With two very evenly matched games this week, anything goes. Meaning it's going to be a tough weekend to predict. No matter which two of the four remaining teams win I really don't think there are any "upsets" per se. All four teams, despite what the seedings say, are pretty even at this point.
New York: has the hottest front 7 out of the four teams right now, sacked GB's Rodgers four times and held Green Bay to 20 points. Eli Manning is also playing some of the best football of his career this postseason, too.
San Francisco: after watching this Niner defense the past several weeks, it's clear to me that they are one of the few defensive units who knows how to tackle. It doesn't hurt that the veteran Alex Smith just outgunned the passing yard king Drew Brees with 36 points last week.
Baltimore: though the defense played an inexperienced rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are hungry and are leading the way for a defense that has a knack for forcing multiple TO's a game. If Flacco steps it up like Reed hopes, then NE's weak pass defense could be in for a long day.
New England: the defense did nothing but pressure Denver's Tim Tebow last Saturday (five sacks, eight QB hits) and Tom Brady showed why he still shouldn't be left off the MVP ballot with a record-tying six touchdown passes (five in the first 2 quarters set a first half record) and 363 yards on his way to a 45-10 blowout.
Now, on to my in-depth look at both games..
AFC Championship: Baltimore at New England--Sunday January 22, 2012; 3 PM ET
What Baltimore must do to win: Ed Reed somewhat called out signal caller Joe Flacco on his poor performance Sunday afternoon against Houston, as he basically stated on SiriusXM's NFL Radio that Flacco needs to step his game up. And I completely agree.
While Flacco did manage to protect the ball and put together a couple of scoring drives, he was also rather inconsistent (14/27, 176 yards, 2 TDs) and his two TD passes were the result of his defense forcing a turnover and giving him a short field to work with. Baltimore's 20 points came in part of Baltimore's stellar defense. Ray Rice was ineffective in the run game (60 yards on 21 carries; 2.9 YPC).
Obviously Baltimore will have to play stellar defense, once again, to defeat the Patriots. But more importantly Flacco needs to step up and be a leader, rally his teammates and drive the ball down the field. This also means Rice must be effective. One simple way to beat Tom Brady is to keep him off the field, and eating away at the clock with long, successful scoring drives is the perfect way to do this.
BAL wins if: Flacco completes more than 50% of his pass attempts...Ray Rice gets 20-25 carries and his EFFECTIVE with the ball, meaning 100+ yards and a TD...B-More's defense produces at least three NE turnovers.
What New England must do to win: How did the New England Patriots fluster Tim Tebow so much without even breaking a sweat? Pressure. Pressure. Pressure. Tebow and Flacco are different types of quarterbacks, but that doesn't mean this wont bring the same pressure. Tebow is typically a run-oriented quarterback and enjoys throwing on the run, but New England was fast enough on its feet to flush him out of the pocket and either get him down before he can get the ball out, or force a throw-away.
As for Flacco, he is more of a pocket-passer and isn't the most mobile quarterback. You get enough pressure on Flacco and he will start forcing throws. I think this is what analysts have been most critical on Flacco with his inconsistency. He tends to throw errant passes while under too much pressure. Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich need another top-notch performance in this one if the Patriots' defense expects big things.
Obviously the passing is going to be there on Brady's part, especially after watching his performance last week, but if they can establish a run game early and use it effectively, it would add a much-needed dimension to Brady's pass-happy offense.
NE wins if: Pats offense stays mistake-free and can move the ball up the field quickly..If I was in NE's position I would try and get ahead early and force BAL to rely on Flacco's arm, when under pressure I think New England's D can do what they've done best this year: force mistakes and capitalize.
My Prediction: Patriots 28, Ravens 17
As much as I'd like to see a "HarBowl," (Ravens/Niners) or a Super Bowl XXXV rematch (Ravens/Giants) this year, I just don't see it happening. I don't think Flacco has what it takes to keep up with Tom & Co. and let's be honest, there's no way Baltimore can manhandle New England's offense like they did to the young Texans on Saturday. Change of heart has forced me to take the safe pick in this one and go NE.
Whatifsports.com's Prediction: Ravens 23, Patriots 7
The simulation I ran clearly thinks differently about this one, and has the Ravens pulling off quite a convincing victory on the road in Foxboro. Should be a good one!
NFC Championship: New York at San Francisco--Sunday January 22, 2012; 6:30 PM ET
What New York must do to win: Eli has been putting up great stat-lines and upsetting teams left and right, rather reminiscent of his 2007 run to a Super Bowl championship and SB MVP award in which he sleighed the "giant" favorites in the undefeated New England Patriots. With a 300-yard, 3 TD game against the mighty 15-1 Green Bay Packers, it may seem that the sky is the limit for Eli at this point. And I kind of agree.
While the San Francisco 49ers' defense is tops in the league right now, and they love to fly around and hit guys, and force turnovers. You know, the same thing any great defense loves to do (*cough* *cough* Baltimore *cough* *cough*). Which puts a huge "if" on Eli's shoulders. He must protect the ball. That's No. 1 priority for New York. I'm sure coach Coughlin will have him slinging the pigskin down the field and spread the offense out, but careless mistakes is one thing he can't afford, and I don't think he will be making any of them.
For New York's defense, they will be bringing the pressure, no doubt about that. But if they can't get to Alex Smith on every play they need to at least key in on Vernon Davis, maybe stick two guys on him. It'll be tough, because most linebackers are too slow to keep up with Davis and most safeties are too small, Davis will simply run right through them. But if they can effectively keep Davis covered I think they can minimize SF's passing attack and make them one-dimensional.
NY wins if: Like I just said, eliminate Davis from the offensive production and the Niners' receiving corps is much weaker...Eli will be slinging the ball, but NY's run game will play a huge effect in balancing the offense...split carries between Bradshaw/Jacobs to keep them fresh and NY can control the clock on their way to a victory.
What San Fran must do to win: New York has a lot of weapons on the offensive side of the ball with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham creating a triple threat in the passing game and Brandon Jacobs/Ahmad Bradshaw making a double-duo in the running game. Eli has been playing great, like I've been saying, but Green Bay didn't effectively pass rush him (sacking him just once, one INT). San Fran has thrived off creating short fields with turnovers, that's exactly how they took an early 17-0 lead over the Saints last Saturday.
Put pressure on Eli early and often and take chances on cutting off routes and going for the big play on defense. Considering the Niners' are the best run defense in the league, by far, I really don't think they are too concerned with the two-headed monster in Bradshaw and Jacobs.
I would expect 30-40 pass attempts from Manning in this one, and I'd love to see coach Harbaugh take the shot at having Smith compete with Manning through the air. I said earlier that I think if New York can keep Vernon Davis quiet they have a chance at shutting down the passing game, but we could also see Michael Crabtree step it up to a new level and Frank Gore is always a threat in the passing game as well. If San Fran goes pass-for-pass with the Giants' Eli, I think they actually may have a shot considering they aren't facing their own tough-as-nails defense in this one.
SF wins if: Smith out-passes Eli and is able to protect him up front...Frank Gore was an impact player last game with 89 yards but he only got 13 carries, can you imagine the damage he would have done had he gotten 20-25 carries? I can't...Get Gore involved and NY may be in for a rough day.
My Prediction: 49ers 31, Giants 28
I've been pulling for New York to repeat its 2007 campaign all postseason, and I really do believe Eli has what it takes to capture ring No. 2, so it wouldn't surprise me. But after watching Alex Smith shred the Saints for 36, and Frank Gore only get 13 touches, I can't imagine what they could do against these Giants with a more involved Gore...not to mention SF's stout defense. It's close, but Niners pull it out in the end.
Whatifsports.com's Prediction: 49ers 20, Giants 6
This time we agreed on the outcome, however, once again the simulator predicted a rather lop-sided score. Interesting. I don't particularly agree with the deficits they have given me, but when it comes to the NFL playoffs, anything is possible I suppose.
Super Bowl in Indy will be, according to my calculations, the 49ers and the Patriots. I had the Patriots winning the Super Bowl in my preseason predictions, but their opponent was supposed to be the "dream team" (according to Vince Young, at least) in the Philadelphia Eagles. It appears as though that half of my prediction went down the drain long ago.
Brady-Welker-BJGE-Edelman: Elsa/Getty Images
Gore: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images