NFL Playoff Picture: A Quick Guide to the AFC and NFC Championship Games

Andrew McCluskeyCorrespondent IJanuary 17, 2012

NFL Playoff Picture: A Quick Guide to the AFC and NFC Championship Games

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    We are coming down to the wire in the NFL playoffs.

    By the end of this week, we will know who will be playing in the Super Bowl. Four of the league's best teams are left and will make for two very exciting games this weekend.

    Each team has its own strengths and weaknesses, but how they match up will make for an even more interesting story. We have elite offenses remaining as well as elite defenses. We have coaches making their first appearances this deep in the playoffs and others who have been here time and time again.

    Regardless of the outcome, these two games could be classics. 

    Here is a quick breakdown of the AFC and NFC championship games.

AFC: Tom Brady Is Really Good

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    This really shouldn't be news to anyone.

    Tom Brady is the New England Patriots' offense and has the biggest factor in their success every week. As good as some of his weapons are, they would be nowhere near as successful if it weren't for the brain and arm of Brady.

    With all of the media hype heading into the Patriots' divisional round matchup against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, there are was hardly any mention of Brady.

    Well, he took notice.

    Brady torched the Bronco defense for 363 yards and six touchdowns. 

    He came as close as he could to perfection other than an overthrown pass that was intercepted by Denver. Even that didn't slow him down. 

    He will be faced with a much tougher test against Baltimore, but I have a gut feeling that he won't be intimidated. 

AFC: The Ravens Defense Is Good, but Not as Good as They Were

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    Baltimore proved that its defense was still tough after intercepting T.J. Yates three times in the divisional-round game against the Houston Texans.

    However, it was T.J. Yates.

    Intercepting a third-string quarterback three times isn't exactly something to hang your hat on as a defense. Neither is allowing that team's running back to run over you for 132 yards and a touchdown.

    I know that Arian Foster is one of the best running backs in the league, but the Ravens had to have known that was coming. How could you not know that the Texans would turn more to their Pro Bowl running back than their third-string quarterback?

    The Ravens capitalized on their forced turnovers and walked away victorious. However, if they plan on beating the New England Patriots, they will need to plug up some of those holes they had against Houston.

AFC: The Ravens Need More Ray Rice, Less Joe Flacco

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    The Ravens are a running football team.

    Joe Flacco is a solid quarterback. He certainly is more than a game manager, but he isn't a quarterback who is going to throw for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns every week. 

    The Ravens need to turn to what helped them beat the Patriots the last time they faced them in the postseason. 

    That key to success was Ray Rice.

    Rice is a incredibly versatile back who can be just as deadly catching passes as he is rushing the ball. The Ravens have the ability to send Rice at the Patriots' defense in a variety of ways to keep them guessing. 

    The weakness of the Patriots defense may be the secondary, but the Ravens will need to rely on Rice to control time of possession and soften New England's front seven.

NFC: Eli Manning Is Elite

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    Alright, I'm on board.

    I laughed too when Eli Manning claimed that he was an elite quarterback earlier in the year. I thought that there was no way Manning belonged in the same sentence as quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but he has proved a lot of people wrong this postseason.

    Manning is playing some of the best football of his career, and he will need to continue that if he plans on leading his Giants to victory this weekend.

    He goes up against the toughest defense he has faced in weeks, but the 49ers aren't exactly shutdown when it comes to their passing defense. Manning will have a chance to throw on this team, but it will not be as wide open as it was against the Packers. 

    If Eli can keep up this level of play, he may be on his way to another Super Bowl championship.

NFC: Will the Real Alex Smith Please Stand Up?

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    Alex Smith simply outplayed Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints last weekend.

    There is no denying the 299 passing yards and three touchdowns as well as a huge rushing touchdown. There is also no denying the instant classic, game-winning drive that Smith put together to top the Saints as time was ticking off the clock.

    This was an Alex Smith that we have never seen before.

    We had settled in to the fact that he was just another draft bust. Sure, it was a great story to see that Jim Harbaugh had turned him into a game manager, and it was leading to the turnaround of one of the league's most historic franchises.

    Yet no one thought that he had that kind of performance in him—especially not in the postseason.

    As much as I want to hop on the bandwagon and say that I believe in Alex Smith, I'm just not there yet. However, if he can top the New York Giants, it will be hard to deny him.

NFC: Which Defense Comes out on Top?

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    I fully believe that the 49ers have the superior defense when it comes to talent, but the Giants defense is playing at such a high level that it is difficult to dismiss them.

    The Giants are averaging 12.5 points allowed in their last four games. That is an amazing statistic, considering two of the teams they played were two of the league's best offenses in the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.

    The 49ers passing defense showed some vulnerability against the New Orleans Saints. However, it would be fair to say that every passing defense has looked vulnerable against Drew Brees. They were able to intercept two of his passes as well as recover three fumbles.

    The turnover battle will be crucial in this game.

    The 49ers have done an excellent job of protecting the ball this year as they haven't taken the leash off of Alex Smith very often. But with his great performance last week it will be interesting to see if they let him throw the ball more in this one.

    Eli Manning is playing some of the best football of his career, but he has been known to make bad decisions. We've seen him look like one of the best quarterbacks in the league as well as one of the worst decision makers in the league. The 49ers defense will be his toughest test yet.

    Whichever defense makes the most plays may be the deciding factor.