While Tom Brady is every bit as good as his 6 TD performance last week, the Ravens ranking as the NFL’s 3rd best defense is misleading. In the NFC, Eli is out for his second NFC crown while Alex Smith aims to prove last week was no fluke.
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs: 5 – 3 – 0
Sunday, January 22 (3:00PM ET)
(2) Ravens at (1) Patriots
If you watched football for the first time last weekend and were asked to predict who would win the AFC Championship, you’d undoubtedly choose the New England Patriots. The Ravens struggled to beat a one-dimensional offense and Joe Flacco still plays like he’s a fourth year rookie. Even Flacco’s teammate and all-pro safety, Ed Reed admitted Flacco was flustered by Houston’s pass rush last week. Don’t worry though; Reed totally trusts Flacco and so does the rest of the defense. Or so they keep telling us.
Where there is smoke there is fire. I won’t go as far as to say the entire defense doubts Flacco’s abilities, but I’m confident at least 60% don’t trust Flacco can win a playoff game without a stellar outing from the defense. His lackluster performances in big games back that up. Even worse, he cries about not getting respect. As Sean Connery said in The Rock, “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and love the prom queen.” Ok, so that’s the PG version, but you get the idea. Winners don’t whine. They succeed. Joe Flacco whines. Enough said.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, the coverage surrounding this game has focused on a premiere offense led by an all time great quarterback battling a premiere defense anchored by perhaps the greatest linebacker ever to play. It’s true, Tom Brady is that good. And Ray Lewis was that good and is still a very capable player. But let’s be clear, the Raven defense isn’t nearly as good as they’d like us to believe.
To be fair, the Raven defense ranked 3rd in total defense this season behind only Pittsburgh and Houston. They also finished 3rd in scoring defense. I watched the Ravens several times this season. Like everyone else, I was impressed by their defense. However, I noticed one thing was missing… a challenge.
The Ravens schedule featured the Chuck E Cheese degree of difficulty when it came to opposing offenses. Baltimore played the AFC South, AFC North and NFC West this year. Name one elite offense in that group. You can’t. That’s because there were none.
In fact, Baltimore played only one of the NFL’s top ten ranked offenses, the San Diego Chargers. Outside of the Chargers, Baltimore battled the 12th, 13th, 17th, 19th, 20th 25th, 26th, 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st and 32nd ranked offenses. WHOOOFFF. For those keeping score, that’s seven of the eight worst offenses in the NFL. Including the Chargers (6th), Texans (13th) and Steelers (12th), the Ravens faced an offense ranked in the top half of the NFL only four times. This just in: The Patriots have a pretty good offense. The NFL’s 2nd ranked, to be precise.
Also, in case you’re wondering, against the Chargers Baltimore surrendered 34 points, 415 yards, forced no turnovers and registered zero sacks. Did I mention many considered this a down year for Philip Rivers? Imagine what Tom Brady could accomplish against this Baltimore defense.
Of course, this is the conference championship. The Ravens have won plenty of playoff games on the road. They’re built to get after the quarterback and force turnovers. They thrive on being written off and left for dead. Most importantly, they know exactly what it takes to defeat the Patriots at home in the playoffs.
Still, at the very least, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs are going to need some offense from the underwhelming Joe Flacco to even have a shot at knocking off the Patriots. Yes, Baltimore’s defense is still one of the NFL’s best, but that ranking came at the expense of the NFL’s worst. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -7
Sunday, January 22 (6:30PM ET)
(4) Giants at (2) 49ers
Forgive me if I have nothing sensible to offer in regards to this contest. I’m still reeling from Aaron Rodgers’ Tony Romoish performance. I know this much; I’m excited to watch because I haven’t the slightest clue who will win.
Let’s argue the Giants case first. The Giants have that swagger. You know, that “we shouldn’t be here but you let us in and now we’re going to steal the whole thing,” swagger. It’s the same swagger the Green Bay Packers rode to a title last year. It’s the same swagger the St. Louis Cardinals used to win the World Series this past fall. Talent is scary. Momentum is terrifying.
Don’t be fooled, though, the Giants are more than a bad team riding high. Eli Manning is at the top of his game. He’s been in playoff mode for a month and hasn’t blinked. Last week, he outplayed whom I consider (I guess “considered” is more appropriate) the ultimate playoff quarterback in Rodgers. Although Manning’s faces would make you believe otherwise, the man does not get flustered. He’s responded to every situation put before him since the Giants collapsed to the Redskins. Let’s also not forget the Giants resurgent running game and the stellar play of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
In addition to a very good offense and unflappable quarterback, the Giants owe their playoff success to a defense that has rallied from a forgettable regular season. In the Divisional Round against Green Bay, the Giants limited one of the NFL’s most potent offenses to a mere 13 points before a garbage time touchdown pushed the score to 20. Although the Packers had more first downs and ran more plays, the Giant defense made plays at the most critical times to keep the Packers off the scoreboard. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Packers continually killed themselves with careless turnovers, poor throws/routes, and dropped passes. Regardless, the Giants are the most impressive and intimidating defense remaining in the postseason because they’ve proven they can beat the best.
I like the Giants. However, this is all weirdly similar to the Eagles run in the 2008 postseason. If you recall, the Eagles slipped in on the final day of the season. After knocking off Minnesota, the Eagles went into the Meadowlands and eliminated the Giants, the team many believed would repeat as Superbowl champions. Heading into the NFC Championship, the Eagles were the popular pick to knock off the equally surprising Arizona Cardinals and advance to the Superbowl. Only, they didn’t. The Cardinals won. Take a look at the Giants road – Got in on the final day of the season. Knocked off the favorites to repeat as NFL champs in the Divisional Round. Now traveling to face equally surprising NFC West champion. – It’s hardly a sure thing, but history tends to repeat itself in these situations.
The 49ers have plenty working in their favor as well. Obviously, Jim Harbaugh has his guys playing like the league tried to wipe the franchise off the map or something. Although a few of New Orleans’ turnovers were self-inflicted, San Francisco was there to take advantage and always made a big play when the Saints took back momentum. Teams consisting of mostly playoff newbies don’t usually have that kind of relentlessness. Credit Harbaugh for that.
Furthermore, the 49ers have a great defense. One thing Eli Manning hasn’t faced over the past month is a great defense. Will he still find Nicks and Cruz for big plays as he’s done so consistently? More importantly, will he have enough time to find his playmakers? Without a consistent and successful running game, the answer is no. This is the 49ers greatest advantage. San Francisco led the NFL in rush defense by well over 200 yards. They just don’t force offenses to be one-dimensional. They bully them into it.
On the other hand, where as the Giants have a good offense, the 49ers have a question mark. Even in last week’s big win, Alex Smith and the offense disappeared for nearly 2½ quarters. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a defense. Obviously, the 49er defense was up to the task against the Saints for much of that 2nd half, but once the Saints found their stride, the defense was helpless. If it comes to that again, can we expect a similar Montana-esque performance from Smith?
As I said earlier, I have no idea what will happen. I think I like the Giants. However, I hate when the home team is the public underdog. A home crowd and a united “us against the world” mentality are two very powerful forces. I was wrong when I picked Drew Brees over Alex Smith last week. I was also wrong when I picked Aaron Rodgers over Eli Manning. As much as I loved what I saw from Smith last week, I still don’t trust him or the rest of his offense. GIANTS If I were Charles Barkley; Giants +2.5
Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs: 6 – 2 – 0