This Sunday's conference championship games are classic battles that bring back memories of yesteryear. It's been 22 years since the only time the Giants and 49ers battled in a conference championship game, but the pair of teams were a mainstay in the NFL during the '80s and '90s. I'm surprised Pat Summerall and John Madden haven't been named to call the game. Additionally, the potential of an all-Harbaugh Super Bowl, while quite frightening from an entertainment standpoint, would turn back the clock to an era where defenses reigned supreme as opposed to the high-powered offenses we've become accustomed to in recent years.
Among the questions still lingering heading into Sunday's games: Are the Patriots for real given that they haven't played a team with a regular season winning record all year? Is Joe Flacco good enough to win a road conference championship game in a tough environment? Will Alex Smith fall to earth or has seven years matured him into a competent NFL quarterback? Can the Giants expose the same holes in the 49ers' defense that the Saints did last week? Sunday can't come soon enough.
Baltimore +7.5 over NEW ENGLAND
Apparently the general public (including Sports Guy and Cousin Sal) has been watching a completely different Patriots team than I have this season. We know they're good offensively. Their running game may be average at best, but their passing game is one of the premier units in the league. Their tight ends are a match-up nightmare, Welker can easily get open with quick routes over the middle, and Deion Branch somehow manages to make plays after lulling defenders to sleep. That's all fine and dandy but their defense is still f*cking miserable. We're supposed to forget how bad this unit was just because they steamrolled a Denver offensive playbook from the 1950s? Give me a f*cking break. And as good as this offense is, Tom Brady has a completion percentage of 55.9%, in five career games against Baltimore, the lowest Brady has against any NFL team. The Ravens' defense, the first in NFL history not to give up two touchdown passes in any game during a season, is the best defense the Patriots have seen in weeks.
On the flip side, we shouldn't be surprised that the Ravens won ugly last week and scored only three points in the second half. That's what they f*cking do. They're 7-0 against teams that made the playoffs this year and all of those teams (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Houston) had good defenses. Their offensive struggles against the Texans need to be taken with a grain of salt given that the Texans were second in the league in yards allowed and fourth in the league in points allowed. Playing the Patriots' defense by comparison will be like facing a unit from the Pac 12. Ray Rice will see plenty of success as well, as long as Cam Cameron doesn't forget what the strengths of his offense are. (This isn't as simple as it sounds given Cameron's track record.) Joe Flacco isn't Tom Brady, but he doesn't necessarily have to be against this secondary. The weird thing about Flacco is that he actually has better numbers than the other three remaining quarterbacks through their first four seasons.
The stats favoring the Ravens continue to pile up. Courtesy of Ravens fan and college basketball betting savant Stuckey, here are a couple more. It's the first time in five years that the Ravens have been dogged by more than a touchdown. Secondly, no team with an offense or defense ranked 25th or less has ever won a Super Bowl. The Ravens are the only team left that can win it according to the stat. Before the playoffs started, the two teams had very similar odds to make the Super Bowl. The Patriots had the slight edge because of home-field advantage, but it wasn't as severe as this. I know Tim Tebow was the American version of Gandhi, but the results from last weekend are only one game and they need to be observed in context. I'll take the points and I think the Ravens have a good chance to win outright as well.
SAN FRANCISCO -2.5 over N.Y. Giants
Before we get to the Giants' victory against the once unstoppable Packers, we need to reflect on what exactly happened in San Francisco last Saturday. The 49ers' offense looked downright miserable after the first quarter. They barely managed 9 points (aided by New Orleans turnovers) from the beginning of the second quarter until four minutes left in the fourth quarter. That was the point the Saints finally took the lead after a Darren Sproles touchdown and hearts of Niners fans everywhere sunk. The defense's back had finally broken and Alex Smith would have to lead San Francisco on a scoring drive. That's not exactly the scenario they wanted to see. But then Alex Smith found his inner-Steve Young to orchestrate a drive ended by his own 28-yard scamper. With the lead all, San Francisco had to do was rely on their core strength. When the defense faltered for the second time, it seemed impossible for Alex Smith to be successful again. When he pulled a second touchdown drive out of his ass, I had to smack myself in the face to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Alex Smith had just successfully orchestrated two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in the final four minutes. Suddenly a Cubs' World Series victory doesn't seem so far off.
The quick response is that he did that against a notoriously weak Saints' defense and won't be able to do it against a legitimate unit. Specifically, he won't be able to do it against a Giants team that just put the Packers to shame. The Giants' effort last week was the kind of effort fans have been waiting for all season. The pass rush brought the kind of heat that Jerry Reese was hoping for when he assembled this crew of defensive lineman. On the offensive side, the running game produced some big plays that hadn't been existent all year long and the aerial attack was as effective as it had been all season. It was a victory that Giants fans could be proud of. With little doubt, the best team in football was throttled by the boys from New York. Don't look now, but the Giants' desired path of live playoff sleeper is moving towards the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
It's time, however, for a reality check. The Giants were gifted with three fumbles that counted last week and should've been gifted with a fourth that was somehow discounted by the referee review system. They scored on a wacky play at the end of the first half, which saw Hakeem Nicks soar high to grab a hail mary. They also benefited from eight drops by Green Bay's receivers. The 17-point difference in the score line suddenly doesn't seem so comfortable when considering those happenings. San Francisco has the best turnover margin in the league, so don't expect them to gift the Giants the same presents Green Bay did. In what's expected to be a sloppy game with a threat of rain on San Francisco's notoriously damp playing surface, will the Giants be able to continue this run? The streak of picking against the Giants in the column and not wearing my Giants jersey will continue for as long as it takes. The Niners will welcome the Giants to Paris…
Last Week: 2-2