Blog Entry

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Posted on: January 15, 2012 8:16 pm
Edited on: January 15, 2012 8:32 pm
It's go time: We're down to four teams. Next stop, Indy. (Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

The conference championship schedule is set. The Baltimore Ravens will face the New England Patriots and the New York Giants will play the San Francisco 49ers. The prize for next week's winners? A trip to Indianapolis for XLVI.

Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots, Sun., Jan. 22, 3:00 PM ET CBS

Can Baltimore slow New England's TEs? (US PRESSWIRE)

How they got here 
New England dismantled Denver Saturday, 45-10, although it wasn't that close. Tom Brady threw for six touchdowns -- five in the first half -- and the much-maligned Patriots defense shut down Tim Tebow after his career performance against the Steelers the week before.

Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were, to varying degrees, unstoppable, but the defense registered four sacks and recovered a fumble, holding Tebow to 136 passing yards and 13 rushing yards.

How will they get to the Super Bowl?
The offensive line continues to keep Brady clean, and he continues to wear out defenses with some combination of the aforementioned Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez. But the Ravens aren't the Broncos; they're one of the best units in the league and they're not intimidated by the Pats' high-powered offense. In 2009, Baltimore went to New England in the AFC wild-card round, roughed up Brady, and left Foxboro with a 33-14 victory. The difference in this game will likely come down to the Pats' O vs. the Ravens' D.

Their biggest weakness
New England's defense has been a punchline for much of the season but has come together recently. Head coach Bill Belichick was beaming after the Broncos victory, presumably because the cast of characters on the defensive side of the ball (many in the secondary either undrafted free agents, acquired via the waiver wire, or both) played near flawless football against the Broncos. The Ravens and Joe Flacco have struggled all season with consistency but they have a capable down-the-field passing attack that compliments Ray Rice's dual-threat skills nicely. If the Patriots' defense shows up, the game won't be close; if they don't, it could be a repeat of the 2009 playoff game.

Who's hot?
Brady (6 TDs against the Broncos), Gronkowski (set the single-season receiving yards record for tight ends), Hernandez (led the Pats in rushing -- 5 carries for 61 yards -- against Denver), the pass defense.


How they got here
Jumped out to a 17-3 lead against the Texans and then held on for dear life as Houston's rookie quarterback committed critical turnovers at key points. Quarterback Joe Flacco had another uneven performance (14 of 27 for 176 yards, 2 TDs) but some of that can be blamed on one of the offensive line's worst efforts of the season. Anquan Boldin looked sharp after missing the end of the regular season with an injury (4 catches, 73 yards, 1 TD) and Ray Rice had a quiet 21-carries-for-61-yards afternoon that kept drives alive and the Texans' D on the field. Baltimore forced four turnovers, including three T.J. Yates interceptions.

How will they get to the Super Bowl?
The defense will have to have its best game of the season against Brady, who is peaking. The problem is that Baltimore's secondary can be exploited, especially if the front seven can't mount a pass rush. The Ravens will have to out-scheme New England's offensive line and create pressure with four and five rushers, and force Brady to get rid of the ball early.

Offensively, Flacco will need to step up, avoid silly mistakes, and Cam Cameron needs to be reminded (again) that Rice is his best weapon.

Their biggest weakness
Flacco's inconsistency. The fourth-year quarterback has flashed glimpses of franchise potential, but he's usually taking sacks, throwing inexplicable interceptions, or misfiring on wide-open targets. Historically, he's played well in the playoffs, which is good news, as is the fact that the Titans, Jaguars, Seahawks or Chargers didn't qualify for the postseason.

Who's hot?
Boldin looks five years younger, safety Ed Reed is ailing but is playing like it's 2004, cornerback Lardarius Webb had two picks against Yates, and punter Sam Koch might be the most underrated player in the NFL right now.

New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers, Sun., Jan. 22, 6:30 PM ET FOX

Smith has had a resurgence in '11. (AP)

How they got here
The 49ers beat the Saints at their own game: they forced turnovers and then turned them into points. Embattled quarterback Alex Smith had to wait almost seven years, but he's finally playing like a first-round draft pick, and he out Drew Brees-ed Drew Brees during the final four minutes of Saturday's Divisional game. Tight end Vernon Davis had a ginormous afternoon, hauling in the game-winning touchdown with seconds left and ending up with seven receptions for 180 yards and two scores.

How will they get to the Super Bowl?
One word: defense. They took the Saints, a team that looked unstoppable the last month of the season, out of their rhythm, smacking pass-catchers, runners and the quarterback in the mouth in the process. But this wasn't a fluke performance; Vic Fangio's unit has played like that all year long. They're a slobber-knocking, sack-happy, ball-hawking bunch and their closing speed and physicality keep the 49ers in every game. (Thanks, Mike Nolan!)

Their biggest weakness
Can Smith sustain his success? We've starting calling Jim Harbaugh the Quarterback Whisperer because what he's done with Smith is worthy of a show on the National Geographic channel. But at this stage of the proceedings, all it takes is one ill-time throw to ruin a team's Super Bowl hopes. Given that the 49ers haven't had a winning record -- or a playoff appearance -- since 2002, there are worse problems to have.

Who's hot?
Smith (24 of 42 for 299 yards, 3 TDs, 1 rushing TD against the Saints), TE Davis (7 catches, 180 yards, 2 TDs including the game-winner), S Dashon Goldson (1 INT), DL Justin Smith (All Pro at two positions), DE Aldon Smith (1 sack).

New York Giants

How they got here
Eli Manning was clinical and the defense forced four turnovers and registered four sacks. The Packers looked like they were having flashbacks from the Chiefs game, the receivers dropped eight passes, and the defense continued their Season of Ineptitude Tour made all the more inexplicable given that they were one of the league's top units in 2010.

How will they get to the Super Bowl?
New York will have to go through the 49ers -- in San Francisco -- and mistake-free football will be at a premium. That means that offensive line has to protect Manning, he has to make great decisions, and everybody has to keep two hands on the football at all times. Because the 49ers' defense will swarm and strip, in that order.  The Giants can also lean on their running game, a pass-rush that is just as effective as San Francisco's, and their ability to win big games on the road.

Their biggest weakness
If the front four can't pressure the quarterback, the secondary can be exposed. Of course, the defense went off on the Packers' offense, considered one of the two most explosive units in the league heading into the weekend. (In related news: the New Orleans and Green Bay have officially begun their offseason.)

A little history: the first 14 games of the regular season the Giants were 7-7, and the defense allowed 385 yards and 27 points per game. The last four contests: New York is 4-0 and has allowed 14, 14, 2 and 20 points against the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers.

Who's hot?
Manning is playing out of his mind, WR Hakeem Nicks had two touchdown grabs against the Packers (7 receptions, 165 yards), and Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have revitalized the running game. Osi Umenyiora added two sacks and a forced fumble.

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Since: May 2, 2010
Posted on: January 18, 2012 5:27 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Haha... Sam Koch (Baltimore punter) is one of the NFL's most underrated players??
That's only good for one thing, and it's not a good thing: if Baltimore can't move the ball.

Since: Aug 30, 2006
Posted on: January 17, 2012 12:52 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

The picture of Alex Smith running the ball in this article looks soo much like Joe Montana it's eeeerie.

Holy crap, even his face looks like Montana. If there wasn't a number on the jersey I would swear it was montana.

Since: Jan 17, 2012
Posted on: January 17, 2012 10:18 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Did we ever figure out if the ref in the Packer-Giants game bet the Packers or is is just incompetant?
I really don't see any other possible conclusions.

Since: Nov 8, 2010
Posted on: January 16, 2012 6:30 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

I'm really excited about this weekend because I think we're going to be witness to two great football games featuring 4 teams that all have the ability to win a Super Bowl. My pick is Patriots-49ers in the Super Bowl. That would be the best game in my opinion. 

Since: Jan 10, 2012
Posted on: January 16, 2012 4:54 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

9ers d played OK but not as well as usua.l They allowed more points then any game thus far. Offense carried the game this time. N.O. had top offense. Alex and Drew toe to toe. Alex and team won out.  Giants and packers. Hummm pack # 2 offense with a really not good defense. Giants have picked up their d (Since playing us) but no where near the 9er d when they are hot.... Expect it this week at home..... 9er fan for years we never saw this comming. But its a train and I jumped on the 1st week. Either get on it or get run down by it. The 9ers are for real!!!!!

Since: May 25, 2011
Posted on: January 16, 2012 3:46 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

As a Patriot fan I can honestly say we respected the Ravens from week one this year. They were the one team in the AFC that I felt would battle the Patriots to the end. The Patriots "D" has been criticized all season by the writers and talking heads, and if you based the stats on yards given up it was rightfully so. This years Patriots team, unlike those in the past 3 years presents a different problem to no matter which defensive team they play, or how good they think they are. Troy Aikman said it best "How do you double team Hernandez and Gronkowski, and leave Wes Welker with single coverage by a linebacker". This is almost impossible with Tom Brady throwing the ball. Every team has the same strategy...get to Brady and rush him or sack him. The problem here is the Patriots have probably the best  and most experienced "O" line in the NFL. If Brady steps on his front leg to throw, you are screwed. This will be a great game, with 2 teams with their strengths on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Since: Jan 9, 2012
Posted on: January 16, 2012 3:04 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

@123kid, a game that's decided by a last second touchdown is not a destruction. The niners D played well, surely, holding back Brees when they had to, but Brees still put up 32 points on that defense. The Giants played arguably the top offense in the league, and even with bad calls allowing the Packers touchdown drives to continue, they still held them to 20 points. So both D's are basically equal. I believe it will come down to the offenses, and although the niners have a better running attack, the Giants run game is on the high, and so that gap isn't too wide. Considering Smith's play against the Saints, I also believe that gap is closer, but I still believe Eli's abilities to extend plays and his unparalleled play in the fourth quarter will be the difference in the end, and so I say the Giants take the close game 27-20.

Since: Dec 17, 2011
Posted on: January 16, 2012 2:48 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Just like the post right before mine as Giants fans I have heard garbage from fans of every team Giants eliminated in their 4 straight elimination games. Yes, Niners destroyed the Saints and Giants have no shot. Only refs blew 4 major calls and cost Giants 14 of those 20 points Pack scored. Yes, Giants D is total garbage. Nothing compared to Niners super D that gave up 2 td's to Brees late in the game in a matter of minutes. Sure, Niners will cream the Giants. In fact, Giants don't have a shot. Who cares that Giants scored one td late on Niners late in the 1st game, held them to 3 and out and had a chance to send the game in OT if Manningham did not drop an end zone TD. BTW, Giants were missing key players in Ross and Boley on D and Bradshaw at RB. But never mind that, Giants have no shots cause Niners are just so much better. They should be crowned champs too for beating Giants in regular season just like when LSU beat Bama.

Since: Jan 15, 2012
Posted on: January 16, 2012 2:11 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

The 49ers destroyed the Saints. What are you talking about? The Niners defense was flying around the field all day smacking people in the mouth. The Gaints just played the WORST defense in the NFL..The 49ers held Brees under control, but he was able to complete some miracle throws to Colston, and Gram...the 49ers don't give up big plays so you know it was a miracle. Gore will run the ball well enough to keep Manning off the field, and when he is on the field he will be sacked or under heavy pressure every throw. Screen plays will slow down the Giants pass rush, and your linebackers will miss tackles because they aren't good. Plus, Hunter is a beast!!! Eli will have 2 turnovers. The 49ers aren't scared of a team they already best @ home. 49ers 27 Giants 17

Since: Oct 9, 2011
Posted on: January 16, 2012 12:15 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

The lesson for the 4 remaining teams taken from this past weekend......DON'T TURN THE BALL OVER!!! YOU TURN IT OVER, YOU LOSE!

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