Four teams remain in this year’s NFL playoffs, and come Sunday, they will each be playing for the right to advance to the Super Bowl. The roads to the 2012 conference championship games have been easy for some, and difficult for others, but know this. The AFC & NFC championship games will likely provide us with some of the best football that we have seen all year. Let’s break down each game, team and unit as we predict who will win their respective conference championship games and advance to the Super Bowl.
2012 AFC Championship Game Preview
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
These teams are no strangers to each other during the regular season, where the Patriots hold a 6-0 series advantage. But most recently in the 2009 playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens were able to head into Foxborough and dominate the Patriots, ousting them from the post season. But Tom Brady knows that his window for winning another Super Bowl is closing, perhaps not rapidly, but closing nonetheless and his teammates have noted that he is preparing with more tenacity and urgency than ever before. His hard work was evident as he set the NFL Postseason record last week against the Broncos with 5 touchdowns in the first half and tied the record with 6 in the game. But the Ravens team has the formula for playoff success that has worked so well in the past: Great defense, great running game, and timely QB play. Make no mistake, the Ravens win last week against the Texans was due to their ability to generate turnovers and score off of them. So who will prevail in the 2012 AFC Championship game? Let’s find out.
New England Patriots
During the regular season, no team in the AFC gave up more total yards than the New England Patriots. But they played a bend-don’t-break style of defense, that had them finishing around the middle of the league in points scored. Sure the Patriots give up a lot of yards, but they also force a lot of turnovers, especially when opposing offenses start pressing to keep up with the high powered offense of the Patriots on the other side of the ball. New England is actually decent when it comes to stopping the run, which will be important since the majority of the Raven’s success has come on the ground this season. Still Ray Rice has the ability to torch just about any defense no matter how staunch. If the Patriots load the box to try to stop Rice, it will be up to the New England secondary to hold their ground and not give up the big plays down the field as they have been suspect to doing all year long. A bright spot for the Patriots defensively is their newly invigorated pass rush, which pressured Tim Tebow all last week, and should see success against Joe Flacco, who was pressured by the Texans throughout most of last week’s game. It will be important for this pass rush to get to Flacco and force him into throwing before he’s ready which will likely lead to turnovers and extra possessions for the offense. Furthermore, the addition of Josh McDaniels to the Patriots coaching staff actually helps the defense as well as the offense. Why? Well with a trusted hand overseeing the offensive side of the ball, Belichick can literally devote his entire focus to this defense, which has talent, but not a lot of experience.
I don’t think much needs to be said about the Baltimore Ravens defense. During the regular season, they were ranked top 5 in total points, total yards, rushing yards and passing yards. Translation: it will be a little tougher for Brady to throw 6 touchdowns in a game against the Ravens than it was against the Broncos. Still, they are not without their flaws as expressed last week, as well as various times throughout the regular season, however, it would seem that the best way to attack this Raven’s defense is still with the run. With the Ravens playing run first, rookie QB T.J. Yates was able to find open receivers and move the ball pretty efficiently at times, something that Brady would no doubt be able to take full advantage of if given the same opportunities. Despite their amazing defense, Brady and the Patriots are an animal that they have yet to see this season, as the best offense (in terms of PPG) they have faced this year was the San Diego Chargers which resulted in a loss.
There are two different ways of looking at who holds the advantage defensively in this game. If we look purely at the talent and ability of one defense vs. the other, then the Ravens clearly come out on top. But if we start to compare the Ravens ability to stop Brady and the Patriots vs. the Patriots ability to stop Flacco, Rice and the Ravens, then the picture gets a little more muddled. Still, I think that the Ravens have the better defense although it will need to play lights out in order to keep Baltimore in this game.
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots offense is a finely tuned machine, and one that has seemingly gotten stronger as the season wears on. Anyone who has watched the NFL this season knows that tight ends are all the rage, and if you’re lucky enough to have a good one, then you are going to win some ballgames. Well the Patriots have not one, but two very good tight ends, and what’s more, they are able to come up with unique ways to get them the ball. Rob Gronkowski is the clear leader in the clubhouse when it comes to catches, yards and touchdowns, but Aaron Hernandez is arguable more gifted athletically and this does not go unnoticed on the Patriot’s coaching staff. Last week they used Hernandez as a running back who wound up as their leading rusher, making defenders miss in the backfield and showing great breakaway speed once he hit the holes. The Patriots have always thought outside of the box offensively, and the addition of Josh McDaniels to their offensive coaching staff only makes them stronger. No doubt the Patriots showed off Hernandez in the backfield last week to give the Ravens (or even Houston at the time) and their great defense something to think about when they come out in similar formations this week. The Patriots have always been a throw-first type offense which is just the kind of one-dimensionality that the Ravens feast on. This extra wrinkle in the game plan will take some of the pressure off Brady and the offensive line and give him more time to throw the ball downfield to Branch, Welker and Gronkowski. To further add to the juggernaut that is the Patriots offense, Brady is looking at the top of his game, showing pinpoint accuracy and his unmatched ability to make the correct read.
Joe Flacco said earlier in the week that he will probably not get any of the credit for the Raven’s playoff run. Whether he meant that facetiously or as a gripe, we may never know, but at the end of the day, the statement really rings true. The Ravens do not live and die by Flacco’s arm as the Patriots do by Brady’s, but rather on the legs of Ray Rice and the muscle of their defense. In the four games that the Ravens lost this season, Ray Rice never had more than 13 touches or 60 yards. In other words, if the Ravens want to win, they must feed the beast and get Ray Rice the ball consistently. It will be tempting to try and let Flacco loose on this beleaguered Patriots secondary, but Baltimore’s success will be directly linked with the success of Ray Rice. Joe Flacco is a better than average quarterback, although at times he hasn’t quite met even those expectations, but he has dangerous receivers in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Boldin and Smith should be able to get loose in the Patriot’s secondary, and if the Patriots drop back to give extra cover help, then Rice should be open for the dumpoff with room to run underneath. As we said before, Rice needs his touches and production or the Ravens lose. If the Ravens fall more than a single score behind, it will become difficult to stick with the run in an attempt to play catchup, but the Ravens have to understand when to pick their spots against the Patriots secondary.
Advantage New England. Hands down. Brady is playing as well as he has at any point in his career, he has nearly unlimited offensive options and the coaches to squeeze every last bit of talent out of each possession. The Ravens will try to slow the game down with a steady rushing attack, while the Patriots will try to speed it up with their quick strike offense and potent weapons. The game might come down to whose will breaks first – the Patriots or the Ravens, although I find it hard to believe that no matter how well the Ravens defense plays, that Flacco and the offense won’t find themselves down by a couple scores at some point in this game and forced to throw more than they want to.
2012 AFC Championship Game Prediction
This is one of those classic matchups of a great defense going up against a great offense. But as we said earlier, despite having a very good defense, the Ravens have never faced a team with as many offensive weapons as the Patriots do. Not saying that they don’t have the ability to slow the Patriots down, but the real question becomes whether or not they have the ability to match New England offensively. A bad day from New England is likely to yield more points than the Ravens can consistently put up. New England by two scores.
2012 NFC Championship Game Preview
New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers
While the game between the 49ers and the Giants might not be the sexiest matchup that the networks were looking for, it is certainly going to be a good one. Both the Giants and the Niners were able to beat their opponents at their own game, and show that they weren’t as bad as predicted in their weakest facets of the game. The Niners, who have been sub-par offensively all year, used a strong defense to create turnovers, and put themselves in a great position to win the game. Then with all the chips on the line, they got into a shootout with the Saints of all teams and came out victorious. In the other game, the Giants, who have been pretty bad defensively all year long, were able to confuse and fluster Rodgers and the Packers into one of their worst offensive showings of the season. As predicted, the rust of Rodgers not playing for nearly three weeks came back to haunt the Packers as he never seemed to find a groove or look sharp. The New York Football Giants are playing some of their best football as the NFC championship game looms, and seem poised to make a run similar to their 2007 Super Bowl winning season. So here we have two teams who are playing out of their minds with a trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance. Who wins?
San Francisco 49ers
While they may have been one of the quietest division champs in a long time, the 49ers have been using hard hitting, ball hawking defense all season long to propel their team to victory. San Fran was tied for the league lead in generating turnovers, giving their offense a short field on which to score. They have an excellent pass rush as evidenced by their ability to get to Brees last week, hard hitting linebackers – just ask Pierre Thomas who missed the rest of the game after he took a hit early in the first quarter which led to a fumble, and an instinctive secondary who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Whether they are generating pressure and turnovers or not, the Niners play fundamental defense and just generally make it tough to move the ball against them. They force you to become impatient and then they got you. This is a team filled with great tacklers who don’t allow a lot of yardage after the catch, meaning you have to throw it further and further if you want to have any chances at big plays. All in all, San Francisco has one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL, making them a formidable opponent for anyone in the playoffs this year.
New York Giants
While throughout the regular season, the Giants were one of the worst defenses in the NFL, the playoffs have been a different story, effectively shutting down Matt Ryan and the Falcons as well as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers – a feat once thought impossible. The key to the Giants’ success has been their pass rush. With Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul rushing the passer, New York is able to get quarterbacks to move – even if they don’t come away with the sack. The Giant’s secondary is actually a little better than they appear on paper, as they showed last week by containing the plethora of Packers WR’s and limiting their impact on the game. Make no mistake, however, the key to the Giants success on defense starts up front. The snaps that Rodgers did have time to throw, he completed his passes quite well, and any incompletions he did have were just as much due to his inaccuracy as anything the Giants corners were doing. If the Giants want to shut down an offense, they need to get pressure on the quarterback – plain and simple.
I think that the advantage goes to the 49ers here, but not by much. San Francisco was able to force the Saints into turnovers (something the Saints rarely did all year long), and didn’t allow Brees to ever really get comfortable right up until the end of the game. The Giants, on the other hand, played very well defensively against the Packers, but it seemed to be more because Rodgers had a bad day than anything the Giants did defensively. They had a hard time generating pressure through most of the game, and counted on turnovers from other players to shut down the Packers. I think that man for man, the Niners have a superior defense.
San Francisco 49ers
Don’t let the last 4 minutes of the divisional round game against the Saints fool you – this is not a team that is going to win very many track meets. They are a ball-control offense that relies heavily on the run game and quick hits in the passing game as opposed to big plays down the field to their wide receivers. Still, it is not an offense that should be under estimated, especially when they are getting a few extra possessions, thanks to their defense. Frank Gore and Vernon Davis are the pieces that make this offense click, and it is very important that Alex Smith get the ball into the hands of these playmakers. Still, their lack of consistent, big play ability is something that can be a detriment to this team if they ever find themselves behind early in the ball game and having to play catchup. For the Niners to keep Alex Smith off the turf, they must counter the Giant’s pass rush with a strong rushing attack from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. If they find themselves in third and long, it will force Alex Smith to play a style that isn’t his strength which could signal disaster for the Niners offensively. It isn’t all doom and gloom for San Fran, however, as they did show flashes of brilliance and big play ability against the Saints last week. However, we see this as a situation similar to how teams handled Tebow and the Broncos in the playoffs. The Steelers took Tebow’s ability to pass for granted (much like the Saints did with Alex Smith) and it came back to bite them. The next week, teams made adjustments and what worked well for Tebow the previous week, had no chance the following week. Don’t expect the Giants to make the same oversights defensively that the Saints did. It will take a great game once again from Alex Smith to keep his team close.
New York Giants
This is an offense that is really coming into its own as the season progresses. Eli is showing that he is truly one of the top quarterbacks in the game, and the two-headed rushing attack of Jacobs and Bradshaw will wear you out until you break down at the end of the game. Manning has all of his weapons firing, showing big play ability to Nicks, and the ability to keep the chains moving with throws to Cruz and Manningham. If we had one word to describe the Giant’s key to offensive success it would be “balance.” When the Giants have a good mix of runs and passes, they are extremely tough to stop. When they lean more heavily in either direction, is when the offense seems to bog down. Give credit to the play callers for the Giants, however, who have put the offense at their strongest for the past few weeks with great showings against the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers. With Eli protecting the ball as well as he has in his whole career, the Giants are playing some of their best football at a time when it is crucial to be at the top of your game.
The advantage has to go to the New York Giants. They are the team that has the ability to beat you both ways, with the run and with the pass (although they are a lot better throwing the ball); whereas the 49ers are, for the most part, one-dimensional. If either team falls behind (which inevitably one will), I like the chances of the Giants a little better than those of the Niners. New York has come from behind in the 4th quarter all season long and have one of the best late game quarterbacks.
2012 NFC Championship Game Prediction
While both teams played some of their best football of the season last week, earning the right to play in the 2012 NFC Championship game, I have to give the advantage to the team that has the best chance of replicating that performance. I have to give the advantage to the team that has the ability to come from behind if trailing, and salt the game away if leading. The Giants should win this matchup, but trust me, it won’t be easy. The Niners are going to get after Eli a lot better than the Packers and Falcons did, but let’s not forget that Eli is a Super Bowl MVP, going up against a team that hasn’t won an NFC Conference Championship game since 1994. Giants in a squeaker.