Championship weekend is guaranteed to spit out a worthy Super Bowl clash, be it Harbaugh Bowl II (Ravens-49ers), a 2000 Super Bowl rematch (Ravens-Giants), a Tom Brady extravaganza (Patriots-49ers) or a seismic and end-all sequel (Patriots-Giants).
With everything on the line, matchups will be key. Here are three matchups from each championship tilt that will go a long way toward determining the AFC and NFC champs.
AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)
Key Matchup No. 1 - Matt Light vs. Terrell Suggs
When the Ravens tuned up the Patriots in a 2009 wild-card game, Terrell Suggs abused Matt Light, and consequently, Tom Brady. The likely 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has made no secret of his feelings for Brady (they are not warm), and thus will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. While the Patriots will attempt to slow Suggs with chips of their own (likely from tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), it is incumbent on Light to do his job and keep T-Sizzle away from his quarterback.
Key Matchup No. 2 - Patriots linebackers vs. Ray Rice
Anyone who recalls the ‘09 playoff game knows Rice had a field day from the outset against New England, with his 83-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage setting the tone for a 22-carry, 159-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Patriots’ linebackers will need to have their heads on a swivel to keep track of the diminutive and explosive Rice, who is often tough to pick up behind a mountain of offensive and defensive linemen. Brandon Spikes - whose return has been key for the New England run D - must repeatedly punish Rice. If he can do that, the pressure will shift to quarterback Joe Flacco, which gives the Patriots the advantage.
Key Matchup No. 3 - Tom Brady vs. Ed Reed
There may be no love lost between these teams, but between Brady and Reed, there is no doubt a deep-seated mutual respect. Reed remains one of the greatest freelancing safeties in the history of the game. Brady has consistently lit up opposing defenses between the hashmarks, as his receiving trio of Hernandez, Gronkowski and Wes Welker has proven to be virtually impossible to cover in open space. Whoever prevails in the cat-and-mouse game between Brady and Reed will be leading his team to Indianapolis.
Bottom Line: In 2009, Brady didn’t have Welker (injury) or his tight ends (college). As long as he is upright, the Ravens can’t contend with all three downfield.
NFC Championship: New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)
Key Matchup No. 1 - Mr. Smiths vs. Giants’ offensive line
The Giants have done a fantastic job of protecting Eli Manning throughout the playoffs, but neither the Falcons nor Packers boast anything resembling the duo of defensive end Justin Smith and outsider linebacker Aldon Smith. The twin terrors combined to sack Drew Brees twice and hit him an additional nine times last week. Manning’s Achilles heel is making bad decisions in the face of a strong pass rush, which has been the calling card of the Smiths this season.
Key Matchup No. 2 - Bradshaw/Jacobs vs. Patrick Willis
Lost in the sublime play of Manning and the Giants’ defense of late has been the resurgence of the New York running game. Ahmad Bradshaw appears to be fully recovered from the foot injury that cost him the month of November and Brandon Jacobs has reprised his role as the ultimate downhill runner, the kind that evokes images of a bowling ball careening down the side of a mountain. With rain having pounded the Bay area all week, the Giants will need to get something from their rushing attack if they want to hold the San Francisco pass rush at bay. Willis spearheads the Niners run defense. If he is swarming to the ball and choking the point of attack, the Giants will have no choice but to become one-dimensional.
Key Matchup No. 3 - Giants kick units vs. 49ers return units
San Francisco was exemplary on special teams during the regular season, ranking first in the NFL in yards per kickoff return (27.2) and fifth in yards per punt return (12.4) while taking one of each to the house. The Giants, meanwhile, were middle of the pack in terms of return yardage allowed. They tied for 10th in the league in kickoff returns, allowing an average of 22.9 yards per, and tied for 16th by allowing 9.9 yards per punt return. If New York can battle the 49ers to a stalemate on special teams, that will be as good as a victory.
Bottom Line: It’s nearly impossible to lose a playoff game with a plus-four turnover ratio, which the 49ers almost did last week. The Giants won’t be nearly as careless with the football.