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Tag:New England Patriots
Posted on: January 19, 2012 11:45 am
Edited on: January 19, 2012 12:04 pm
 

Brady to return to Pats practice today

Brady

By Josh Katzowitz

On Wednesday, Tom Brady missed practice, though as CBSSports.com’s Will Brinson wrote, it was likely more a result of the team wanting him to rest as opposed to the left shoulder injury that’s been bothering him lately.

Well, good news for the Patriots, as Brady will return to practice today.

Patriots vs. Ravens Preview
Brady was asked about missing Wednesday’s practice, and Brady said (via the Boston Herald), "It’s not the first practice I've missed."

Luckily, coach Bill Belichick was more forthcoming earlier in the day about the reason Brady missed practice. “"He wasn't out there,” Belichick told reporters. “Hopefully, he'll be out there today."

Now that Brady will be, this story takes on a more “nothing to see here” feeling.

Besides, if Brady’s shoulder hurt bad enough that he couldn’t play quarterback with it, he always can contribute to the team in other ways.

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Posted on: January 18, 2012 2:20 pm
Edited on: January 20, 2012 12:16 pm
 

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

Brady and Lewis will match wits in the AFC Championship Game. (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

Tom Brady is right: the Ravens are the best team the Patriots have faced this season.

Cam Cameron’s offense poses problems for Bill Belichick’s defense, while Ray Lewis’ defense actually has a fighting chance against Brady’s offense. Here’s the breakdown.



1. Patriots formation versatility
Keep in mind, the Patriots, at least offensively, are also the best team the Ravens have faced all season. Their versatility is like nothing we’ve seen before.

Last Saturday they spent a bulk of the game in a no-huddle that featured tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and wideouts Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman. Remarkably, they were able to run effectively out of this personnel grouping, as Hernandez carried the ball five times out of the backfield for 61 yards.

Those runs are almost just gravy – something the defense must now respect. The real purpose of putting Hernandez in the backfield is the same purpose as all of New England’s other alignments: to get a potent pass catcher matched up on a linebacker. Even safeties have major trouble covering Hernandez and Gronkowski.

This game will be no exception, as Baltimore’s strong safety Bernard Pollard is simply not capable of doing it, and the Ravens are unlikely to remove Ed Reed from centerfield. Brady rarely throws in the direction of starting cornerbacks. Even when he goes to Wes Welker, it’s often when Welker has drawn a matchup against a backup slot corner or non-cornerback.

Because the Patriots don’t try to confuse defenses so much as force them into bad matchups, HOW the Patriots line up to play is almost more important than how they actually play. Most of the damage is done through crafty presnap alignment. (This is one reason so many of Brady’s throws come off three-and five-step drops; the decision of where to go with the ball is made prior to the snap.)

The Patriots frequently go up-tempo to prevent defenses from having enough time to regroup or alter matchups before the snap. The only sure way to take the chess match element out of the equations and force the Patriots to win with execution is to play press-man coverage across the board. Problem is, no defense, including Baltimore’s, has enough quality cover artists to do this.


After a win over the Texans last week, Joe Flacco and the Ravens will take on Tom Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship. Jason Horowitz and NFL.com's Pat Kirwan preview this game. Watch the game on CBS at 3 PM ET. 

2. Baltimore’s response
The Ravens may not have enough cover artists to play the Patriots man-to-man, but they might be the one team capable of matching wits with them. Ray Lewis is arguably the smartest front seven defender in the league, while Ed Reed is arguably the smartest back four defender. Those two are capable of recognizing New England’s subtle tendencies and getting their teammates into the proper defensive play-call.

Of course, Brady and Bill O’Brien know this and will likely inject a few tendency-breaking wrinkles into the gameplan. Of course, the Ravens know that the Patriots know that they know this, and the Patriots know that the Ravens know that they know and ... you get the idea – this has the potential to be one heck of a chess match.

Look for the Ravens to do plenty of presnap communicating and disguising at the line of scrimmage. It helps that they’re comfortable playing a plethora of different coverages. The outcome may be decided by which side can bully the other into a reactionary position. The Patriots can do that by going hurry-up; the Ravens can do it by blitzing fervidly up the middle.

3. Ravens pass-rush
To beat Tom Brady, you have to rob him of the trust he has in his pass protection. Brady – like any quarterback – does not like pressure directly in his face. And though he’s as tough in the pocket as anyone in the game, he has a tendency to get just a tad jumpy after taking a few hits from edge-rushers.

Recent playoff history shows that if a defense can create pressure and doubt, Brady will eventually start eating up the play clock worrying about protections. That makes him a significantly less dangerous player versus when he’s hurrying things up and concentrating on his receivers’ routes.

The question is, can the Ravens generate a pass-rush? If they blitz, they likely can. But one of the best kept secrets in football is that this is generally a four-man rushing defense. Because the Ravens use so many 3-4 or 2-5 fronts, their four pass-rushers come from a variety of different spots, thus creating the illusion of a blitz:

The Ravens use a lot of zone exchange concepts in their pass-rush. A zone exchange is essentially a four-man pass-rush where linebackers or safeties rush the quarterback, while a defensive lineman or another linebacker drops back into coverage. It can be confusing, often creating the illusion of a heavy blitz. The Thanksgiving night game – in which Baltimore had nine sacks – provided a good example.

Above (click image to enlarge): Upon first glance, this appears to be a blitz featuring five, possibly six pass-rushers.

Below: The Ravens use a lot of zone exchange concepts in their pass-rush. A zone exchange is essentially a four-man pass-rush where linebackers or safeties rush the quarterback, while a defensive lineman or another linebacker drops back into coverage. It can be confusing, often creating the illusion of a heavy blitz. The Thanksgiving night game – in which Baltimore had nine sacks – provided a good example.

The Ravens’ four-man rush has seemingly evaporated over the last month. It registered a quiet five sacks over the final three weeks of the regular season and then got zero pressure on T.J. Yates in the divisional round. With talents like Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, it’s imprudent to assume the pressure can’t suddenly return.

But worth noting is that the Patriots’ pass protection in the last month has also been as sharp as the Ravens’ pass-rush has been dull.

4. Dialing in on Ray Rice
Bill Belichick always builds his defensive gameplan around eliminating the opponents’ greatest strength. This season, no man has done a better job at eliminating Ray Rice than Cam Cameron. (Rice averaged less than 10 carries a game in Baltimore’s four losses.)

To be fair, Cameron has featured Rice most of the season, and the results thus far speak for themselves: 13 wins and Rice leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage.

But if Belichick has inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo shadow Rice, or if he brings safety Patrick Chung down in the box every play or has his linebackers sellout against the run, will Cameron have enough patience to stay with his superstar?

The Patriots run defense is coming together, while their secondary can be tempting to attack.

5. Baltimore’s passing game
It was virtually nonexistent against Houston, mainly because deep threat Torrey Smith was nullified by Johnathan Joseph. The Patriots don’t have a corner on Joseph’s level (or even in Joseph’s stratosphere).

If the Ravens want to take their deep shots with Smith, all they’ll have to do is block a mundane Patriots pass-rush (last week’s performance at Foxboro notwithstanding). Devin McCourty was serviceable as a nickel free safety against Denver, but it remains to be seen whether the struggling corner can suddenly play a new position when facing a strong-armed quarterback and polished play-action passing game.

In other matchups, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson were quiet against Houston but should be able to work the seams against New England. Anquan Boldin will be extremely problematic for the Pats. The thought of him working outside against Kyle Arrington seems patently unfair; inside is even worse, as the Patriots don’t have a true slot corner.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Championship games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 18, 2012 1:35 pm
 

Flacco on Reed quotes: 'Not that big of an issue'

Flacco doesn't care what anyone thinks, apparently. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

On Monday, Ravens safety Ed Reed had some interesting things to say about Joe Flacco, stating that against the Texans it didn't look like Flacco 'had a hold on the offense.'

The much-maligned quarterback's been frustrated lately, calling out the media before the Houston game, but he said Wednesday that Reed's comments were 'not that big of an issue.'

"It was a little funny to me, I was a little caught off guard," Flacco said when asked about Reed's comments. "But we talked about it, it's not really that big of a deal. When I first saw it, I thought' What's going on?' But like I said, we talked about it, we're a team around here, it's not that big of an issue."

Flacco was asked a follow-up question and responded by asking the media, "You guys aren't going to let it go huh?"

So the media moved on to wondering if Flacco might start getting some respect from fans and the media if he and the Ravens "finally" (our quote, because it's amusing that there's some desperation involved in a four-year stint as a starting quarterback) won a Super Bowl with him under center.

"I don't care," the mustachioed Flacco said. "I'll be wearing a ring and we'll holding a trophy and the perception probably won't change but it doesn't really matter."

Flacco probably cares more about his contract status -- though he says he won't be thinking about it -- which will most certainly change if he ends up holding the Lombardi Trophy. (And will probably change regardless; winning a Super Bowl will just give him lots of leverage.)

Because he's right about how he's treated. He's won five playoff games. He's been to the playoffs four times in four years. Those are usually the issues young quarterbacks deal with when it comes to developing a negative reputation around the NFL. Flacco, instead, is guilty of having too good a defense and too good a running game, as well as not being a guy that a team can just let throw the ball 60 times.

Yes, we're totally guilty of calling him out on those counts. (Although our colleague Mike Freeman got Flacco's back in Wednesday's 10-Point Stance.) We have no problem with that. And Flacco shouldn't either -- there are worse crosses to bear in life.

But he should also understand what these next two games mean to his reputation, his contract status and his teammates: everything.

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Posted on: January 18, 2012 9:43 am
Edited on: January 18, 2012 11:01 am
 

Tebow suffered rib, chest injuries in Pats game

Tebow suffered some serious injuries against the Pats on Saturday. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

Tim Tebow, the newly proclaimed starter for Denver's 2012 training camp, is tougher than you all think. The Broncos quarterback played the second half against the Patriots on Saturday after sustaining some pretty severe injuries in Denver's 45-10 loss.

Tebowmania

Broncos spokesman Patrick Smyth didn't detail the exact nature of Tebow's injuries, but did confirm an earlier report from ESPN that Tebow was in considerable pain when he finished Saturday night's game.

Tebow reportedly tore some rib cartilage and bruised his lung but continued to play. this resulted in a a build-up of fluid on his chest (during the game and afterwards).

After Tebow had struggled to sleep on Saturday and Sunday night, he reportedly underwent an MRI on Monday.

The injury occurred when Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich hit Tebow; backup Brady Quinn began to warm up on the sideline following the injury, but Tebow stayed in.

It really shouldn't be a surprise that Tebow eventually suffered an injury: he's one of two NFL players to attempt at least 100 rushes and take at least 30 sacks in the 2011 season (Cam Newton's the other). Tebow also ranked 40th in the NFL in rushing attempts.

These are the sort of things that expose the body to viscous shots from defenders. The irony is that Tebow reportedly suffered the injury after throwing a pass.

Tebow would reportedly be almost doubtful -- and certainly questionable -- to play this Sunday if the Broncos had advanced to the AFC Championship Game. As it is, Tebow is expected to make a full recovery and the injuries are not expected to interfere with his offseason training program.

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Posted on: January 17, 2012 11:07 am
 

Super Bowl Odds: Championship Game Previews

A rematch of the 2007 Super Bowl is almost likely at this point. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

Earlier this month we took a look at the odds for teams to win the Super Bowl, just before the playoffs began. If you bet on the 49ers (+1200), you're feeling pretty good about life. If you bet on the Packers (+16), well, not so much.

The odds have been recalibrated in advance of the AFC and NFC Championship Games so let's take a look at who's likely (and unlikely) to win the Super Bowl. Plus: hypothetical Super Bowl matchups! All odds courtesy of Sportsbook.com.

Odds to Win the Super Bowl

Team: New England Patriots
Super Bowl Odds: +120
Value of Bet: 4
What Has to Happen: The Pats defense has to show up for at least one more game and Tom Brady needs to keep being the angry, destructive cyborg that he was in the first half against the Broncos. The Patriots are a shockingly high favorite here given that they've got to win two games like everyone else, and given that the Ravens stomped their faces the last time Baltimore came to New England.
Fun Prop to Play This Weekend: Under on the longest touchdown of the game at 47.5. Both the Ravens and the Patriots give up long plays, but if you look at each of their last five games, most shots have been taken from 40 yards in. Only Torrey Smith represents a true "deep threat" on either team.

Team: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Odds: +325
Value of Bet: 2
What Has to Happen: Alex Smith keeps getting his Joe Montana on. The defense has to play well, of course, but roughing up the Giants is different than roughing up the Saints; New Orleans is a finesse team (no offense to Drew Brees and Sean Payton). Once Pierre Thomas was knocked out, they struggled to punch the 49ers in the mouth. The Giants won't have the same problem and are infinitely tougher. Smith successfully orchestrating the offense gives San Francisco a tremendous advantage.
Fun Prop to Play This Weekend: Super Bowl UNDER at 50. You think 50 points are getting scored if we get 49ers vs. Ravens? It's not even a total backfire if the Giants make it: only once since 2005 (last year, in fact) has the Super Bowl gone over 50 points total.

Team: New York Giants
Super Bowl Odds: +325
Value of Bet: 3
What Has to Happen: The secondary needs to keep shutting folks down; they've done a tremendous job improving over the past four weeks or so. Also, Gregg Doyel pointed out that the Giants wanted to get physical with Jermichael Finley during the Packers game. They will need to do something similar with Vernon Davis (and then possibly Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez) if they plan on winning the Super Bowl. At the very least, they shouldn't leave Vernon in one-on-one coverage.
Fun Prop to Play This Weekend: Giants +4.5 versus Patriots in a hypothetical Super Bowl. Yes, you can bet on this. Crazy right? Already, no one believes in the Giants. Good times! (All future SB matchups listed below.

Team: Baltimore Ravens
Super Bowl Odds: +600
Value of Bet: 1
What Has to Happen: Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron have to get it together for two games and do their jobs more efficiently. Were it not for Jacoby Jones gifting the Ravens a touchdown on Sunday, Flacco might be the goat for a huge upset right now, and Cameron throwing with two minutes remaining and Houston trying to use their timeouts gave the Texans an additional possession. Do that against, say, Brady and Eli, and it'll burn you.
Fun Prop to Play This Weekend: The under on Ray Rice's rushing attempts. I don't even know what it is but I know Cameron will find a way to go under regardless.

Hypothetical Super Bowl Matchups
Patriots (-6.5) vs. 49ers: That's not a surprising line considering how strong the Patriots looked and it would generate a lot of action on each side of the ball. However, if the 49ers look good in taking down the Giants, I'd think this would open up closer to 3 than 7.

Patriots (-4.5) vs. Giants: The Giants would be somewhat surprising underdogs considering their strong run but remember that last time they were 12.5-point dogs (!) against the Patriots. So maybe this more reasonable. Best guess: the Giants would get a LOT of action and push this line down.

Ravens (-2) vs. 49ers: A two-point line means "We have no real idea, but I guess we like the Ravens." The over/under isn't listed but you best believe it's lower than the current line of 50. Defensive matchups like this put a lot of the weight on Flacco and Smith which is why no one knows.

Giants (-1) vs. Ravens: Again, no one knows. I'd personally love the Giants in this situation, because as hot as they've been, this line seems destined to climb. Plus, if you've got two really good defenses, don't you want the team with the elite quarterback? (That's not you, Joe Flacco.)

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Posted on: January 17, 2012 10:30 am
Edited on: January 17, 2012 10:31 am
 

Tracking Tebow: And so it ends…until next season

We're Tracking Tebow … because it's impossible not to watch. 

By Ryan Wilson

The Broncos' run ended ingloriously Saturday night, 97 days after Tim Tebow replaced Kyle Orton at quarterback. Denver went 8-5 in those 13 weeks, a stretch that included six straight wins followed by three straight losses, which preceded a "didn't see that coming, did you?" offensive explosion against the Steelers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

But the Tebow aerial assault was fleeting; New England wasn't going to let Tebow do to them what he did to an aggressive Pittsburgh defense. Instead, they mixed their coverages, generated pressure with four and five rushers, kept Tebow contained in the pocket and generally made his Saturday night a miserable experience.

But the setback is temporary; after the Broncos started the season 1-4 with Orton, no one expected them to make the playoffs much less win the AFC West. And yet they did, with an unconventional quarterback running a college offense. And guess what? Denver's ready to do it all again next season, too.

As soon as the Broncos' season was over the speculation began on Tebow's future as an NFL starter. On Monday, team vice president John Elway announced that Tebow had "earned the right" to be the team's quarterback heading into training camp and the hall of famer plans to play an active role in Tebow's development.

"There are things that I can add," Elway said. "Where I can help him ... I'm looking forward to it."


Elway's right -- Tebow has earned the job -- but if the organization is truly committed to him (and we're not convinced they are long term) then that means building the entire offense around one person, right down to a backup quarterback proficient at running Tebow's brand of option football.

If it seems extreme, think of it this way: what happens if Tebow goes down? Denver's offense suddenly reverts to its pre-Tebow playbook? And the remaining starters -- all of whom have spent months practicing the option offense, will suddenly be expected to run a conventional offense? In the middle of a game? That ain't happening.

The downside: if Tebow falters next season and the Broncos decide they'd prefer to run a more conventional system run by a more conventional quarterback, then for the second time in as many offseasons they'll be rebuilding the roster based on a new offensive philosophy.

So, yeah, it's a risk. But this is the same team that went with Orton out of training camp and won once in the first five weeks of the season. Tebow, even with all his flaws, fared much better.

And now with an offseason to work on, well, everything, it's reasonable to think that he'll be a lot better in August than he was in January.


                                                   Play by Play



(Note: Below are the plays -- both running and passing -- involving Tebow. You can view the entire play-by-play breakdown here)




                                                        Quotes



"Kind of like our football team, I was really proud where he started and where he brought this team. We are a work in progress. We have got a lot of work to do and that hasn't changed, you know, for some time. And as I mentioned earlier, you know, the two matchups we had against the New England Patriots, I think it is evident that we have work to do."  - Head coach John Fox on Tebow's overall performance this season

"A lot of ups and downs. Overall it's been a very special opportunity for me, something I've very thankful for, very thankful I had the opportunity to build some of the great relationships with teammates and coaches. We've overcome a lot of different forms of adversity, to win some special games, to have great memories of last week and to be able to get into the playoffs. There's a lot of things we are proud of, even though it's hard to see that now.  " - Tebow, after the game Saturday night

"Tim has earned the right to be the starting quarterback going into training camp next year. He made some good strides." - John Elway, executive vice president of football operations


                                                   Audio-Visual




Instead of playing press coverage, the Patriots often disguised their looks. Whatever happened presnap, the outcome was usually the same: contain Tebow, make him hold the ball, and win your one-on-one matchups. Here Tebow is sacked for an 11-yard loss.

(Note: click to englarge photos.) One thing Tebow will have to get better at: reading defenses and going through his progressions. In this play that ultimately led to a sack, Tebow stares down his receiver to the right. By the time he finally looks for other options, it's too late, the pocket has collapsed, and he's taken down. The receiver to the left is open, Tebow just never looks his way.


                                                   Eye on Tebow



Jan 14, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (15) on the field after the game against the New England Patriots in the 2011 AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 45- 10. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

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Posted on: January 16, 2012 9:39 am
 

Pick-Six Podcast: Best Super Bowl matchups

By Will Brinson & Ryan Wilson

Three games left in the season. It's terrifying, but we've got to analyze the four games from this weekend anyway.

Are the Giants the new Super Bowl favorite? What happened to the Packers? Is the Patriots defense stepping up? Are the Broncos going to stick with Tim Tebow in 2012?

And what's the best possible Super Bowl matchup? A Giants-Patriots rematch? Or is it Harbaugh Bowl 2.0?

We answer all these questions, plus much, much more, below.

(Did we mention that you should subscribe to the podcast via iTunes? And if you can't listen to the podcast below, download it here. And if you'd like to keep working while listening in your browser, pop that puppy out in a new tab here.)


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Posted on: January 15, 2012 8:16 pm
Edited on: January 15, 2012 8:32 pm
 

And there were 4: the Conference Championships

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)
Patriots

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.

Ravens

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)
49ers

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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