8 Lessons Learned from NFL's Conference Championship Weekend
We finally have our two Super Bowl representatives.
After a grueling battle versus the Baltimore Ravens that saw the game decided by a missed 32-yard field goal to tie it up, the New England Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl by winning the AFC Championship Game 23-20.
Likewise, the New York Giants went through their own battle with the San Francisco 49ers for the opportunity to represent the NFC side in the Super Bowl two weeks from now. The Giants were able to escape with a 20-17 victory in overtime, after having taken advantage of a fumble on a punt return by the 49ers.
It's a rematch of Super Bowl 42 all over again. The story lines are set in stone. You'll hear all about the Patriots in their quest to exact revenge upon the Giants for ending their chance at an undefeated season at the conclusion of the 2007 season.
You'll hear about Tom Brady's chance at winning a fourth Super Bowl ring in his fifth appearance in the big stage. You'll hear about Eli Manning's opportunity to exceed the amount of championships his brother Peyton has.
However, there are many reasons why we are witnessing a rematch of Super Bowl 42 four years later.
Here are eight lessons learned from conference championship weekend.
The Patriots Are a Mentally Tougher Team Than the Ravens
The Pats didn't play a perfect game.
Yes, Brady threw two interceptions, one that could have cost the Pats the game had the Ravens not been so offensively inept late in the fourth quarter.
However, despite the fact that the Pats are nowhere near close to being a perfect team, the point remains that they're still slightly better than the Ravens because of one reason.
They are simply a mentally tougher team.
The Ravens had countless opportunities to win, or at least tie this game late in the fourth quarter.
You can bring up instances from earlier in the game where the Ravens had the ball on a fourth-and-inches down inside the ten-yard line, where they chose to kick a field goal instead of going for the touchdown.
In contrast, the Pats faced a similar predicament slightly later on in the game, and they chose to go for it, where they would score on a touchdown on fourth down.
Brushing those things aside, the Ravens had a chance on their second-to-last drive to tie the game with a field goal.
What did the Ravens decide to do? Run the football on a draw with Ray Rice on 3rd-and-3, where they would go on to lose three yards, and put themselves in a situation where they would have to try to convert on 4th-and-6, rather than going for the game tying field goal.
Joe Flacco faced a little bit of pressure and would throw the ball nearly out of bounds without giving his receivers a chance to catch the football.
Should I bring up the Lee Evans drop in the end zone that should have been the game-winning touchdown?
What about the third down on that same drive that followed that play, where Flacco rolled to his right, and instead of throwing to a wide-open Ray Rice for a first down, continued to hold the ball, where he would go on to throw an incomplete pass to one of his tight ends on the right side of the field?
Then you have the missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff to tie the game to send it into overtime.
Did I mention that the Ravens had one timeout left to call, instead of having Cundiff and the special teams unit rush onto the field with 14 seconds remaining to kick the most important field goal of the game?
Why didn't anybody call a timeout?
I rest my case.
Tom Brady, Eli Manning Are Built to Win Playoff Games
Is it far-fetched to come to the conclusion that Brady and Manning are two of the most clutch quarterbacks in the game today?
Brady is a three-time Super Bowl winner. Two-time Super Bowl MVP. He'll be making his fifth Super Bowl appearance in a couple of weeks.
Manning broke the record for fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a single season in 2011. He led countless fourth-quarter comebacks despite the fact that his defense ranked 28th in the NFL and that his rushing attack was even worse.
Brady may not have had the most statistically impressive game, as he didn't even throw for a single touchdown pass and he threw two interceptions.
But, he came through when it mattered. He scored the game-winning touchdown from one yard out when the Patriots needed it most.
Manning needed overtime to get his win, but he completed yet another victory, in a long line of victories that came about as a result of his fourth-quarter or overtime heroics.
It would be hard to argue that as of the current moment, Manning and Brady aren't the two most clutch quarterbacks in the NFL.
Alex Smith Is Still Mediocre, but Couldn't Hide Behind a Solid Run Game Today
Smith had a fine year this season. For a guy who had been as criticized as much as he had been throughout his six-year NFL career, who would have expected that Alex Smith would lead the Niners within one drive of the Super Bowl?
He has had seven different offensive coordinators, including 17 different starting wide receivers in just seven years in the NFL.
He went through several different head coaches before the right one, Jim Harbaugh, came along and revived his career.
Despite his accomplishments this season and his league-low five interceptions, Smith is still a mediocre quarterback.
He isn't a quarterback that will win you games. Eli is a guy that will win you games. Brady is. Rodgers will.
Smith is a guy who needs everything around him to go smoothly in order to win games.
Did he exceed expectations this season? Sure.
Did he have a good season? Of course.
Can he lead this team to the playoffs again in a weak division? Most certainly.
However, if this team is to ever win a Super Bowl, Smith will have to up his game. If he doesn't, the Niners will have to look for a quarterback who can win the team games.
The Ravens Were Let Down by Their Offense Yet Again
For years upon years, ever since the Ravens came into existence in 1996, they have always been known as a dominant defensive team.
Despite being a dominant defensive team, they have always been supported by an underwhelming offensive supporting cast.
Today was no different.
The Ravens had countless opportunities to tie or win this game, as previously mentioned before.
Ray Rice could never get established running the football. There was a key third-and-three at around the Patriots' 35-yard line where he ended up getting tackled three yards behind the line of scrimmage to force a fourth-and-six conversion, instead of kicking the field goal to tie the game.
There was the Lee Evans drop.
There was the entire first quarter where the Ravens couldn't gain a first down if their lives depended upon it.
There was the chance for a first down right before Cundiff's missed field goal where Flacco had a chance for third down conversion by passing it to Rice.
Instead, he kept the ball and threw an incomplete pass towards his covered tight end along the right sidelines.
The offense has failed the Baltimore franchise for years, which is the reason why they have just one Super Bowl to show for all of their years of dominant defenses.
The 2011 season was another example of this fact.
The Patriots' Defense Is Good Enough to Win a Super Bowl
So this is the terrible defense that ranked 32nd in the league in yards allowed?
At the end of the day, this defense isn't as bad as advertised.
You win games by the amount of points you allow, not the amount of yards you allow. There's a big difference.
The Pats ranked a respectable 15th in the NFL in points allowed during the regular season and they ranked second in interceptions forced.
This is a defense that bends, but never breaks.
Case in point? Just look at the Ravens' last offensive drive.
The Pats' defense made the plays necessary in order to win yet another playoff game for New England, and they did just that. They held Ray Rice in check. Brady didn't have a solid game, but it didn't matter.
The defense stuck together and was a large reason for why the Pats are going to their fifth Super Bowl in the Belichick/Brady era.
So the next time anybody criticizes the Pats' defense, just remember one thing.
They're playing in the Super Bowl.
The Giants Always Come out to Play in the Postseason
There is something about this team that always make you chuckle.
If you look at this team's statistics, it isn't overly impressive. In fact, if you consider what is typical of playoff teams, this team should have never even made it to the playoffs.
The Giants ranked 25th in the NFL in points allowed. They ranked dead last in rushing yards.
This is a team heavily dependent upon the talents of Eli Manning.
You would think if a team is so heavily dependent upon on player, they'd stand no chance of making the playoffs, let alone playing in a Super Bowl?
That's not the case with the Giants.
There is something about the month of January that makes the Giants play harder. They become more aggressive, they become a little bit more consistent running the football and they become a lot more dominant defensively.
This postseason has been no different than the postseason that saw the Giants upset the Patriots in what is considered one of the greatest upsets of all time.
Attribute it to the coaching of Tom Coughlin. Attribute it to the mental toughness of the players on the field. Attribute it to the ability to play in cold weather games in January.
Whatever the case may be, this team will never be a team that accumulates the best record in the regular season.
In the end, it doesn't matter.
This team finds a way to make it to the Super Bowl, even if they have to do it the hard way.
The Harbaugh Brothers' Coaching Style Is Too Conservative
Whatever you want to attribute it to, whether that be the lack of premier quarterbacks or their coaching nature, the Harbaughs were simply too conservative in their coaching styles this weekend to overcome aggressive teams such as the New York Giants and the New England Patriots.
Alex Smith isn't a top-10 quarterback. Joe Flacco probably isn't either.
Both teams have very good rushing games supported by great defenses.
However, in the NFL playoffs, your ability to take care of the football to overcompensate for your lack of talent can only take you so far.
This was the case for the Niners.
This was a team that was the best at taking care of the football, in large part due to Jim Harbaugh. They led the league in turnover/giveaway differential.
It took them all of the way to the NFC Championship Game, which is nothing to sneeze about.
However, their lack of talent at certain positions were exposed in their game versus the Giants.
You had one quarterback on the other side of the field who could create big plays with his arm.
Then you had another quarterback who takes great care of the football, but is incapable of creating the plays necessary in order to dig his offense out of a funk to win a football game.
For the Ravens, Rice ran it way too many times early on in the game on first down. He also should have never been called upon to run the ball on the Ravens' second-to-last drive on 3rd-and-3.
Flacco made some nice plays. He also was too conservative on a number of them.
That's usually a reflection of not only yourself as a player, but your coach himself.
When you watch film of the Niners and the Ravens' offenses this past Sunday, only one word comes to mind.
Giants vs. Patriots Is the Best Possible Super Bowl Matchup
Giants-Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI? Who could have booked a better ending considering where we were at the beginning of Conference Championship weekend?
This was easily the most intriguing matchup possible and anybody who isn't a Ravens or a Niners fan was praying for this matchup to occur.
Brady making his record-tying fifth Super Bowl appearance? The Pats trying to avenge their perfect season being destroyed in Super Bowl 42 four years later against the very same team that ended that dream? Manning or Brady, who is more clutch?
The story lines are endless and the match-ups are epic.
The Giants' pressure-heavy defensive line against Brady yet again? Manning versus the Patriots' terrible pass defense?
There may be no perfect season on the line this time, but it wouldn't surprise anybody if Super Bowl XLVI is to be more entertaining than the previous Giants-Patriots' Super Bowl spectacle.