The time has come for me to make my picks. It should make for an exciting championship weekend, as the two games are far better match-ups than people may give them credit for. My favorite storyline of the weekend is the young upstart Harbaugh brothers, 49 year old John in his 4th season with the Ravens and 48 year old Jim in his 1st season with the 49ers, going against 59 year old Bill Belichick, with 17 seasons and 175 wins (most among active coaches) under his belt and Tom Coughlin, with 16 seasons and 129 wins (4th most among active coaches) under his. A lot of people expect to see a 2007 rematch between longtime rivals and coaching mates Belichick and Coughlin but I wouldn’t be too quick to count the Harbaugh bros. out just yet. They are tough games to pick but here are my predictions for Championship Sunday:
AFC Championship Game – Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3), 3:00 PM (CBS)
Tom Brady will play in his 6th AFC Championship game
The top two seeds meet in Foxboro on Sunday to determine the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. The Patriots have averaged 40 points in the last 4 games but two of those games were against the same opponent, the Denver Broncos. I am, a bit surprisingly to be honest, in the minority that think that the Patriots have not been tested enough this year. The Baltimore Ravens were the 3rd best defense in both points and yards allowed this season. The only defense the Patriots played all year that had a statistically better defense was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were 1st in both yards and points per game. The Pats only managed 17 points against them. There’s been a myth perpetuated in the last few weeks that the Broncos had a good defense because they had two guys that racked up a lot of sacks.. They were 20th in yards per game and 24th in points per game. In other words they weren’t very good. The other team they faced in the last 4 games was the Buffalo Bills who were 26th in yards per game and 30th in points per game. Meanwhile the team that they didn’t score 40 points against, the Miami Dolphins, were 15th in total yards and 6th in total points. The point is despite the offensive proficiency throughout the season the Pats’ production seemed to drop off against better defenses. A lot of people are expecting big numbers for the Pats offense this Sunday. I am not. Does that mean that I am picking the Ravens to win? Not necessarily. How for real is the Patriots defense that we saw last week against the Broncos? Let’s go back to the numbers. The Broncos’ offense was 23rd in yards per game and 25th in points per game for the regular season. Contrast that with the Ravens who were 15th in yards per game and 12th in points per game. The Ravens are a far more versatile team on both sides of the ball.
Terrell Suggs has been a thorn in Brady's side
Obviously the key for the game is Ravens running back Ray Rice. The Ravens were 10th in rushing yards per game during the regular season. The Patriots were 17th in rushing yards given up per game. It will be a tough match-up and Rice has had success against the Pats in the past. Receiver Anquan Boldin will be a tough match-up for the Pats as he is a superior route runner and the Pats DB’s have struggled in one-on-one match-ups with receivers like Boldinall season. Joe Flacco can’t make mistakes, if he turns the ball over he might lose the game for the Ravens. Obviously the way to neutralize Tom Brady is to put on a pass rush and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has had a great deal of success against Brady and the Pats. The Ravens are strong up front so one of the more intersting match-ups will be the middle linebackers and safeties of the Ravens vrs. the tight ends of the Pats. Brady had better watch out if Ed Reed is shadowing Rob Gronkowski all game because, as T.J. Yates found out last week, if you keep throwing it Ed Reed’s way he’ll eventually get his hands on one. Like Flacco Brady will have to play flawless football because a turnover may gave the Ravens offense the extra opportunity that they need to make a play to win the game. The receivers will be important this game for Brady as they may have to use the outside of the field more. That means they need big games from Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco. The x-factor for the Ravens defense may be safety Bernard Pollard (yes, that Bernard Pollard). He is the weak link up the middle for the Ravens but he is still pretty good. Ultimately this game will come down to turnovers and pressure on the quarterback. Flacco was harassed all day by the Texans front 7, but they are a much superior to the front 7 than that of the Pats. Brady had all day to throw last week but the Ravens are much more stout than the Broncos on defense. This game is going to be close. I don’t see the Patriots scoring more than 24 points in the game. The question is can the Ravens score 24 points or more in the game? I am going to go very conservative with this pick and say that both teams play a clean game and Brady makes at least one more play than Flacco for a Pats win. I can see it going the other way too though. Maybe whoever has the ball last. Either way I am expecting a good game, not a blowout this Sunday at Gillette.
Prediction: New England Patriots 24, Baltimore Ravens 21
NFC Championship Game: New York Giants (11-7) at San Fransisco 49ers (14-3), 6:30 PM (FOX)
Patrick Willis will have to keep the Giants ground game in check
21 years ago these two teams faced off in a great showdown between Bill Parcells’ Giants and George Seifert’s 49ers. The Giants won that game without even scoring a touchdown on Matt Bahr’s game winning last second field goal. The Giants won that day by a score of 15-13. While I expect a few more points to be scored this weekend look for defense to reign again in San Fransisco. The Niners were consistently good all season on defense. They finished 4th in the NFL in yards given up per game and 2nd in points given up per game. The Giants were a mess on defense most of the year due to injuries and underachievement. They were 27th in yards given up per game and 25th in points per game. The Giants defense has heat up in the last month however. They got one of their injuries linebackers, Michael Boley, back for the playoffs and might get another, Mark Herzlich, back for this game. Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Uymeniora, and Mathias Kiwanuka have all stepped up their games considerably these past few weeks. They always had the talent to do it and now it’s showing. They match up well against the 49ers. The Niners receivers are nothing special, there are no Jerry Rice’s on this team. That’s good for the Giants because their weakness on defense is on the edges. Frank Gore is key for the Niners, much like Ray Rice is for the Ravens. If Gore gets going that will open up play action and Alex Smith will be able to use the middle of the field with Vernon Davis. The Giants need to get pressure on Smith and force a mistake. Smith is a game manager, much like Joe Flacco, and if he turns the ball over then he is not doing his job. Look for the Giants to bring heavy pressure early.
Victor Cruz went from Zoomass to the NFC Championship Game
On the other side of the field it is all about Eli Manning. Much like his brother and Tom Brady he will pick you apart if you don’t get pressure on him. Manning has three dependable targets in Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, and Hakeem Nicks. He likes to use Bear Pascoe and Jake Ballard in the middle of the field. The Niners have to get the Smith brothers from another mother going quickly. Justin Smith can get pressure from any spot on the line and Aldon Smith is one of the best hybrid end/linebackers to come into the league in the last few years. The 49ers secondary is pretty good but you can beat Donte Whitner with your tight ends and their top cornerback Carlos Rogers is a gambler. If a Nicks or a Cruz can get behind him then it’s off to the races. The 49ers will key in on stopping running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. They will try to make Eli Manning beat them on his own. Not that he can’t do it, but it will make it easier for the Niners to game plan for just Eli and not Eli and the running game. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman were key in stopping the run and keeping everything in front of them last week against the Saints. They will need to do the same thing this week against the Giants offense. Still, this Giants run looks eerily similar to the one of 2007. If you don’t remember they beat Green Bay in Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game and went on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. But this is a new year and the Niners are a different opponent. I need to apologize to Alex Smith for expressing doubt in his ability to lead the Niners deep into the playoffs. He played a hell of a game last weekend against the Saints, particularly in the 4th quarter, but I have to admit that he has not totally swayed me. The Giants represent a different kind of challenge than the Saints. They will bring more pressure. Last week Gregg Williams had to dial up blitz after blitz to generate pressure on Smith which led to more favorable one-on-one match-ups down the field for the 49ers. The Giants will put pressure on you with a 4 man front which means they can double team and put a shadow on tight end Vernon Davis. Eli Manning will face a far tougher test this week when he faces the 49ers but Eli has proven himself to be a big game quarterback. I know people in New England are dying for a 2007 re-match and I hate to appease the masses but I think that Eli and the Giants will be too much for the Niners who will turn the ball over at least twice. Like I said earlier, I can see the Ravens winning and likewise I can see the 49ers winning this one, especially in their home stadium but I have to go with the Giants on this one with a gun to my head.
Prediction: New York Giants 27, San Fransisco 49ers 20
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