NFL Conference Championship Games: The Offensive Keys for Each Team
After a very intense week of playoff games, there are just four teams left fighting for the right to compete in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.
On Sunday afternoon, the Patriots will host the Ravens in Foxboro for the AFC championship. New England crushed the Broncos and Tim Tebow's Super Bowl dreams in the divisional round last Saturday night, while Baltimore knocked off the Texans a day later.
In the NFC, the 49ers will continue their surprise season when they welcome the Giants to Candlestick Park on Sunday. San Francisco pulled off a dramatic victory last week in the final seconds against the Saints, and New York crushed the Packers' chances of a repeat at chilly Lambeau Field.
The Patriots, Ravens, 49ers and Giants are all riding a lot of momentum into their conference championship games this weekend. With each team so high on adrenaline, these competitions could be decided by the slightest of margins.
In this slideshow, I will go over the offensive players for each remaining team that must have the biggest performances on Sunday in order to punch their ticket for Indianapolis.
New England: Aaron Hernandez
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It is almost impossible to do much on the ground against Baltimore, so all of New England's offense is going to have to come through the air and the arm of Tom Brady.
Brady's most trusted red-zone target this season was Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski set multiple tight-end records throughout the year and caught three touchdown passes last week in his team's beating of the Broncos.
As good as Gronkowski has been, fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez may be just as talented. Hernandez can do anything that Bill Belichick desires. He caught four passes for 55 yards and a touchdown last week. He also ran for a team high 61 yards on five carries in that same game.
Gronkowski and leading receiver Wes Welker will most likely be doubled- or triple-teamed at times during Sunday's game. Therefore, it is up to Hernandez to make big plays when called upon and attract some defensive attention away from his other teammates to allow Brady to spread the field.
Baltimore: Joe Flacco
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Every offense starts with the quarterback, and while it is kind of cheap for me to list Joe Flacco as the key to the Ravens' offense, the performance of the fourth-year player may decide the AFC title. In a recent interview, Ed Reed said that Flacco has to pick up his game in order for the team to succeed. I could not agree more.
Baltimore's defense gave Flacco endless chances to seal the victory last week against the Texans, but the quarterback only threw for 176 yards and a couple of very short touchdowns. This kind of performance may work against a rookie quarterback, but the Ravens are not going to be able to have the same kind of field position when they are up against Tom Brady.
If Flacco can play to his full ability, then he has the potential to dominate the Patriots' 31st-ranked passing defense.
Furthermore, he needs to let his big-play receivers, Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, make an impact. The field has 100 yards for a reason, and if Flacco can cover its length just once with one of these men, then his team could be in Indianapolis in two weeks.
San Francisco: Michael Crabtree
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The 49ers are all about defense. Specifically, rush defense, which held four New Orleans running backs to a combined 37 yards in their victory last week. As much as defense wins championships, points must be scored to claim a victory. That being said, the key for the 'Niners' offense this Sunday will be Michael Crabtree.
Alex Smith and Vernon Davis were both lethal in their long-awaited playoff debuts a week ago. Crabtree caught four passes for 25 yards and a touchdown, but could have done much more. He dropped three passes and could not convert on over half of the balls thrown his way. Crabtree's longest catch was for just nine yards.
He was absent from San Francisco's first meeting with the Giants earlier in the year. He caught just one pass for 21 yards in that competition. New York has the ability to get to the quarterback in the blink of an eye, but they are completely hopeless when the ball makes it into the air.
The Giants allowed the fourth-most passing yards per game of any team in the league, so the Niners best receiver must make an impact in order for his team to succeed. If Crabtree can get open in time before Justin Tuck and the Giants' big men get to Alex Smith, he can do wonders.
New York: Mario Manningham
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The 49ers' rush defense may be one of the best in NFL history, while the Giants' running game was the worst in the league during the regular season. That being said, do not expect to see Ahmad Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs do much damage in the NFC Championship Game.
San Francisco's pass defense is not half bad, but they did allow Drew Brees to throw for 462 yards and four touchdowns last week. Eli Manning has proved himself to be a top-tier quarterback this year, and he has experience in the biggest of games.
When he won the Super Bowl, his top targets were Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. Now, Manning can count on Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz no matter the situation. Both of these receivers need to play at their best to help their team win, but the man that I believe is even more important is Mario Manningham.
San Francisco will be expecting big things from Nicks and Cruz, so Manningham has to attract the attention of defenders to help Manning spread the field. He has a touchdown catch in each of New York's first two playoff games, and he must do the same once again to earn a spot in Super Bowl XLVI.