NFL Playoff Picks: Predicting Scores from AFC, NFC Championship Games
NFL Championship Sunday—the last and best distillation of pure gridiron before that Madison Avenue carnival known as the Super Bowl—draws nigh.
With it comes endless debate over every conceivable micro-element within each matchup.
Who will win time of possession? Which quarterback is better suited for games played in below-freezing temperatures? What defensive line has the best pre-game ritual?
I, for one, prefer the basic. Who will win?
For an answer to that question, click on.
Why the Ravens Will Win
In this fast-changing NFL, rarely is a game played two years ago worth anything in predictive value.
But in the case of the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots—two of the more stable rosters in the league—we can glean plenty from the playoff game these two played after the 2009 season.
So many of the main characters from that game will play big roles in Sunday's upcoming tilt—Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed (injury pending) and Terrell Suggs for the Ravens and Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Arrington for the Patriots.
Ravens fans will remember that their boys stomped the Patriots that day in Foxboro—where the Patriots had been 8-0—jumping out to a 24-0 lead and finishing with a resonant 33-14 win.
Baltimore's defense forced four New England turnovers—all by Tom Brady—and held the vaunted Patriots offense to just 196 total yards.
Meanwhile Ray Rice ran roughshod over New England's defense, accounting for 159 rushing yards and two scores.
Should the Ravens win Sunday, the formula would look similar.
Why the Patriots Will Win
Three players who didn't participate in that '09 debacle—Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski—give Patriots fans reason to discount the likelihood of a repeat performance.
New England was a 10-6 team in 2009, still re-acquainting themselves with Tom Brady after he effectively missed the 2008 season.
The 2011 version is better, starting with an offense that finished third in scoring and second in yardage behind the strength of Brady, Welker and his two star tight ends.
In 2009 the Ravens defense let fly with an attacking style of play emboldened by Brady's limited options. This time they won't be so cavalier. And if they are, Brady has better weapons with which to burn them.
Then there's this bit of history. Since Tom Brady became the Patriots starting quarterback, New England is 4-1 against the Baltimore Ravens.
All five of those games could be fairly characterized as showdowns between the Patriots' top-rated offense and the Ravens' top-rated defense.
The terms are no different in 2011, and precedent gives the New England "O" a decided edge.
The Prediction: Patriots Win
I don't trust the Ravens offense enough to pick them in this game.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called a tentative game against the Texans on Sunday, and it exposed an unwillingness to trust quarterback Joe Flacco in crucial spots.
As a result, Baltimore's offense gifted too many possessions to the opposition. Content to let their defense play savior, the Ravens went three-and-out eight times against Houston.
T.J. Yates couldn't take advantage, but New England and Tom Brady will.
The Ravens' defense will offer some resistance, but after one-too-many stalled drives by Joe Flacco, New England will break through.
Baltimore was an underwhelming 4-4 on the road in 2011 and I expect their struggles to continue in this one. Flacco can't keep pace with Brady, and it results in his second conference championship defeat.
Why the Giants Will Win
Don't discount the New York Giants because they lost to these San Francisco 49ers in Week 10.
Though the outcome didn't show it, the Giants did a lot of things well against the 49ers in that game.
They out-gained San Francisco by 90 yards, gained 21 first downs to San Francisco's 16 and had four separate drives of 70 yards/10 plays or more against the vaunted Niners defense.
Most of that success came via the pass, which allowed New York to neutralize an unfavorable matchup with San Francisco's stout front seven.
And if there's any concern out of Niners camp after their win against New Orleans, it's their continued inability to stop top quarterbacks. Eli Manning fits that description, and he has the game to carry New York's attack without much assistance from the run game.
San Francisco did manage two touchdowns against New York the first time around, but both came on short fields. If the Giants limit turnovers, their defense can keep Alex Smith and company off the scoreboard.
That combined with a lethal aerial attack give New York the right ingredients for an upset.
Why the 49ers Will Win
If you had lingering doubts about the surprising San Francisco 49ers, their performance on Saturday against the Saints surely answered them.
At times their high-leverage defense flummoxed New Orleans, building an advantage that turned the Saints offense into a one-dimensional extension of Drew Brees' right arm.
But we already knew they could do that based on statistics that rated them the league's fourth best defense over the course of the 2011 season.
Even more impressive was the way their offense compensated when that defense fell flat. The 49ers don't prefer to play open on offense, but proved they could when necessary.
Down twice in the final minutes against New Orleans, quarterback Alex Smith made a lasting impression with big throw after big throw. Perhaps there is more to Smith's game than smarts, efficiency and ball security.
That dimension added, San Francisco looks particularly strong heading into Sunday's showdown. Vernon Davis is a viable downfield threat against a suspect Giants linebacking corps/safety tandem, and San Francisco's always-reliable running game can help keep New York's ferocious pass rush honest.
On a less nuanced plane, San Francisco (7-1 at Candlestick) has a home game against a team they beat once already and finished four games ahead of in the regular-season standings.
So yeah, they can win this thing.
The Prediction: Giants Win
I'm taking Tom Coughlin's road warriors over John Harbaugh's upstarts in what should be a great game.
San Francisco hasn't played as a heavy favorite in a game this important, and I think that, with an assist from the Giants' pass rush, causes them to unravel.
Alex Smith makes uncharacteristic mistakes, Eli Manning puts pressure on the 49ers defense and the Giants steal away with another upset.
I would caution New York fans from putting too much stock in the Giants' seeming overabundance of momentum. Remember, this same team was 6-2 and looking formidable when they came into San Francisco the first time.
The difference this time is New York's improving defense, which will make things uncomfortable for the 49ers' uneven attack.
The Giants pull away in the fourth quarter and seal it with a late interception, setting up a rematch of 2007's Super Bowl thriller against New England.
SAN FRANCISCO: 16