he needed was Evans to hold on. Evans did, just not long enough. Instead of heading to the Superbowl a hero, Flacco’s career, for the immediate future, at least, will again be defined by what he and his team couldn’t do, even though he actually did exactly what was needed to win.

I may be alone on this, but I feel for the Ravens. I feel sorry for Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and the rest of the defense that played well enough to win. The diving 4th quarter interception by Jimmy Smith off a tipped ball was tremendous. While the defense allowed Brady and the Patriots to move the ball consistently, they stood firm in the red zone, allowing only two touchdowns in five trips. We may never see Lewis and Reed in a game this big again. It’s sad to see them go out on account of a dropped ball and missed chip shot field goal. But that’s the way the ball bounces. Even Lewis acknowledged as much yesterday. Lewis is a great competitor and better teammate. He refused to blame his kicker. He refused to blame Evans. “There’s no one man that’s ever lost a game. We win as a team, we lose as a team,” Lewis said.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t put the Ravens in the Superbowl. Instead, they’ll have an entire offseason to dwell on that drop, that kick, and red zone failures of their own, because even though the Patriots were a lousy 2/5 in the red zone, the Ravens were a miserable 1/4. And although Evans and Cundiff made the most obvious mistakes, the Ravens let too many opportunities slip by. As a result, Tom Brady’s bad day didn’t turn into a disaster, just another shot at redemption instead.

(4) Giants 20 at (2) 49ers 17
Thankfully, the Giants and 49ers (and even the Ravens and Patriots to a degree) reminded us that defenses still matter, especially in the playoffs when referees put away their whistles and finally let football exist as the punishing sport it was created to be.

Let’s start with the quarterbacks. While neither Eli Manning nor Alex Smith played poorly, neither played great, either.

Smith made enough plays to keep the 49ers ahead or within striking distance throughout the game. However, it was painfully obvious he was in over his head as the closing minutes of the 4th quarter approached. Even on the 49ers game-tying drive, Smith was overwhelmed. He couldn’t stop staring down Vernon Davis. I thought for sure he was going to throw the game away. Instead, Smith used his legs to gain 17 yards and rookie Kendall Hunter scampered for another 18 to put the 49ers in position for the game-tying field goal. That was it though. After that, the 49er offense disappeared completely, running 12 plays for a total of only 7 yards.

As a lifetime Eagles fan, I know what a deer-in-the-headlights quarterback looks like. Donovan McNabb perfected the look Alex Smith was sporting on Sunday. Smith couldn’t function. Three-yard outs were skipping to receivers. If his first option wasn’t available, he got happy feet and panicked. Smith continually looked to the sideline as if Steve Young was coming off the bench.

I’m not totally blaming Smith. It’s the first time he’s been in the playoffs. It was the biggest game of his career. It happens to most quarterbacks. It also didn’t help that Jerry Rice – in whatever state he’s in right now – would have outplayed the 49ers receivers on Sunday. Regardless, Smith just didn’t have that extra gear, that special sauce that turned him into Joe Montana against the Saints a week ago. You know, the special sauce that flows through Eli Manning’s veins.

Manning’s performance on Sunday was the gutsiest performance of the weekend. However, before we get to praising Manning, let’s be honest with ourselves, he was far from perfect. Manning missed a number of throws. He should have been picked off at least three times. Blame the weather, blame the 49ers relentless pass rush, blame Hakeem Nicks’ injury, blame whatever you like; it understandably wasn’t Manning’s best day.

Regardless, he made plays when necessary. He drove New York to a crucial field goal at the end of the 1st half. His huge 3rd down conversion after the game’s first turnover not only gave the Giants the lead, but it completely flipped momentum that had belonged to San Francisco for the entire 2nd half to that point. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, was Manning’s resilience.

He was pummeled again and again. At times, he even looked rattled. Yet, he continued to battle. Even though he threw passes that should have been picked off, he kept slinging. He wasn’t going to stop until someone dragged him off the field or the Giants had won. Again, it wasn’t the prettiest performance of the weekend or the most impressive, but it was the gutsiest. And sometimes, when it’s cold and rainy and windy and you’re playing a punishing defense, those are the only quarterbacks that win. Eli Manning won, and that’s all that matters.

In addition to Manning’s gutsy performance, the Giants were aided by San Francisco’s inexperience. It’d be easy to point to Kyle Williams’ two fumbles as San Francisco’s only displays of inexperience, but really, the 49ers had a handful. The secondary dropped multiple interceptions. Carlos Rodgers’ drop in the 4th was the biggest of all. While he’d like us to believe otherwise, he actually dropped that ball before his own safety laid him out, so it was 100% his fault. In addition to those drops, the offense also missed opportunities. Smith had Williams open deep for an easy touchdown but couldn’t connect. More importantly, the offense had the ball on four different occasions with the opportunity to win the game in the final minutes of regulation and overtime and failed to get a 1st down.

In fact, I would even go as far as to blame the 49er offense over giving the Giant defense credit. Although the Giants defense did play well, the 49er offense was mostly anemic with the exception of two big scoring plays to Vernon Davis. What’s worse, San Francisco’s wide receivers combined for 1 catch for just 3 yards. The New York defense certainly played well, but they had a lot of help from Alex Smith and the San Francisco offense.

Without an exceptional performance from their defense, the 49ers may not have had a chance. The San Francisco pass rush prevented Manning from connecting on any big plays down the field. If a man was open, Manning rarely had time to find him or get off a decent throw. Although the Giants were persistent, they failed to establish a successful running game. The 49ers dictated what Manning and the Giants offense did. In fact, they may have even won the game if it weren’t for a quick whistle late in the 4th quarter. I agree the whistle was awfully quick, but the Giants didn’t win the game there. The 49er defense again held and gave its offense yet another chance to win. Obviously, they failed to take advantage.

Essentially, the 49ers lost because Alex Smith didn’t have the playoff experience or the resilient fight of Eli Manning. Quarterbacks and defenses win in the postseason. Amazingly, neither the best quarterback nor the best defense from Sunday is moving on. Figure that one out.

Bonus input from a bitter Eagles fan:
It’s funny how little things like missed field goals impact an NFL season. The Ravens lost an opportunity at overtime in New England. The Bills would have a Superbowl title. Interestingly enough, a missed field goal on October 2nd would later allow the Giants into the postseason and give San Francisco the 2nd seed.

Alex Henery everyone.

That’s right, the Eagles rookie kicker failed to convert from 39 and 33 yards in the 4th quarter against the 49ers. Philadelphia would eventually lose that game. Without that loss, the Eagles win the NFC East and the Giants are home debating Tom Coughlin’s future. Without that win, the 49ers fall behind the Saints and travel to New Orleans last weekend instead of playing host. Of course, there are a million other things that may have happened differently had Henery actually converted those field goals, but still, it’s painful to consider. If he’d have made just one, it’s not a stretch to say neither the Giants nor the 49ers would have been battling for a Superbowl berth on Sunday.

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