NFL Playoff Picture: Are Joe Flacco and Alex Smith the Biggest Liabilities Left?
The best Sunday of the NFL season is not Super Bowl Sunday; it is NFL Championship Sunday.
The Wild Card and Divisional rounds separated the wheat from the chaff by exposing the pretenders' weaknesses for all they are, i.e., the Detroit Lions' porous pass defense, the Denver Broncos' lack of a passing game, the New Orleans Saints' road woes and the Green Bay Packers' inexperience with adversity.
The NFL's version of the Final Four rarely procures the sexiest four teams from the regular season, but rather the last teams standing from each conference as they emerge from the earlier rounds, sometimes worse for wear, and vie for the AFC and NFC championships and a berth in the title game.
The result, similar to the NCAA's Men's college basketball tournament, is a mixture of teams we expected to see and others that improved throughout the season or got hot at the right time, but it's never a combination of perfect teams.
Lots on the Line for Eli, Brady, Flacco and Smith
Story lines abound in this weekend's games as the Baltimore Ravens (13-4) visit the New England Patriots (14-3) in the AFC Championship game and the New York Giants (11-7) head west to face the San Francisco 49ers (14-3).
Desperate for respect, Joe Flacco is the Rodney Dangerfield of NFL quarterbacks, and a big game in a Ravens victory will go a long away in boosting his reputation.
Alex Smith, long considered a flop as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft, has resurrected his career under Jim Harbaugh's watch and can join Joe Montana and Steve Young as 49ers Super Bowl signal callers.
The Giants' Eli Manning is playing to tie his older brother, Peyton, for the most conference championships in the family and earn the opportunity to surpass him in NFL crowns,
With a Patriots win, Tom Brady will have a chance to tie Terry Bradshaw for the most Super Bowl rings among starting NFL quarterbacks in NFL history.
Finally, victories by both the Ravens and 49ers would result in the first ever siblings-coached Super Bowl between John and Jim Harbaugh, while the Giants and Patriots could set up a rematch of Super Bowl XLII when New York ended New England's perfect season.
Strengths or Liabilities?
The New England Patriots score points in bunches, but can they keep the Ravens out of the end zone with the league's 31st-ranked defense?
The Baltimore Ravens are a physical team with a punishing defense and solid running game, but can they survive a shootout with the Patriots?
The San Francisco 49ers are built like the Ravens, which is not surprising since they are each coached by one of the brothers Harbaugh, but can their ball-control turned play making quarterback continue his remarkable ascent against the Giants' pass rush?
The New York Giants start Eli "Mr. Clutch" Manning at quarterback, who had a season that has pundits discussing his Hall of Fame worthiness, but can he protect the ball against the 49ers' ball-hawking defense after turning it over twenty times during the regular season?
With four imperfect contenders remaining in the tournament for the Vince Lombardi trophy, the teams that maximize their own strengths and expose their opponents' weaknesses will advance to face off in Super Bowl XLVI.
Not many people would have predicted this weekend's match-ups at the beginning of the season, with the possible exception of the AFC Championship game, but each team got hot at the right time and it sure will make for compelling TV.
The remainder of this article will look at the biggest liabilities on a scale of 1-10 for each of the conference championship contenders.
Liability No. 4: New England Patriots' Defense
The New England Patriots finished the 2011 regular season ranked 31st in total defense, allowing 411.1 yards per game, including 293.9 yards per game through the air.
On the plus side, the Patriots' scoring defense finished 15th in the league, giving up 21.4 points per game.
While their low overall defensive ranking can be largely attributed to the fact that teams were often forced into a pass-first, catch-up mode against Tom Brady and the Patriots' high-scoring offense, their secondary struggled throughout the season.
Their run defense is also vulnerable, giving up 117.1 yards per game, and they will be challenged to slow down the NFL's second-leading rusher, Ray Rice, and the Ravens' big-play passing attack.
Liability Rating: 3
Liability No. 3: New York Giants' Running Game
The New York Giants running game finished the 2011 NFL regular season ranked dead-last among the 32 NFL teams at 89.1 yards per game, despite having what many would consider one of the best running back tandems in the league with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.
While the Giants offense is predicated on the pass—Eli Manning passed for a franchise-record 4,933 yards this season—they will need the running game to at least move the chains in short-yardage situations against the 49ers' top-ranked run defense.
With Bradshaw and Jacobs both healthy after one or the other was injured for much of the year, the Giants' ability to run the ball improved towards the end of the season, but whether they will be effective against San Francisco is a major question and one that could determine the outcome of this game.
Liability Rating: 6
Liability No. 2: Joe Flacco's Poise Under Pressure
Earlier this week, the Baltimore Ravens' ball-hawk and future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed made some disparaging remarks about his team's quarterback, Joe Flacco.
In an interview on SiriusXM radio, Reed was quoted as saying his quarterback should have gotten rid of the ball quicker on several occasions in a game in which the Texans sacked Flacco five times, saying:
“I think a couple of the times he needed to get rid of the ball. It just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense.”
“One particular play that sticks out to me; when Ray Rice came out of the backfield, he got pushed down and he still threw him the ball and you got one-on-one with Torrey Smith on outside.”
Though Flacco has won four playoff games in his first five NFL seasons, he has often struggled in the postseason and is not considered a big-game quarterback.
The question is whether Joe Flacco will be able to withstand a similar attack in the AFC Championship game after being pounded and harassed by the Texans' pass rush a week ago.
Liability Rating: 7
Liability No. 1: Alex Smith's Lack of Playoff Experience
Alex Smith, now in his seventh year in the NFL, has had a career mired in mediocrity up until the 2011 NFL season when he guided the San Francisco 49ers to a 13-3 regular season record and the No. 2 overall seed in the NFC playoffs.
The biggest difference in his play this season has been his ability to manage the game and protect the ball. Under the tutelage of his new head coach and quarterback whisperer, Jim Harbaugh, Smith threw a league-low five interceptions this season.
However, with only one NFL playoff game under his belt, last week's comeback performance for the ages against the New Orleans Saints, the question is how he will fare against the New York Giants' dominant pass rush with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
Liability Rating: 8