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: Nov 28, 2007
Posted on: January 16, 2012 11:40 am

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.

Since: Jan 8, 2010
Posted on: January 16, 2012 11:12 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

So only the eight times then. (Steelers twice)!  A sixth of the time! Cruel to be kind.

Since: Jan 8, 2010
Posted on: January 16, 2012 11:01 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Eli got an awful lot of time to throw. The Niners won't give him that time. And the ONLY statistic that matters is the final score. The Niners defense and Special Teams played exceptionally well when it counted. Nobody can completely stop QB's like Brees, Brady and yes, Eli! But they can be limited, pressured and forced into errors. The whole point of playing against the Niners is that those turnovers were NOT accidental, but forced as part of the game plan. Sticky helmets aside, I suspect that Coughlin will spend much of this week emphasizing ball security (and early bedtimes).
As far as Pats over Ravens goes, Brady doesn't take well to early pressure and has been slow to start when receiving it this season. It's a pretty poor defense, by Belichick standards so I wouldn't be too certain of the outcome. I favour the Pats, but I can easily see the Pats losing their tempo and thus the game. Oh, and the Ravens beat a rookie QB whilst the Pats beat a gimmick laden offense lead by a similarly inexperienced QB. (You know the name!). How many wins over teams with winning records this season?
A Harbaugh Superbowl would be an intriguing match, if not the absorbing shoot out many had hoped for. My late brother was a Pats fan, so a Niners-Pats match up will hold meaning for me. I hope that's where it goes. Also quite like the rematch between the Giants and the Pats, but there I see the Pats losing to that big problem. Pressure on the QB. Baltimore, San Francisco and the Giants can all bring it. Can New England? Seriously?
All this being said, it's been a pretty good Post Season so far and the Niners-Saints game was one of the best playoff games I can recall in the last quarter century.

Since: Jan 16, 2012
Posted on: January 16, 2012 10:31 am
This comment has been removed.

Post Deleted by Administrator

Since: Oct 26, 2009
Posted on: January 16, 2012 8:57 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Brady rarely forgets, and improves with his losses.
then he'll have a chance to be even better soon

Since: Dec 7, 2011
Posted on: January 16, 2012 4:16 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

ravens are a good team.they have a good coach yheir offense is average. those players are very tough, they are talentedand they play hurt. ifed reed cannot playthat will hurtthem. even ifhe doesplay itis unlikely hecan playat top form. how is it possible that the ravens have someone like ed reed and ray lewis on the same team. that is so unusual. all this beingsaid. i dont think that they will beat the patriots. with the addition ofthat all world tight end brady playing at such a high level, they will be real hard to beat. bellychick never forgets a slight or a loss in the playoffs. it was only 2 years ago the ravens humiliated thepats. madethemlook like a bunch of bush leaguers.the pats defense is jelling at just the right time.

Since: Apr 4, 2010
Posted on: January 16, 2012 2:08 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

I would like to begin by saying that I was right all along. I have been saying all season long how the Packers would not repeat as SB champs because SB champs never ever repeat.
Yikes.  "Never ever" apparently doesn't include repeats by Packers, Dolphins, Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys, Broncos, or Patriots. 

Since: Jan 17, 2011
Posted on: January 16, 2012 1:46 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Giants over 49ers - Giants have Ahmad Bradshaw and a defense that has a lot of good athletes and speed.  Oh by the way, they have Eli, who is probably the best QB left in this tournament, and yes that includes Brady.  New Orleans spotted the Niners 17 points and still came back and took the lead late...twice.  The 49ers defense made some impressive hits to generate turnovers, but for the most part Drew Brees had his way with the Niners in spite of the fact that they had to be 1 dimensional because of the early 17 point deficit and that they lost a RB early to a blow to the head.  In fact, the Niners D was awful if you look at it statistically.  Only the turnovers early in the contest which they converted into points made their performance look ok.  Giants have played better than the Niners over the last 6 weeks.  Giants will win 30-20.

Patriots over Ravens  - You can't draw much from the Patriots win over the Broncos, because that was basically an exhibition game.  Hernandez and Gronkowski create decisive mismatches in the Pats favor and they are physical receivers who won't get out of rhythm and start dropping balls just because Terrell Suggs punches them in the mouth on a bitter cold January day.  The Ravens were lucky to have played against a rookie QB, as but for some costly errors by a rookie playoff team, they would've lost the game.  The Ravens offense will struggle to generate points if Belichick is able to force them to go on 10-12 play drives.  Patriots over the Raves 33 - 22.

Since: Oct 2, 2007
Posted on: January 16, 2012 1:30 am

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

Yeah,lumpoco you are so right,hahaha. Sounds like you fashion yourself as some kind of know it all.... that's the impression I get anyway. When did you start following the NFL 2005? No team ever,ever repeat as NFL Champs? How about the 2003,2004 Patriots, just to mention recent history.

Since: Jul 2, 2007
Posted on: January 15, 2012 11:24 pm

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

But he lost a second time this year?

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