It doesn’t seem right, but there are just three football games left in the 2011 NFL season—well, four if you count the Pro Bowl, but I don’t.
This weekend will cap the race to Super Bowl XLVI when the Baltimore Ravens meet the New England Patriots—an AFC showdown of the top two seeds—and when the No. 4 seeded New York Giants travel cross-country to take on the No. 2 seed San Francisco 49ers.
As if you weren’t already rabid at the thought of these two games, here’s a little something to get you excited—our take on each game.
AFC Championship Game—New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens
New England’s offense ranked No. 2 in the NFL this season, Baltimore’s defense ranked No. 3 (and second against the run) while the Ravens’ offense ranked No. 15 and the Patriots’ defense ranked 31st.
The New England Patriots’ dynasty continues, with Bill Belichick leading his Patriots to their sixth AFC title game in his 11 seasons as head coach. Belichick and co. have perhaps their best all-around team this season, especially if you consider their strength down the stretch. Tom Brady has mastered this offense, using matchup nightmares Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to mystify defenders.
When New England Has the Ball:
Tom Brady will have a tougher task of getting the ball to his playmakers this week. The Ravens' defense matches up well against the Patriots' Big Three.
Wes Welker vs. Lardarius Webb. Aaron Hernandez vs. Bernard Pollard/Jimmy Smith. Rob Gronkowski vs. Ed Reed.
The Ravens won't have an easy day covering these three, no one has, but they have the best shot of any defense the Patriots have seen this year.
The Ravens are smart, with future Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis—and maybe Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata too—patrolling the field.
Expect to see Suggs used to chip Gronkowski as he comes off the line and Lewis used to knock Welker and the tight ends off their routes when they cross the middle. The Ravens' defense is full of big hitters, and they will be keying on the New England receivers looking for a knockout blow.
Brady will face the toughest test of the season in a game that could put the Patriots in line for their fourth Super Bowl ring and atop the NFL hierarchy with Bill Walsh’s 49ers and Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
When Baltimore Has the Ball:
Joe Flacco has come under some criticism this week, even from his teammates. It's no secret that for Baltimore to win they have to get major production from the run game. That means a heavy dose of Ray Rice.
New England's run defense has improved lately, thanks largely in part to an unknown called Kyle Love playing alongside Vince Wilfork. The Patriots aren't a great run defense, but they are an assignment-based defense that will attack the gaps and limit mistakes. That may be all it takes to force the Ravens into the 3rd-and-long situations Baltimore wants to avoid.
Unfortunately for Baltimore, New England is weakest against the pass. This is a classic bend-break defense, and if Flacco and his wide receivers could get going they would find space to work against an inexperienced group in the secondary.
If any group for New England will be under the microscope it will be the defensive line. Getting pressure on Flacco this week is key, and the Baltimore offensive line is pretty solid across the board.
Prediction: New England 34, Baltimore 17
NFC Championship Game—San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants
San Francisco’s offense ranked No. 26 in the NFL this season and New York’s defense ranked No. 27. On the flip side, the Giant’s offense was No. 8 overall and the 49er defense ranked No. 4 (and first against the run).
The NFC Championship Game will feature hard hits, little scoring and plenty of pressure on the quarterback—the two teams combined for 90 sacks during the regular season.
When San Francisco Has the Ball:
The 49ers, as the home team, open as -2.5 favorites to win the game. For the 49ers to pull out a victory, they’ll need a big day from Frank Gore at running back. Gore was limited to zero yards on just six carries due to injury when the 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20 in Week 10. The 49ers have Gore back, and cut Braylon Edwards after numerous timing problems in the first game, but the Giants have a healthy Justin Tuck and a suddenly unstoppable secondary.
The pass rush of New York is the biggest concern this week. The San Francisco offensive line limited the vaunted New York defenders to just two sacks the last time around—but allowed only six pressures. For the most part, Alex Smith was able to sit back and scan the field as San Francisco filled the air with passes early in the game. If he can do this again, and with a healthy Frank Gore in-tow, the 49ers will win.
When New York Has the Ball:
The Giants haven't been able to run the ball all season. Facing the best run defense in the league this weekend, they won't even worry about it.
Eli Manning will be given the task of doing the same thing he's done all season—winning with his arm. Don't expect many points in this game, as even the greatness of Manning's arm will meet an almost immovable force in the San Francisco defense.
The 49ers are solid front to back, with a dominant front seven that can stop the run as well as they rush the passer. Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks should be excited to see the Giants' offensive tackles on film this week.
If New York cannot keep Manning upright, something they did well in Week 10, this game will be over as soon as it begins. Manning wasn't sacked once in that first meeting, even though he was pressured 18 times. Those pressures will turn into sacks as the 49er defense has progressed. The Giants can't allow Manning to be hit like this again.
Prediction: San Francisco 24, New York 20