NFL Playoff Preview: Conference Championships

Ravens (13-4) at Patriots (14-3): 3:00 ET on CBS

The last time these two teams met in the playoffs (2009-10) the Patriots lost the game before it really even started. The Ravens came out hungry and utterly dominated the Pats in the first quarter scoring on their first play from scrimmage a 83-yard touchdown from Ray Rice. It was an absurdly lopsided game in which Joe Flacco threw only 10 passes and the Ravens rushed 42 times for 221 yards. Bill Belichick and the Patriots that remain from that season assuredly have that game burned into their memory and likely have seen all too much of that game tape in the study rooms this week. The keys to success for both teams are still very relevant from then to now.

The Ravens need to start strong and use their defense to throw Tom Brady and the Patriots off their game hopefully creating turnovers. They will also need to establish a strong running game in order to bring more balance to their pass attack. Joe Flacco has a much improved receiving core between Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans and speedster Torrey Smith. Conversely the Patriots need to control the Ravens run game, limit their turnovers and make Joe Flacco and his mustache beat them.

The Patriots are really a puzzling team. They finally got the playoff monkey off their back by dominating the Broncos for their first playoff win since losing Superbowl XLII. Let’s be honest though, the Broncos are not a good team and if you look at the Patriots schedule it’s been a long time since they played any really good teams.Since their bye week they lost to the Steelers and Giants (2 good teams) and then beat the Jets, Chiefs, Vickless Eagles, Colts, Skins, Bronocs, Dolphins and Bills. Not a lot of good competition in there.

The problem is that the Patriots look amazing. Tom Brady is playing out of his mind and TE Rob Gronkowski has become literally unstoppable breaking the regular season mark for touchdowns by a TE and then capping it off with three more TD’s against the Broncos last week. It’s hard to pick against this team.

The Ravens Defense is good but no longer dominant like it once was. Joe Flacco is solid and has improved weapons but doesn’t steal games. Ray Rice is the best running back left in the playoffs but the Patriots have solid run stoppers and will certainly not get burned by the run attack again. I don’t think the Ravens can dominate one portion of the game enough to get the competitive edge over the Patriots. The Patriots have the best offense in the NFL and if it’s a close game and the ball is in Tom Brady’s hands, you gotta like your chances that the Patriots pull it out. Barring another horrendous, turnover-filled first half, I see the Patriots heading to the Superbowl once again.

Prediction: Patriots 31 Ravens 20

Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3): 6:30 ET on Fox

The Giants are hoping to reprise their 2007-8 role as Giant Killers once again and did a good job of that by knocking off the mighty Green Bay Packers in Green Bay.

The game shouldn’t have even been as close as the 37-20 final score as the Giants were on the wrong side of three horrible officiating calls that upheld an egregiously bad non-fumble, sustained a GB scoring drive with a phantom “blow to the helmet” call and stopped a late game Giants drive with a horrible spot respectively. The Giants will once again have to be road warriors, a role they seem to relish, as they head into Candlestick park this week to challenge the NFC West best 49ers.

The 49ers for their part are coming off of one of the most exciting and dramatic playoff games I’ve ever seen. After slugging it out for three and a half quarters the Saints and Niners combined for four touchdowns in the last four minutes of the game. By the time the Saints were set to receive the kickoff with nine seconds left in the game I was ready for anything to happen. If Drew Brees literally threw his arm out of its socket and his detached arm sailed 80 yards down field to a streaking Marques Colston I would not have been surprised. It was that kind of game.

The Niners were impressive however and the most surprisingly impressive 49er of all was Alex Smith. He threw for just under 300 yards with three touchdowns and most importantly was key in late-game clutch situations scrambling 28 yards for a then go-ahead touchdown and hitting Vernon Davis at the end of the game for the clincher. Vernon Davis wound up being the receiving star of the game getting 2 touchdowns on 180 yards receiving and a complementary box of tissues. It was a huge weekend for Tight Ends in general with Davis, Gronk and Jimmy Graham totaling a combined 428 yards and seven touchdowns.

So where does this leave us this weekend in the match up between Big Blue and the Gold Diggers? It should be a really good game. The Niners defense is legit but as they showed last week they are still susceptible to giving up big plays to a talented Quarterback. Eli Manning has continued to play at an elite level and with Mario Manningham healthy it has opened up the Giants passing game and keeps opponent from simply taking away Nicks or Cruz. Both of these teams came ahead of the turnover battle last week which is always a key element for success in the NFL. The Niners lose some home field advantage in playing the Giants as New York has proved that they like to play on the road and unlike the dome homed Saints they are comfortable playing outdoors on the grass. As impressive as Alex Smith was last week can we really expect that kind of consistency two weeks in a row? I wouldn’t bet on it. The Niners will have to unleash Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter and hope that they can wear out the Giants defense with their ground game and keep the ball out of Eli’s hands. Like Tom Brady, Eli has been excellent in must-win situations and has led the team to numerous 4th quarter comebacks this year. In a close game, and I think this will be a close one, you gotta like your chances with Eli and the Giants.

Prediction: Giants 24, Niners 19

If my predictions play out then you know what we got? A rematch of Superbowl XLII and who doesn’t want to see that?

Just keep this in mind when Roger Goodell announces his officiating squads for this weekend.

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