Friday, January 20, 2012

NFL Championship Weekend Preview

The second last one of these of the year. Last week was the complete opposite of what I was expecting. Saints/49ers ended up being the best game of the weekend, and may have been the best non-Super Bowl game I have ever watched. The game I was expecting to be the best, Giants/Packers, ended up being a Giants romp in the 2nd half. The Patriots wiped the floor with the Broncos, and the Ravens held on late to take out the Texans. I finished 3-1 on the week, just like in the Wild Card round, with my only loss the Packers. And that was the game I felt the least confident about. Just like last week, I will give a brief write-up about the team's that lost last weekend.

New Orleans: There is no doubt that the Saints will be a Super Bowl contender again next year. Greg Williams left the Saints to become defensive coordinator of the Rams, but that may end up being a good thing for the Saints. Their defense was torched by Alex Smith and have lacked the same punch they had the last couple of years. And with Steve Spagnuolo in the fold, the defense should be even better. The Saints will sign Drew Brees to a big contract, and that alone will make the Saints still contenders, even if they lose Marques Colston or Robert Meachem in free agency.

Denver: John Elway says Tim Tebow has done enough to be the starter heading into Broncos training camp, and he's right. Tebow will only continue to improve as the Broncos make an offense that suits Tebow's strengths. While the Broncos offense still needs some work, their defense showed they aren't as good as they thought they were against Tom Brady. They need some help in the secondary big time, and could use a good coverage linebacker as well. The AFC West could be down again next year, so the Broncos have every opportunity to win it again next year.

Houston: The Texans were affected by a rash of injuries throughout the year. T.J. Yates struggled against Baltimore, throwing two bad interceptions in the process. With Matt Schaub back next year, as well as pass rusher Mario Williams, the Texans should still remain a top contender in the AFC next year. No one in the AFC South looks particularly threatening. Even if Peyton Manning returns, there is no idea what kind of team he will have around him.

Green Bay: The Packers shot themselves in the foot against the Giants. Multiple dropped passes, turnovers, and that hail mary at the end of the half killed the Packers chances. Green Bay needs some serious help on defense next year, especially in the secondary. The Packers also need to establish some kind of run game early in the season to help take some pressure off of Aaron Rodgers. Just like the Saints, expect the Packers to be contending for the Super Bowl again next year.

Now, on to the Picks!

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: 3:00 P.M. on CBS
Many people saw these two teams meeting up in late January for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The Patriots have gotten here pretty much through their offense. While the Patriots defense has been playing a bit better as of late, they still have their weakness. They also haven't played a team the caliber of the Ravens this year. Tom Brady hasn't faced a defense as good as the Ravens. The Ravens usually give Brady fits, and it should be no different here. Baltimore is once again knocking on the door of the Super Bowl and look to finally get over that hump this year. The parallels to the Ravens Super Bowl winning team is there. A strong defensive unit lead by an average QB. The Ravens defensive veterans know this could be their last shot at the Super Bowl, and you know they will be focused on getting there. Three Questions Time!

Can Joe Flacco Take Advantage of the Patriots Secondary?
The Patriots ranked 31st against the pass this year. There are no excuses for Joe Flacco in this one. Safety Ed Reed called out Flacco this week, saying Flacco looked a bit rattled against the Texans and that he needs to get rid of the ball quicker. Flacco has been a big question mark all year. You never know what kind of performance you will get from him. But there is no doubt Flacco needs to play well here against a suspect Patriots secondary. But Flacco needs help. He needs his WRs to beat man coverage. Both Torrey Smith and Lee Evans are quite capable of beating the Pats deep. Joe Flacco needs to show that he can be the QB to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl, because if he doesn't so it this year, he may not have a chance to do it again.

Will the Ravens Be Able to Slow Down Tom Brady?
The Ravens ranked third in total defense this year, fourth against the pass. They also finished tied for third in sacks with 48. You can bet they will bring pressure on Tom Brady. Brady sat out practice Wednesday with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. While Brady says it's nothing, there still has to be something bothering him. Brady has thrown multiply touchdowns in all but two games this year. We know all of the weapons Brady has, so it is tough for defenses to bring pressure. But the Ravens won't be afraid to do that, mostly because the Patriots have almost know running game to speak of. The Ravens need to get to Brady early, because it can disrupt his game and get him frustrated.

Which Team Shuts Down the "X-Factors?"
Both the Ravens and the Patriots have what I like to call "x-factors," or players that can change the game in an instant. For the Ravens, that player is Ray Rice. Rice torched the Patriots in their last playoff meeting. Rice is so quick and explosive that it makes it very difficult for defenders to tackle him. He's a game changer and is capable of breaking a big run at any time. The "x-factors" for the Patriots are Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. These duel tight ends have been unstoppable in recent weeks. The Patriots have even been using Aaron Hernandez out of the backfield as a running back. You can bet Ed Reed and Ray Lewis will have something to say about these two tight ends getting open. Whichever defense can shut down  the x-factor for the other team has the best chance to come out on top.

I don't see either team pulling away from the other. It doesn't look like that kind of game. The Ravens defense will step up big time in this one. If they can take out Gronkowski and Hernandez then Brady will have to rely on his second and third looks, and by that time the Ravens blitz may already have taken down Brady. The Patriots still gave up a handful of big runs to the Broncos last week, so they have to be worried about Ray Rice breaking one off. But as I said in the beginning, this game is on Joe Flacco. He doesn't have to play like Tom Brady, he just has to do enough to get his team a victory. He can't lead a bad Patriots defense get to him. The Ravens still need to build their game plan around Ray Rice, and not Flacco have the game on his shoulders. While Tom Brady has been playing great football recently, I think the Ravens defense does just enough to shut down Brady and pick up the road win on the way to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore 24  New England 20

New York Giants vs San Francisco 49ers: 6:30 P.M. on FOX
This is a game between two teams peaking at the right time. In the Giants case, they are clearly playing their best football of the season. They smoked the Falcons in the Playoffs and took out the defending Super Bowl Champions on their home turf. The Giants defense is finally healthy. Their pass rush is getting to the QB, and that is taking some of the burden off of their secondary. And Eli Manning is playing like an elite QB and his Playoff experience is showing. The 49ers offense came alive last week against the Saints. Alex Smith may have made up for all of his short comings so far in his career with that great TD run and then another great TD pass to Vernon Davis with 6 seconds left, a catch being called "The Catch 3" in San Francisco. The defense gave up a surprising amount of points, but the offense came to life in an unexpected way. I don't know if anyone thought the 49ers would win a shootout with New Orleans.

Will Eli Keep Up His "ELIte" Performance?
In two Playoff games, Eli Manning has looked great. He has thrown 6 TDs in two games and has a passer rating of 121.8. Eli has what may be the best trio of WRs in the league with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham. With the 49ers having the best run defense in the NFL, expect this game to come down to the arm of Manning for the Giants. While the 49ers corners are very good, their safeties can be exposed. Specifically, Donte Whitner was burned for two TDs against the Saints. Expect Eli to target him often, even if it is with TE Jake Ballard. Whitner struggles to cover TEs in coverage, so Eli might be able to take advantage. The 49ers defense was torched by Drew Brees, and while Brees is still better than Eli, Eli can take advantage just like Brees did.

Is Alex Smith For Real?
While Alex Smith has improved this year under Jim Harbaugh, I don't think anyone saw his performance against the Saints coming. With 299 yards and 3 TDs, Alex Smith finally looked like a #1 pick. Smith's 26 yard TD run to put the 49ers up was a thing of beauty. Smith was sacked four times last week, and he will face a better pass rush this week with the Giants coming to town. Smith will need to get the ball out quickly in order to avoid having Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyora and Justin Tuck in his face. Expect the Giants to try and take away Vernon Davis and make the 49ers WRs beat them, which is something San Francisco can not allow. They also can't let the emotion of last week's win distract them from their goal. Alex Smith has shown this year that he can lead a team to the Playoffs, and a win here will show that Smith may not have the flash of a #1 overall pick, but he can do enough to get the job done.

How Much of A Factor Will the Weather Be?
The forecast for the game this Sunday is not a good one. There is a 70% chance of rain after kickoff with some high winds expected. That could lead to a sloppy game on the grass field in San Francisco. If that is the case, then the edge may be in the 49ers court. Frank Gore is a very good runner capable of breaking a big run. The Giants had the last ranked running attack in the NFL in the regular season but it came alive in the late portions of the season. Specifically, Brandon Jacobs looks like he's running with purpose. Jacobs has been running over defenders at a constant basis. But he will face the ultimate test against the #1 rush defense in the NFL. If rain is a factor, I think the edge goes to the 49ers.

This is a tough game to predict. The 49ers are coming off of a huge, emotionally charged win against one of the best offenses and QBs the NFL has seen in the last decade. The 49ers will also have the home crowd behind them. San Francisco is coming off one of the most unexpected season's in NFL history. Jim Harbaugh has lead them to the Playoffs and has brought new life to the 49ers orginization. But the Giants are playing their best football of the season and may have been the best team in the league in the last month of the season. Eli Manning isn't afraid of going on the road in the Playoffs. He's won in Lambeau twice, so San Francisco isn't that intimidating to him. The 49ers defense can't have lapses like they had last week against Drew Brees. This game will be won by whichever team gets more pressure on the QB. Despite his strong performance last week, I think the Giants get to Alex Smith and it rattles him a bit, and Eli Manning makes a few big plays to his WRs and takes the Giants to their second Super Bowl under Eli and Tom Coughlin.

NY Giants 27  San Francisco 23

There you ahve it. Obviously nothing next week, but for the Super Bowl I will have a postion by position breakdown of the match-up, as well as the 3 keys and x-factors to the game.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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