Tag:Baltimore Ravens
Posted on: January 18, 2012 3:17 pm
Edited on: January 18, 2012 4:48 pm
 

Tom Brady misses practice, likely just resting

Brady missed Pats practice Wednesday. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

We already told you about one superstar quarterback missing practice Wednesday, and maybe Eli Manning and Tom Brady are more alike than even Eli knew, as Brady missed Wednesday's practice in advance of the AFC Championship Game as well.

Patriots vs. Ravens Preview

Brady's reason for missing was entirely different than Eli's (stomach bug) however. Brady missed, according to our Patriots Rapid Reporter Greg Bedard, because of what's "likely for scheduled rest."

Earlier this week, Brady called the Ravens "the best team we've faced all year."

"They’re physical, they’re tough, they can cover and they’ve got some of the best players in the history of the NFL at their positions in (Terrell) Suggs and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata," Brady said, per Bedard. You’ve got phenomenal players there. So, we’ve really got our work cut out for us."

So it's not like Brady's skipping because he considers this game a bye. (Duh.) Instead, it's really more about making sure his shoulder, which bothered him late in the season, is totally rested and healthy heading into Sunday's game.

Besides, the Ravens/Patriots game might ultimately not be about the physical matchup so much as it is mental. Andy Benoit made that point in his Film Room preview of the game and Brady reinforced it.

"It’s a film study game with him,” Brady said via Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald. “He wants to ID everything. We want to disguise what we’re doing."

And while Brady's sitting at home for the physical part of practice, there's no doubt he's working on the mental angle.

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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 17, 2012 9:05 pm
 

Forget the media: Flacco now has to convince Reed

FlaccoBy Josh Katzowitz

A few days go, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco called out the media, saying, "I’m sure if we win (vs. the Texans), I’ll have nothing to do with why we won according to you guys.”

Then, Flacco went out and showed that he was exactly right. With his 14-of-27, 176-yard, two-touchdown, five-sack performance, he didn't have much to do with the reason Baltimore advanced to the AFC title game vs. the Patriots.

Now, instead of calling out anybody, his own teammates are sticking it to Flacco himself.

“They had a lot of guys in the box on him and they were giving it to him. I think a couple of times he needed to get rid of the ball. It just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense,” safety Ed Reed said, via the Baltimore Sun. “I don’t know how much of [that was] the play calling … but it just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense, you know, of times past.

"It was just kind of like they [were] telling him [what] to do -- throw the ball or get it here, you know, get it to certain guys.”

And as anybody who watched the game last weekend, Reed realizes Flacco needs to play a tiny bit better against New England to have a chance to upset the Patriots.

“He can’t play like that,” Reed said. “One specific play that sticks out to me was when Ray Rice came out and got pushed out of the backfield and [Flacco] still threw him the ball and he had Torrey Smith on the outside. I can see that sitting on the sideline or sitting in the stands. You don’t know what someone else is seeing.”

Flacco wasn’t the only one to draw the ire of Reed. The safety also said the offensive line has to block better. But now on Sunday, Flacco doesn’t only have to win the respect of the media (not that he cares). He has to win over his own teammates.

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Posted on: January 17, 2012 4:50 pm
 

Pick-Six Podcast: Jim Caldwell fired by Colts

By Will Brinson & Ryan Wilson

Jim Caldwell was fired on Tuesday by the Colts. Right before we were about to record a podcast, which is fortunate for everyone involved.

Well, except Caldwell. We broke down why this happened, what it means for Peyton Manning, what it means for the Colts going forward, who could replace Caldwell as the Colts coach.

We also talk to our good friend Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk and get him to rank the remaining quarterbacks in the playoffs, discuss whether Joe Flacco should get paid, whether any veteran would want to join Tim Tebow in Denver and much, much more.

(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 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 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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Posted on: January 15, 2012 8:14 pm
Edited on: January 16, 2012 9:27 am
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Best Super Bowl matchup?

Posted by Will Brinson


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action, figures out the winners and losers and asks the big questions. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. Listen to the Pick-Six Podcast Divisional Round recap below and don't forget to subscribe via iTunes.

Ranking the Possible Super Bowl Matchups

Although there were some fairly drama-free games in the NFL playoffs thus far, there's no question we've been treated to some serious story-lining; Alex Smith's redemption alone was worth the price of admission. And with only three games remaining in the NFL season, we've narrowed the group of teams down a group of four elite squads that should produce an action-packed storyline.

But how do the matchups stack up in terms of watchability, entertainment value and general awesomeness? Here's my ranking:

1. Patriots vs. Giants
It's impossible to underscore how dramatic this matchup would be: after the Giants lost to the undefeated Packers 38-35, there was chatter of how this season looked eerily familiar to 2007 ... when the Giants upended the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in a game that was one of the most memorable Super Bowls in NFL history.

That was the last time the Patriots made the Super Bowl and since then, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have come under fire for not winning playoff games. The Pats won't be worried about their perfect season anymore, of course, but the Giants look very similar to the team that won the Super Bowl in 2007, thanks to a dominant pass rush and Eli Manning truly elevating his game.

The storyline, which would consist primarily of the word "revenge," might get a bit stale, but there would be an incredible amount of players with stories from that year and an ax to grind.

If you root for drama, star power and some trash talk, this is the matchup you want to see.

2. Ravens vs. Giants
The last time these teams faced off in the Super Bowl, Ray Lewis was Super Bowl MVP and the Baltimore defense had their way with Kerry Collins, picking him off four times en route to a 34-7 blowout.

Also: Tiki Barber was relevant, if that tells you anything about how long ago that was.

From a football perspective, this could be a high-scoring game that will go either way; a good game from Joe Flacco would probably result in a Ravens win, but no one will bank on that, so the Giants will be favored (maybe 4.5 points?).

Both teams are explosive enough on offense, but even more explosive on defense. We'd see points, but we'd also see plenty of smashmouth football. If someone got out to a big lead, the game wouldn't necessarily be over -- seeing Eli lead a comeback against the vaunted Ravens defense would be entertaining as all get-out.

And the chatter leading up to the game would be simply amazing. Jason Pierre-Paul, Antrel Rolle, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis? If you're a media member, you should be drooling at the quotability factor for this one.

3. Patriots vs. 49ers
The fact that these two teams play such contrasting styles could set the Super Bowl up for an interesting and perplexing matchup, but it's hard to believe that the Pats would be favored by less than a touchdown in this scenario.

Maybe San Francisco could pull off the upset: we've already seen that they can keep Drew Brees and the Saints down if given two weeks to prepare. And they'll absolutely be given the "no one believes in us" card if such a matchup takes place.

Here's the problem though: as good as Alex Smith looked on Saturday late, he didn't look like Brady did later that night. The 49ers are one of the few teams in the NFL that can, theoretically, match up in their base formation against the Pats tight ends.

But if Angry Brady show up again (and, we have to assume he showed up against the Ravens if they're here), this game could look like the last time the 49ers made the Super Bowl, only in reverse.

4. Ravens vs. 49ers
In terms of pure on-field entertainment value, this is a nightmare situation. Both the 49ers and Ravens succeed by running the ball and playing defense so it makes zero sense for this matchup to actually happen, given the importance of quarterback play in the NFL and the high-powered offenses we've seen so far in 2012.

Yes, their coaches are freaking brothers and there's no question that Harbaugh Bowl 2.0 -- the pair dueled it out on Thanksgiving night -- would provide an incredible amount of entertainment in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

But how quickly would the "They're Related!" storyline get old? It might take a day, maybe two tops. Trust me, with that much free time you'll be sick of it before media day even happens, and don't even get me started on the players.

There's some star power here, but it's primarily on the defensive end with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith (if anyone knows who he is anyway) and the like.

Joe Flacco versus Alex Smith? Yuck. We'd be treated to a defensive battle along the likes of that 16-6 Ravens victory on Turkey Day. Or the BCS Championship Game.

On the bright side, at least the teams would've gotten there through a playoff. (Read: legitimately.)

Winners

Alex Smith: Sports are funny, because moments -- not careers -- ultimately tend to define certain players. Smith is one of those players and a pair of moments on Saturday -- his 28-yard touchdown run and then "The Snatch" in the end zone -- redefined his career. He could blossom into one of the next great NFL quarterbacks or he could sign a big contract and become a bust again. It won't matter, because Saturday's game will always remain a turning point of some point. Smith likely won't ever justify his draft slot or being taken over Aaron Rodgers, but Saturday was an unbelievable redemption story.

Eli Manning
: Manning was, in my brain, approximately 145 for 146 on third down on Sunday night against the Packers. Every time Green Bay got him in a bad spot, the dude sat back in the pocket, waited until things opened up, and drilled a beautiful pass to a wide-open receiver. He's had an amazing season that could've been even better, and he's finally getting the credit he deserves.

Marques Colston
: Colston's set to be an unrestricted free agent, and the lasting memory he provided potential suitors was an outstanding effort, as he caught nine balls for 136 yards and a toe-tapping touchdown that was basically the only time a Saints player got deep in the first half on Saturday. If the Saints don't reach a long-term deal with Drew Brees, they'll have to franchise him, and that means Colston can get loose on the market and make a pile of money.

Bill Belichick: All season long the chatter was that Belichick's defense would hinder the Patriots from winning a Super Bowl. Maybe that's true -- we'll find out next Sunday against Baltimore. But the the Broncos were supposed to have a physical running game right? And the blew up the Steelers defense? Right? Belichick showed why he's a defensive genius and one of the all-time great coaches in that blowout.

Hakeem Nicks: Thanks to Victor Cruz' breakout season in 2011, Nicks kind of got loss in the shuffle. He shouldn't have: his performance against Green Bay was stunning, and broke off a 66-yard, gazelle-like touchdown run and then broke the Packers spirit with a Hail-Mary catch at the end of the half. His final line? Seven catches, 165 yards and two touchdowns.

Jenkins got abused by Davis all day long. (Getty Images)

Losers

Malcolm Jenkins: You might want to pick on Roman Harper for getting worked over by Vernon Davis in the end zone on the final touchdown, but Jenkins is the reason the Niners even had a shot. First there's the teardrop Alex Smith dropped over Jenkins into Davis' outstretched arms before his now famous touchdown run. Then there's Jenkins coverage on Davis across the middle when he picked up 47 yards on the 49ers final drive. Burnt toast anyone? (Screenshots via Dave Cariello of Canal Street Chronicles.)

Jacoby Jones
:
Dude tried to field a punt off a hop inside his own 20 on the Texans second possession of the game, didn't field it cleanly, got rocked, fumbled the ball and gave the Ravens a free touchdown. In case you missed it, the Ravens won by seven points.

Cam Cameron
: With the Texans holding two timeouts, 3:04 left in the game and the Ravens up four and in the Texans red zone, Cameron called for two pass plays. Both passes were incomplete and the Ravens kicked a field goal with 2:56 left. They burned eight seconds and didn't make the Texans use a timeout. Then on third and a half-inch with 1:38 remaining, Cameron called for a Vonta Leach run, instead of having his fullback block for Ray Rice. There never should've been enough time for a second possession for Houston in the first place.

NFL Officials: For two consecutive weekends, the NFL officiating has been, quite simply, terrible. The guys in stripes have a really difficult job, made even more difficult in today's world where jerks take pictures of their televisions and post them to Twitter. But during the NFL playoffs, the quality of work done by the zebras has really highlighted some of the flaws in the way in-game rules are applied in football. Something's gotta change.

Tim Tebow: We'd also accept John Elway or John Fox here, because the offseason's going to be miserable for all three of them despite winning a division title and a playoff game. Tebow's poor showing against the Patriots means everyone's got to wonder if he can be a "real" quarterback for the Broncos and as such, every time Fox, Elway or Tebow get anywhere near a microphone, they'll be asked about Tebow's status. It will unquestionably be annoying by the time next season starts.

State Farm: You guys really going to keep running the "Discount Double Check" commercials for the next month? Because that's going to be more awkward than Pepsi Max running Rex Ryan halftime speeches after the Jets miss the playoffs. (Please don't raise my insurance rates though.)

The Big Questions

 
Plenty of questions still remain about Flacco. (AP)

1. Did Joe Flacco answer his critics on Sunday?
Nope. The playcalling was bad and the Texans have a really good defense, but Flacco looked pretty awful all things considered. His two touchdown passes were nice, but were it not for some sick catches from his receivers, Flacco's numbers (14 of 27 for 176 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) would've been much worse. It's not all his fault this game was so close, but an elite performance would've resulted in a blowout.

2. Should Alex Smith have fallen down before scoring late Saturday?
Yes. This debate livened up our Twitter followers on Saturday evening, but the reality is, with the 49ers down 24-23 and Smith should've fallen to the ground, let the Niners melt the clock, force the Saints to use their timeouts, and the kick a field goal with, in the best-case scenario, no time remaining. Instead, Drew Brees got the ball back with 1:51 remaining and had time to score. Of course, he also scored too quickly, giving Smith time to cement his comeback legacy in San Francisco, but that's beside the point. Smith going down could have iced the game away, we just wouldn't have gotten all that drama.

3. Is it time for Gregg Williams to get out of town?
Probably. Williams shouldn't be the scapegoat for New Orleans lack of success, because he called a heck of a game on Saturday against the 49ers. With the Saints offense struggling, Williams defense kept the Saints in the game by limiting the 49ers points off turnovers. But because Smith drove the Niners to two scores in the last 150 seconds, you can bet that Williams will get a lot of the blame. He's got an easy out by joining Jeff Fisher with the Rams and he should probably jump on that.

4. Do we need full-time referees?
NO. Wilson and I batted this idea around some on chat (and talked about it on the podcast), but why would giving referees more money and job security equate to an incentive for them to be right more often? It doesn't. Giving them more time to learn the rules and properly apply them? Yeah, that would be great. It would also be great if the NFL made applying the rules in a fashion that doesn't screw up the game more practical, but that's another story for another day.

5. Is being a wild-card in the playoffs better?
Maybe? I dunno. I do know this: you look at the Packers and you look at the Giants. One team basically got three weeks off and cooled down from an unholy hot streak. The other team squeaked into the playoffs and got hot, playing their best football at the right time. The latter team, the Giants, are still alive.

6. Is Tom Coughlin still on the hot seat?

LOL. Also, LOL at Giants fans who wanted Coughlin fired and/or put on the hot seat when the Giants were losing to the Saints-49ers-Packers in succession, with a surprising win against the Patriots mixed in. Give the dude an extension already, he deserves it.

7. Will you please provide a picture of Andy Reid in the Punt/Pass/Kick contest?
Thought you'd never ask. Every single time the contest winners are shown on television, I can't help but think of this amazing photo:



8. How good can the 49ers offense be?

Very good. I think -- the progression of Vernon Davis and Alex Smith over the course of the season leads me to believe Harbaugh would be smart to bring his signal caller back, keep some continuity and let the pieces on the offense grow into the system even more, like they did throughout the year. It's quite possible they could end up being potent.

GIF O' THE WEEK

Decent catch by Arian Foster here:

Worth 1,000 Words


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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com