A quick preview of both the AFC and NFC Championship Games, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Ravens (13-4) at Patriots (14-3)
Sunday, Jan. 22, 3:00 pm ET, CBS
Many thought Mr. Gisele Bundchen had gone Hollywood. After all, Tom Brady hasn’t won a Super Bowl ring since after the 2004 season. But Touchdown Tom has never looked better — or more focused — than he did during his record-breaking performance in a 45–10 blowout of the Broncos. Brady completed 76.5 percent of his passes for 363 yards, six TDs and one INT.
This is Brady’s team. Athletic tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are dangerous weapons, slot receiver Wes Welker is a first-down maker and the running back by committee is effective. But the Patriots begin and end with Brady, who carries a 15–5 career record in the playoffs with a 3–1 mark on Super Sunday.
Brady has struggled against the Ravens recently, however, posting season-low passer ratings against Baltimore in each of the last two seasons — throwing one TD and two INTs for a 69.5 rating in a 23–20 Week 6 win last year, while tossing two TDs and three INTs for a 49.1 rating in a 33–14 defeat in the Divisional Round of the playoffs following the 2009 season.
On the other side, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco may have been joking when he said, “If we win, I’ll have nothing to do with why we won,” but there is some truth to that statement. The Fu Manchu mustache-wearing signal-caller rarely gets credit for wins but almost exclusively takes blame for Baltimore losses. In the Ravens’ 13 wins, Flacco has thrown 17 TDs and six INTs; in their four losses, he has five TDs and six INTs. Obviously, Flacco must play well in New England.
But the real focus will be on Baltimore’s defense, which is led by future Hall of Famers in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, as well as current All-Pros in edge-rusher Terrell Suggs and run-stuffer Haloti Ngata. If coach John Harbaugh’s strongest side of the ball is unable to slow down New England’s potent passing attack and, namely, Brady, then the Ravens have no chance to beat the Patriots.
Running back Ray Rice is the X-factor. If the defense can force FGs and turnovers, the offense must be able to control the clock with Rice.
New England coach Bill Belichick has been putting band-aids on his defense’s secondary all season, mixing and matching personnel based on the situation. The Pats’ pass rush doesn’t have to necessarily sack Flacco, but pocket-collapsing nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Co. cannot give him time to find home run hitter Torrey Smith or physical veteran Anquan Boldin downfield.
Patriots by 7
Giants (11-7) at 49ers (14-3)
Sunday, Jan. 22, 6:30 pm ET, FOX
New York’s playoff formula has mirrored the one that the G-Men used en route to winning Super Bowl XLII just four seasons ago. The potent combination of Eli Manning on offense and a devastating Big Blue Wrecking Crew front four on defense has been the secret to success and will continue to be.
Manning has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 607 yards, six TDs and only one INT in wins over the Falcons and Packers. His go-to guy during that stretch has been Hakeem Nicks, who has hauled in 13 catches for 280 yards (21.5 ypc) and four TDs — including a momentum-shifting jump ball as time expired on the first half in the upset at Lambeau Field. Manning-to-Nicks (or breakout wideout Victor Cruz) will need to continue their tear in San Francisco.
The No. 1 overall pick the year after Manning, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is coming off a statement performance in a win over the Saints. Even so, Smith must avoid doing too much and continue to protect the ball.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s club made it this far with a blue-collar approach — bludgeoning opponents with running back Frank Gore on offense and suffocating teams with a hard-hitting defense led by All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis and end Justin Smith. San Fran’s stop-unit ranked No. 1 against the run (77.2 ypg), No. 2 in scoring defense (14.3 ppg) and No. 4 in total defense (308.2 ypg) during the regular season. Until giving up 32 points to the Saints in the Divisional Round, the Niners had not allowed more than 27 points this season; only four teams hit the 20-point mark against the 49ers, who are 14–3 overall and 8–1 at home under Harbaugh.
A low-scoring game favors San Francisco. But big plays — like the ones tight end Vernon Davis provided vs. New Orleans — must come from somewhere in order to keep up with the explosive Giants.
Since Week 16, New York is 4–0 with an offense averaging 30.3 points and a defense that is allowing just 12.5 points in must-win games over the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers. If terrorizing pass-rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are able to pressure Smith into making costly mistakes, Big Blue could make a big splash in the Bay.
The 49ers beat the Giants, 27–20, in Week 10. That game went down to the final seconds, as Manning’s fourth-down pass from the 10-yard-line was batted down by Smith. The rematch could be just as close.
Giants by 1
Last week: 2-2 // Season: 179-85