NFL Playoff Picture: Predicting Results from AFC and NFC Championship Games
Well, it was a crazy weekend. The 49ers were able to keep up offensively with the Saints, the Ravens defense came through to beat the Texans, the Patriots dropped 45 points on the Broncos and the Packers were upset at home by the Giants.
Now that we know what the matchups are, what's going to happen when they take the field? Here are my predictions for the AFC and NFC Championships.
What to Expect from the Giants
The Giants had one heck of a game against the Packers. Eli Manning has been the definition of clutch this season, and he turned it up another notch against the defending champion Packers.
Now I am careful about giving the Giants defense too much credit. After all, they were playing a team whose offensive coordinator just lost his son this week. The Packers offense looked off.
There were a lot of dropped passes, but it wasn't all on the Packers receivers. Rodgers wasn't placing the ball as perfectly as he usually did. I blame the Packers offensive output on a combination of rust and distraction.
One thing that the Giants deserve almost all the credit for is takeaways. They forced more turnovers from the Packers in the first half than any other team has forced in a whole game. For the record, I'm counting the one that the refs overturned.
Hakeem Nicks reminded everyone why Victor Cruz is so difficult to cover (it's because you also have to account for Hakeem Nicks). He had a monster game against the Packers, who had covering Cruz as a priority.
I expect more of the same from the Giants. A clutch Eli, forced turnovers and a big game from either Cruz or Nicks.
What to Expect from the Ravens
The Ravens defense has to play better than they did against the Texans. While T.J. Yates is very good for a fifth-round rookie and Arian Foster is, in my opinion, the best running back in the league, they can't bring that weak effort against the Patriots. Luckily for them, they know it.
If Ed Reed comes back from his injury, he must take away the deep pass. Despite how good Gronkowski's year has been, Brady will occasionally air it out. Ed Reed must concentrate on being in the backfield doing what he does best. With Reed head-hunting deep, Brady will just throw the ball to Gronk and Wes Welker on short yardage and the Ravens will contain them.
I also expect the Ravens to dial up the pressure. Terrell Suggs will be after Brady constantly. That said, he also can't let whichever tight end he's lined up on go by him untouched. The Ravens defensive backs will have trouble tackling Gronkowski, so if that matchup becomes a problem, the linebackers must contain him.
Offensively, I expect a lot more passing than usual. I think that Joe Flacco will actually step up and take advantage of the Patriots weak pass defense. Ray Rice will still get his carries to keep them honest, but when you have Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and one of the worst pass defenses in the league, you have to throw it.
So that's what I expect to see from the Ravens: more pressure on defense and lots of throws.
What to Expect from the 49ers
I'm going to go ahead and say that I am now 100 percent sold on the 49ers. They were fantastic against the Saints.
Everyone knew that the 49ers had a spectacular defense going into the game; they were the No. 2 seed for a reason. What everyone didn't know was whether any defense was good enough to slow down an offense so good that it didn't punt against the Lions. The answer was yes, they are good enough to slow them down.
The second question was, "Can Alex Smith and the 49ers offense score enough points to win?" Again, yes.
Keep in mind that this game wasn't won just by the defense. The Saints took a five-point lead with 97 seconds left to go and Alex Smith led his team downfield for a touchdown and a lead in just over a minute to seal the win.
That's what the 49ers are bringing to the table. They also bring Aldon Smith, who has a monstrous 15 sacks this season, Patrick Willis, maybe the best middle linebacker in the NFC, and Donte Whitner, who delivered one of the hardest hits I've ever seen last week on Pierre Thomas to force a fumble.
Expect to see conservative, but good quarterback play, a ground and pound running game and a hard-hitting defense that will force some turnovers.
Also, between Aldon, Alex, Justin and Reggie, expect to hear the name Smith a lot.
What to Expect from the Patriots
Denver's defense got exposed by none other than Tom Brady...again.
The Patriots took an early lead on the Broncos and never looked back. At one point, the game was 14-7 and looked like it might be close, but the Patriots put up 28 unanswered points and limited Tebow to 149 total yards, sacking him five times.
Now, given my opinion of Tebow, I'm not all that impressed by New England's defensive performance. Their offense, however, looks unstoppable. They even rushed for 149 yards.
Here's what you should expect from the Patriots: Tom Brady over the middle to Gronkowski; Gronk smash; Patriots touchdown; rinse and repeat.
They will occasionally throw to Wes Welker or deep to another receiver when teams start to double cover Gronk and Welker, but that's the game plan for the most part. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
AFC Championship Overview
While the Patriots are a scoring machine, the Ravens have beaten every good team they've played. Their only losses this season have come against the Seahawks, the Jaguars, the Chargers and the Titans. Of those teams, the closest to being good is the Titans, and they're really just mediocre. I'm in the minority here, but I'm picking the Ravens to win.
The Patriots dropped 45 points on a very good Denver defense and so they'll have no trouble scoring points on the Ravens, but you also have to consider that the Ravens have been potent offensively on occasion. They put up 35 points on the Steelers, 34 on the Jets and 31 on the Bengals.
The long and short of it is that the Ravens have been inconsistent offensively all season. If they're on, they'll have no trouble keeping up with Brady, if they're off, then they won't score enough.
I expect that they'll be on, and with the Patriots terrible defense, all the Ravens will have to do is get enough pressure on Brady to slow him down and they ought to be fine. Between Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, they ought to have an answer for Gronkowski in coverage too.
Predicted score: Ravens 37, Patriots 35
If Ed Reed is out: Patriots 38, Ravens 28
NFC Championship Overview
The NFC Championship is a whole different beast because it features two much more balanced teams.
The Giants were incredible against both the Falcons and Packers. They shut down the Green Bay offensive juggernaut, but also dropped 37 points on them. The same thing can be said for the 49ers matchup with the Saints.
However, neither team was playing their opponent at its best. The Saints are a dome team and the 49ers got to play them outside. The Packers are an offense heavy team and the Giants got to play them after the death of their offensive coordinator's son.
Both quarterbacks have already proven they can be clutch when it matters. Both defenses have proven that they can and will force turnovers.
I expect this to be a very evenly matched game. Neither team will move the ball very quickly downfield, and the scoring will be uneven because of forced turnovers. The Giants have a better passing attack, especially downfield where the 49ers defense is weak, but I'm going with the home team.
Predicted score: 49ers 28, Giants 24