Last week’s action reminded all NFL fans/analysts of a couple things:
- Defense wins championships!
- A good quarterback can go a long way.
- The hot team, not the best team, has a leg up.
The Giants were a great example of all three on Sunday, when they beat down Green Bay, 37-20. While Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, and Hakeem Nicks all scare any opposing defensive coordinator, Big Blue’s playoff success has come because of their defense’s play. The defense held the league’s top passer, Aaron Rodgers, to a measly 78.1 QB rating. In addition, they forced four turnovers and didn’t allow the running game to become a major factor. This strong defense kept one of the most dynamic offenses out of the end zone often, and was a big reason why the Giants won the way they did.
But you can’t take anything away from the year that their quarterback is having. Eli Manning continued his marvelous season, in contrast with Aaron Rodgers. Eli threw for 330 yards, 3 touchdowns, and posted a 110 passer rating. In today’s so-called “passing league”, a competent quarterback is more important than ever, and luckily for New York, they got one.
New York came in hot, riding a three game win streak that consisted of romps over good teams, including the Jets, Cowboys, and Falcons. Meanwhile, many of the Packers’ starters hadn’t played in three weeks, and the disparity was clear. The Giants came in, took care of business, and blew out the rusty Packers.
*Note: Fantasy seasons might be over, but Fantasy Watch will still be given for people in playoff challenges.
New England Patriots (1) vs Baltimore Ravens (4)
Sunday January 22nd, 3:00 PM: Gillette Stadium
Background/Storylines: New England (14-3) and Baltimore (13-4)
The New England Patriots are in the AFC Championship Game. No surprise there. But how they’ve done it might be. This team, not always the most explosive offense, but usually the most consistent, was second in the NFL in passing yards. Bill Belichick defenses usually are some of the best, but this year this squad was ranked 31st in total defense. So, same result? Yes. Same method? Absolutely not. But it all changed last week, when Tom Brady systematically dissected the Broncos defense, and the tenacious New England pass rush forced Tim Tebow to his knees involuntarily. The Pats won 45-10, making a statement.
The Ravens are the polar opposite of the Patriots. They have a paltry passing attack, but they instead feature one of the league’s most potent rushing games. Their defense is one of the best in the league, and usually their wins are low-scoring dogfights. Joe Flacco didn’t have a great season, but Ray Rice and Terrell Suggs sure did. Those two led their respective squads (offense/defense) in almost every possible way, and are main reasons why the Ravens were so successful.
Key Matchup: Ed Reed vs Rob Gronkowski
Simply put, Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare. In his last five games, he has 544 yards and 7 touchdowns. Even last week, he had ten receptions for 145 yards and three touchdowns. Stopping him at any cost, while it leaves the defense vulnerable to big games from Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, must be Baltimore’s priority. And luckily for coach John Harbaugh, he has one of the best in the business in Ed Reed. While you can expect Baltimore to double on Gronkowski, maybe with underneath help from linebacker Jarrett Johnson, Ed Reed is going to see “87″ a lot in this game. The winner of this matchup most likely win the contest.
Fantasy Watch: Aaron Hernandez (NE) and Ray Rice (BAL)
Given the previous matchup, it’s clear that Aaron Hernandez will most likely receive the least attention among the Big 3 (Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker). When you add in his rushing ability (61 yards last week), he is a fantasy must-start, especially considering the fact that Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis won’t see more than 12 carries.
Even though the Patriots defense looked stellar against Tim Tebow last weekend, the run defense was shaky at times. They gave up 144 yards and a touchdown, and will face an even tougher task against Baltimore’s potent run game led by Ray Rice. He will have a solid performance, putting up 16-23 points.
X-Factor: Rob Ninkovich (NE) and Joe Flacco (BAL)
Even though the defense was for the most part a scar on New England’s brilliant season, Rob Ninkovich was one bright spot, accumulating 74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions as an outside linebacker in the Patriots 3-4 scheme. Against the Broncos, he had seven tackles and 1.5 sacks, and his dominating presence was key for the Patriots. His play will directly correlate with New England’s success.
It’s tough to put a quarterback as a team’s X-Factor, but Joe Flacco really is the one variable in the Ravens’ scheme. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but also flashes of chaos in his tenure as the starting quarterback in Baltimore. 5-2 as a postseason starter, Flacco’s passer rating in playoff wins is 96.3, and 75.2 in losses. He needs to find a rhythm for the Ravens to remain competitive.
Prediction: Ravens 29, Patriots 27
Upset. I’m calling it. Even though only 23% of NFL fans have the Ravens pulling this one out, and they do have a point, I like Joe Flacco to pull a repeat of his 2009 Wild Card Round performance. In that game, the Ravens routed the Patriots 33-14, and I’m hoping that Baltimore proves me right!
San Francisco 49ers (2) vs New York Giants (4)
Sunday January 22nd, 6:30 PM: Candlestick Park
Background/Storylines: San Fran (14-3) and New York (11-7)
Coming off their best regular season since 1997 [coincidentally my birth year], San Francisco and rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh won their first playoff game since 2002, when the then-Terrell Owens-led Niners knocked off these very same Giants in the Wild Card Round, 39-38. It has been a year of surprising performances in San Francisco, where players such as Alex Smith, Michael Crabtree, and Frank Gore have put up tremendous numbers that couldn’t be expected [yes, Gore's efficiency was projected to be down this year]. Having the fourth-ranked overall defense and first-ranked run defense helped, led by the star linebacking trio of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith.
Similarly, New York has also had some breakout performances from people who were either projected to be on the decline or were unheard of coming into 2011-2012. Eli Manning, one year removed from throwing for 25 interceptions and posting a sub-90 passer rating, blossomed into the quarterback that his brother has been for the last decade. Eli threw for nearly 5000 yards, and limited his interceptions to 16. Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul also had breakout seasons. Cruz had over 1300 yards receiving, top 5 in the NFL, and Pierre-Paul earned a Pro Bowl nomination with 17.5 sacks. They are dangerous because they are a complete team: they ranked eighth in the NFL in total offensive yardage, and have limited two top-ten offenses to just 22 points combined in two games.
Key Matchup: Joe Staley vs. Jason Pierre-Paul
It’s a matchup of strengths for these two lines respectively. Joe Staley has cemented himself as one of the top left tackles in the game, a Pro-Bowl nomination being a result of that. Jason Pierre-Paul, as I mentioned earlier, has also become one of the premier defensive ends in the NFL, earning a Pro-Bowl bid as well. Whoever wins this matchup will win this game, because the Giants need to get pressure with their front four, and Pierre-Paul is most of that.
Fantasy Watch: Frank Gore (SF) and Hakeem Nicks (NYG)
The only dark spot, while it wasn’t that glaring, was the level of success Green Bay’s mediocre running game had against the Giants. Sure, more attention may have been put on the dangerous passing offense, but six yards per carry is a rather large average. Now, instead of facing the 27th-ranked rushing offense, they are going head-to-head with the 8th-ranked rushing team, lead by perennial 1000-yard rusher Frank Gore. If Alex Smith has any level of success, then Gore could have a fantastic performance this week.
It’s hard to argue that an 1100-yard receiver can be overlooked, but it seems that Hakeem Nicks has been until the playoffs began. Performing in the shadow of breakout star Victor Cruz, opposing defenses seemed to forget about Nicks for stretches of time, the times when he did his most damage. In his last two games, with both Green Bay and Atlanta putting their top cornerbacks on Cruz, Nicks has put up 280 yards receiving and four touchdowns. That is 26 points per game, on average! Expect Eli to go with the hot hand.
X-Factor: Vernon Davis (SF) and Ahmad Bradshaw (NYG)
Vernon Davis may have had the most clutch performances I’ve ever seen from someone having as poor of a season as he was. When Davis has 100+ yards or 1+ touchdown in a game (including the playoffs), the 49ers have gone 8-0 this season. That is the mark of a true χ-factor.
The 49ers run defense is stingy. They’re ranked first in the NFL by a lot. The linebacking corps features three future Pro-Bowlers and one of them is the best in the league. So? Ahmad Bradshaw has been known to fall flat in big games during his career, but if he can prove to be even somewhat effective, the Giants will put up points and win this game.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Giants 24
I do think that Vernon Davis will have a big game, meaning that the 49ers will be effective on offense. However, Eli Manning has proven that he plays well when his team needs him the most. This game is a virtual toss-up, but I like the Niners at home.
Manav Khandelwal is the head NFL analyst of Khandyman Sports, and writes his featured NFL column, Xs and Os, every Saturday. Remember to comment below with your thoughts and opinions!