Sunday, January 22, 2012

Is it Championship Sunday yet?

The teams in the NFC and AFC Championship games have some history together. I touched on it briefly early in the week for the NFC side, but let's take it a step further with a look at the possible Super Bowl matchups. The big game is in Indianapolis this year, so the most compelling story lines might be a meeting between the Ravens and Giants. Not only would it be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXV, but it would mean that Eli Manning would have the chance to win his second title on the home turf of big brother Peyton (who only has one), AND it would be a sweet victory for Baltimore if they won in the city that stole their Colts away. If it's the Patriots and Giants, it would obviously be a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, and the Pats would be able to get revenge for the fluke loss that ended their perfect season. A Ravens and Niners "Harbowl" would of course be the ultimate test for the Harbaugh family with the head coaching brothers facing each other for the Lompardi trophy.

My hope, however, is a Patriots and Niners Super Bowl because it would match Tom Brady against his hometown team who passed on him in the draft (for Giovanni Carmazzi!!!), and it would also match Jim Harbaugh, who coached a team to the championship out of no where, against Bill Belichick, who coached his team to a championship out of no where exactly a decade ago. If these two teams win in their respective Championship games, it would match one of the best defenses in the league against one of the best offenses. Speaking of Championship games, this is going to be the 30th anniversary of The Catch, which is really the defining moment of the start of the 49er dynasty. You know who was in the opposite end zone at that game? A young Tom Brady.

On to the picks!
Could there be even more drama in SF this week?
New England -7 versus Baltimore: This line started higher because of how bad the Ravens looked last week and how awesome the Patriots looked, but now it's pretty reasonable. Baltimore was really dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and I think New England can exploit that. The Ravens won't be able to get much pressure without blitzing, and Brady is so good at making the right calls at the line of scrimmage, especially in the hurry up. Ray Lewis and Bernard Pollard will struggle if they're in man coverage against the Pats' dynamic tight end duo, and if Ed Reed is occupied on one of them, Brady will exploit the sidelines down the field like he did with Deion Branch last week on one of his record SIX touchdown passes. On the other side of the ball, Ray Rice busted out a long TD on the first play of from scrimmage in the playoff game between these clubs two years ago-- Brady's only loss to Baltimore. Belichick will make sure he won't be the one to beat them this time around. I expect Anquan Boldin to have a big day on some passes inside, but the Patriots will make sure to take away Torrey Smith and the deep ball from Joe Flacco's passing arsenal. Patrick Chung makes a huge difference in this defense, and in the end, I don't think Flacco will make enough plays against them to win on the road.

San Francisco -2.5 versus New York Giants: I was watching the fourth quarter of the regular season meeting between these two on NFL Network, and I had forgotten just how good of a game that was -- and now Ahmad Bradshaw and Frank Gore are healthy to play in this one! I really think the Niners can run the ball on this defensive front, and hopefully that'll slow down the Giants' fearsome pass rush. My main concern is if Alex Smith starts getting hit early, then he'll start looking at the rush instead of keeping his eyes down field.  If he has time, he can definitely exploit this secondary with plays that directly attack the safeties downfield, especially off of play action. I am actually big fans of Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle, but Vernon Davis showed last week how much of a matchup nightmare he is, and I have a feeling that Michael Crabtree is going to have a big day.
On the other side, I'm worried about Hakeem Nicks having a field day of his own. Like I said warned, the Niners' safeties showed again last week that this defense's main weakness is the big play through the air, and Nicks is a big threat down the field with huge hands to snatch the ball in traffic. A great pass rush can negate any openings on the back side, but Eli is great at creating just enough space to get his throws off. Carlos Rogers did a good job for the Niners against Victor Cruz in the slot, and that is the matchup to watch all day since Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman should shut down the running game and make the Giants one dimensional. If Aldon Smith and Justin Smith can get consistent pressure on Manning that forces him into a couple bad throws off his back foot, then I like the Niners' chances at home.

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