Friday, February 3, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI Preview

The final game is upon us: Super Bowl XLVI. In a rematch from Super Bowl XLII, the New York Giants square off with the New England Patriots for a chance to be enshrined in football history. There is so much hype around this matchup, and although it may not be as good as the first game, it certainly will not disappoint.

Eli Manning has a chance to win his second Super Bowl ring, which would be one more than his brother. Still, that is not comparable to the opportunity that Tom Brady has. A win would most likely make him the greatest quarterback in NFL history with 17 playoffs wins and four Lombardi trophies.

The biggest battle will obviously be between Brady and the Giants’ pass rush. They were disruptive in the last Super Bowl they were in, and with some old and new faces, they will attempt to rough up Brady. Osi Umenyiora has not had one of his best seasons, but is really coming on in the playoffs. Justin Tuck is finally healthy and causing mayhem as usual. The one key player they are missing from the 2007 team is Michael Strahan, but Jason Pierre-Paul has filled that role. Pierre-Paul has been one of the best defensive players all year. He forces so much pressure, whether it is by sacks, fumbles, or blocked field goals. The Giants’ have relied more on pressure than sacks in this postseason. In their three games, they average only three sacks per game, but get so much more pressure in the form of drop backs and quarterback hits. However, they absolutely need to get to Brady in order to slow him down.

Despite whatever pass rush comes at him, I expect Brady to have a good game. He has quality receivers and is facing a weak secondary, so he is going to make some throws. The biggest issue for the New England passing game is the health of Rob Gronkowski. Gronk is a game changer and will be a nightmare if he is healthy. Personally, I don’t think the New York linebackers will be able to cover him and Aaron Hernandez. The Giants may put an extra man in the middle to clog it up for the tight ends. They will not be able to focus their safeties and cornerbacks on containing Wes Welker and Deion Branch as much. Welker will surely be a presence in this game, whether it’s getting open on short routes or deep passes.

Gronk and Welker will give the Giants headaches, but even if Gronk is not 100%, I think the Patriots’ passing game will still succeed. Brady has a tendency to find a favorite receiver over the course of a game, and stick to what’s working. If he can get Hernandez, Branch, or someone else going, it will greatly compromise the game plan of the Giants. Brady is a man on a mission. He is looking for revenge and for his fourth Super Bowl ring.

The rushing game is a bit different. The Giants haven’t been that great against the run, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis hasn’t been that great running the ball. This postseason, Green-Ellis has received 28 carries and taken them for less than 100 yards. However, Green-Ellis is a powerful back who could pose some problems if he gets going.

Here’s an interesting aspect that may unexpectedly come up in the game: Brady running the ball. The Giants let both Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers run all over them, and with their linebackers focused on the Patriots’ tight ends, there will be room to run. The question is, will Brady, and pretty immobile quarterback, decide to take the ball himself if he has no other options? If that’s what it takes to win, then I think he will.

Now onto the other side of the ball with what looks to be a huge mismatch that pits the Giants’ offense against the Patriots secondary. I’m a believer that a defense like the Patriots’ isn’t as bad as it looks. 31st in the league in passing is a number that is inflated by the fact that teams must throw on them to keep up. However, I think that they are at a huge disadvantage against Manning and the Giants. Manning has been an absolute monster this season, cementing himself as an elite NFL quarterback. Now he has a chance to be considered a future hall-of-famer. Manning is not short on weapons either. Victor Cruz has emerged into a star, and is nearly impossible to cover. Don’t be surprised if you see one of the Patriots’ corners get burned by Cruz multiple times. Hakeem Nicks has stepped up his play when it matters the most. In the playoffs, Nicks has had 18 catches for 335 yards and four touchdowns. Finally, when the top two receivers are covered, Mario Manningham, who is also very talented, tends to come up with a big catch.

The only chance the Patriots have to slow down Manning is to sack him. Not just hit him, but sack him. Manning has shown that no matter how many times he gets hit, he can get right back up and make a play, so it is vital for New England to not even let the ball leave his hands. Mark Anderson, Vince Wilfork, and Brandon Spikes are just a few players who lead a pretty good pass rush for the Patriots. They have recorded eight sacks in two playoff games, but will need to perform even higher in this one.

The Giants excelled in running the ball against the Falcons, but struggled against the Packers and 49ers, bringing back up the fact that the Giants had the worst regular season rushing attack this season. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are both physical backs that complement each other well, but for some reason, they have just not been able to get it going. They have a tough matchup against an underrated New England run defense. The Patriots, led by linebacker Jerod Mayo, shut down Ray Rice last week, and actually slowed down the dynamic run game of the Broncos. They had 144 yards, but it took them 40 carries to get to that. Taking pressure off of Eli as well as controlling the clock would be a huge boost for the Giants, but Bradshaw and Jacobs may have a hard time getting off the ground. However, Manning has played spectacular this season without a run game, so I expect him to do just fine.

Special teams is probably an area that not many people are focusing on in this particular Super Bowl, but it will be a factor like always. Both teams have solid units and would love to get their quarterbacks shorter fields, no matter how good they are. The game against the 49ers was won by two fumble recoveries on special teams by the Giants, so there’s always a chance that a play like that is the difference between these two evenly matched offenses.

The two coaches have a chance to one up each other in a battle between two of the best minds in the NFL. Bill Belichick has already won three Super Bowls, and is a mastermind in nearly every aspect of the game, but I think he’s a bit overrated. Before this season, Belichick had lost three straight playoff games, one being to the Jets in which he made several decisions that displayed his cockiness. Belichick has been overconfident at times and at times, it has come back to bite him. He will have to prove in this game that he has not lost his edge, and is truly one of the greatest.

The man who will attempt to outcoach him for a third time, Tom Coughlin, took an up and down path to get here. Coughlin’s team started out the season great, but after losing five of six, many were calling for his head. Now, those same people are singing his praises. Coughlin is a very calm and mentally tough coach who instills that attitude in his players. A win here would make him one of the greatest, maybe even better than Belichick.

The final thing I want to talk about before I make my prediction is the case for MVP. It seems pretty obvious who the top choices are.

For New York, Manning is the Giant who will be the most instrumental, no matter the outcome. He should have a big game and will try to win his second Super Bowl MVP. My runner-up would be Pierre-Paul. If the game is won by turnovers and a defense presence, Pierre-Paul has the versatility to make plays anywhere on the field. Finally, a dark horse candidate would be Bradshaw. We’ve seen what Bradshaw can do if he gets going and he always has breakout potential. The reason why I didn’t pick Cruz or Nicks is because with Manning throwing them the ball, I can’t see them outperforming him.

In the case of a New England victory, Brady should get the MVP award. Already a recipient of it, Brady will have a nice bounce-back game after that stinker against the Ravens and prove why he is one of the greatest of all time. Gronkowski would be the runner-up, as he should have a huge impact on the game as long as he’s healthy enough. A dark horse for the Pats would be Anderson. He is New England’s best pass rusher and has the responsibility of giving Manning fits. If he can accomplish that, the MVP award may be his.

Now with the prediction: I expect the Giants offense to slightly outperform the Patriots offense. With Gronk hurting, New York just has too many weapons. Both running games will have a little bit of impact in the game, but not too much. The Giants pass rush will step up and hinder Brady, but the future hall-of-famer should prevail with over 300 yards and three touchdown passes. Likewise, I think the Patriots’ defense will step up, but not enough to slow down Manning, whose stats will be similar to Brady’s. Both teams will be very evenly matched, but in the end, I expect Manning to be the one leading his team on a game winning drive. It will be déjà vu all over again of 2008.

Giants 28, Patriots 27

Thursday, February 2, 2012

#1 Will Brady and Belichick let the Giants beat them in the Super Bowl again?

This is the biggest question of them all. The Giants match up well with the Patriots. They have a high powered offense that can throw on their weak secondary, as well as a scary pass rush that seems to be the only thing that can stop Brady. However, with the kind of player Brady is and the kind of coach Belichick is, it’s hard to imagine them letting the Giants beat them in the Super Bowl again. The duo is the best quarterback-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have created some magical seasons together. It is not very often that the Patriots lose two games in a row, but they did lose back-to-back games this season, the second coming against the Giants. Now, knowing what happened in Super Bowl 42 and what happened earlier on in the season, Belichick and Brady will surely know that things must be done differently in order to beat the Giants. Like I said, the Giants match up well with the Patriots, but the killer B’s will do everything in the power to stop them. The Patriots will need to get crafty to this win, so we’ll see if Belichick has one more trick up his sleeve.

Check back tomorrow for my final Super Bowl Preview!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

#2 Can the Giants pass rush get to Tom Brady like they did in Super Bowl XLII?

The Giants have a similar pass rush to that of the Super Bowl 42 champions; Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are still both there, and they have Jason Pierre-Paul now instead of Michael Strahan. The key to winning that Super Bowl was getting sacks and pressuring Tom Brady, and it will be no different now. The Giants have recorded nine sacks this postseason, with 3.5 coming from Umenyiora. It’s no secret that putting pressure on Brady changes the way he plays, but the question is how much pressure the Giants will have to put on Brady in order to beat him. Brady will certainly be making throws and scoring points on a weaker New York secondary, so the key is to get to him before the receivers get open. New England has a pretty good offensive line, so the Giants’ pass rush will surely have to rely on their cornerbacks and safeties to give them enough time to get to the quarterback. The Giants must hit early, often, and hard. They will probably need to record at least four or five sacks on Brady to truly take him out of his game.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

#3 Will it come down to who has the ball in their hands last?

Many are expecting a high scoring affair because two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL are attacking two of the weaker secondaries in the NFL. Brady has been a monster this season, leading his team to some late-game wins. However, no one has been as clutch in the fourth quarter as Manning. He has so many touchdowns in the final period this season, many being game clinchers. The teams have the potential to make this a shootout, so it could very well come down to who has the ball in their hands last. Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick are going to have to do some great clock management in order to avoid having their defense on the field at the end of the game. In the last Super Bowl, Brady had an outside chance to come back, but the Giants’ defense stopped him. This year, with the way the two quarterbacks are playing, I have a feeling that the player who has the ball last will guide his team to victory.

Monday, January 30, 2012

#4 Is the game more important for Brady or Manning?

It may not sound like this will be a factor in the actual game, but if you really think about it, it will. Brady and Manning are two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, so it’s really going to come down to who wants it more. Manning is trying to silence his critics. After a Super Bowl ring that was won mainly by a dominant Giants defense, he has put together a season (and postseason) in which he has carried his team and truly developed into an elite quarterback. A win for Eli would go a long way towards shaping his legacy. Having multiple Super Bowl rings is something that not many quarterbacks can boast, including his brother Peyton. Manning knows that he has a chance to go down in history here and really make his mark on the position of quarterback. As for Brady, the game couldn’t be bigger. A win for him would not only give him his fourth Super Bowl ring, tied for most by quarterbacks with Joe Montana, but he will also surpass Montana in the category of playoff wins for most all-time. Brady also is going to be out for revenge on the Giants. They ruined his perfect season, so he is going to aim to end their magical run. With all of the accolades that Brady has received, it is very possible that with a win here, he can be considered the greatest quarterback of all time, and, although he’s gotten older, he is still playing his best football, so he could make another run at the Super Bowl. I believe that the game is more important for Brady, but it is extremely crucial for Manning’s career too.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

#5 Has Eli lost his magic in the fourth quarter, or was the NFC championship game just a fluke?

During the game against San Francisco, the stage was set for Manning. He had the opportunity to take his team on a drive at the end to win it, something he has done so many times this year, and to my surprise, he was not successful. Manning actually had about four or five of those opportunities in the fourth quarter and overtime in which he did not lead his team down the field to win the game, and the Giants lucked out by having Kyle Williams fumble the ball. Although Manning has had a lot of success in the playoffs, he has yet to be put in a situation where he needs to win the game and came through. Eli has done it so many times this year, once against the Patriots, so I find it hard to believe that he has lost his magic. I would chalk it up to him playing against a stingy and disciplined defense that brought a lot of pressure and knocked him around all day. Nonetheless, Manning is an elite and clutch quarterback who should thrive against the Patriots, especially in the fourth quarter. Don’t be surprised if we see Super Bowl XLII all over again.

Friday, January 27, 2012

#6 Is Another Choke in Store?

The theme of championship weekend was who could choke the game away. With two incredibly close and competitive games, it came down to two big plays that were blown by two individuals. Billy Cundiff shanked a chip shot field goal that would have sent the Ravens into overtime, while Kyle Williams muffed two punts, leading to ten points for the Giants. One of the punts gave the Giants the field position for their winning field goal in overtime. Both the Patriots and Giants are teams that have mental toughness and good coaching, so one would not expect a choke to happen. But did anyone expect these chokes either? The Ravens and 49ers are coached by the Harbaugh brothers, two coaches that preach discipline and fundamentals. While you can’t necessarily blame it on the coaches, it was still a shock. It’s a shame that the two games ended the way they did, so hopefully it doesn’t happen. But who knows, maybe Cundiff and Williams are foreshadowing the ultimate choke?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

#7 Who is more deadly: Victor Cruz or Rob Gronkowski?

The two biggest weapons on both teams lie in Cruz and Gronkowski. Cruz, a super quick and slippery wide receiver, has been on an absolute tear since Week 3. Starting with that game against the Eagles, Cruz has had at least 70 yards each game in all but three of them, including the playoffs. He has also collected nine touchdowns. The most dangerous attributes that Cruz possesses are his hands, his ability to get separation, and his big play potential. As the season has gone on, Cruz has rarely dropped a ball and does an excellent job of getting himself open, making things easier on Manning. What you need to watch for in Cruz is if he can get a long touchdown. During the last two games of the regular season, the Giants were in must-win territory. Cruz responded with 9 catches for 342 yards and two touchdowns coming from 99 and 74 yards out.

Gronkowski is a whole new element. As a tight end, he is naturally physical and hard to tackle, but his speed gives him something that most tight ends don’t have. Gronk is pretty much impossible to cover, especially in the red zone. He has broken multiple tight end records this season and has only had four games where he had less than 60 yards. In their previous meeting, both players shined; Cruz has six catches for 91 yards and Gronk recorded eight catches for 101 yards. Both players also have an elite counterpart, Hakeem Nicks for Cruz and Wes Welker for Gronk, that takes some pressure off of them. The Giants and the Patriots both have a weak secondary, so I expect the two players to succeed. However, Cruz is the more dangerous one, because his speed and big play ability can completely change a game with a long touchdown.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

#8 Has the Patriots defense really gotten better?

In the regular season, the Patriots gave up 293.9 passing yards. How does a team like that make it to the Super Bowl? They step it up in the playoffs. In their two playoff games, they are giving up 195 passing yards. Granted, they played the offenses of the Broncos and Ravens, so the Giants are a whole different story. Last time the two teams met, the Patriots held Manning to 250 yards and Jacobs to 72 yards (Bradshaw did not play). Bradshaw adds a new element to the team, so the Patriots will have their hands full. They’re going to need to get creative with their blitzes to slow down Manning like the 49ers did. If they can do that, the running game won’t beat them by itself. However, it’s hard to imagine Manning not having a good game with the way he’s been playing, so stopping the run will be key. In conclusion, I wouldn’t say the Patriots’ defense has gotten better, but rather they were never that bad in the first place. Like Green Bay, they suffered from teams throwing all over them to keep up with Brady. Manning should be salivating at that opportunity.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

#9 Can the Patriots run the ball the way they did against the Ravens?

Yes, it wasn’t an amazing showing, but the Patriots did run the ball pretty well against a tough Ravens defense. BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaged 4.5 yards per carry and had a few powerful runs, one being a touchdown. Green-Ellis is an interesting runner. He hasn’t had too much success this year as the Patriots lead back, but has had some games where he’s completely dominated. In the regular season game against the Giants, Green-Ellis took 12 carries for 52 yards, so he’ll need to improve on that. It seems that the Ravens caught on to the Aaron Hernandez act, so it will most likely be up to Green-Ellis and a little bit of Danny Woodhead in the Super Bowl. The Giants gave up 121.3 yards per game this season, and let both the Packers and 49ers run wild on them. Their front four are focused on getting to their quarterback and the linebackers have not done a great job this year, so Green-Ellis has a nice matchup. Also, it’s interesting to note that the Giants gave up 102 yards to Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith combined on 14 rushes. While Tom Brady is not a mobile quarterback by any means, he should have a mindset to win by all means necessary, even if it’s to run. The Giants need to watch out for the quarterback.

Monday, January 23, 2012

10 Things to Watch for in the Super Bowl: #10

The matchup is set: Giants vs. Patriots. The rematch from the miracle season in 2008. While it isn’t as much as a miracle this year, it’s still remarkable how the Giants got here. Left for dead in Week 15 after laying an egg against the Redskins, they’ve now beaten everyone in their path and are on a magical run. Even the Patriots, with their porous defense and their ugly game against the Ravens, are a bit of a shock to be in the big game. With the way football is, it’s so hard to tell what the outcome can be. Anything can happen, and the two championship games truly showed that. I’m going to give you a list of ten things to watch in Super Bowl XLVI, and those will be the keys of the game, one a day for the next ten days. What happens in each scenario will greatly affect the outcome of the contest.

10. Can the Giants continue their improved rushing attack? For a team who had the league’s worst rushing attack in the NFL this season, the Giants’ ground game has made quite a turnaround in the postseason. After averaging only 89.2 yards in the regular season, they have improved quite a bit, most notably against the Falcons, when they ran for 172 yards. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are both healthy at the same time. The two backs have always been a strong point of this New York team. Bradshaw is an explosive lead rusher who, when healthy, has been one of the better backs in the NFL. Jacobs is a bruiser who punishes any defender in his path. Although he has gotten older and lost a step, he has run pretty well this year, and his physicality is what has kept him effective. The Giants dominated the ground in the game against Atlanta when Jacobs had 14 carries, but in the other two games, he had less than ten carries and their production dropped a bit. They need to get him going. They face a Patriots defense that has been pretty good against the run and really slowed down Ray Rice last week. Belichick will be scheming his defense to stop Eli Manning, so the Giants need to run the ball so they can get some balance in their offense and control the clock.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Giants-49ers: Who can be ELIte?

By the time this game begins, one half of the Super Bowl puzzle will be complete. The question remains: can Eli Manning, who has proved to be one of the best quarterbacks all year, defeat the vaunted defense of the San Francisco 49ers?

This is one of those games where I kept going back and forth on who to pick. Both teams have a golden opportunity here and can win if they play to their strengths. After a lengthy deliberation, I have made my decision.

We’ll return to Manning later, but first let’s talk about Alex Smith and the 49ers offense. After a remarkable performance last week, Smith has shown that he can lead this team and has shed the label of “game manager.” Smith has done a great job of not turning the ball over and has a nice matchup with the Giants’ secondary. However, the pass rush channeling their inner 2008, awaits him. If Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora can get to Smith, it could be a long day for the quarterback. But if the San Francisco offensive line can hold them off, Smith is in a great position to make plays.

The line did a good job of holding off the Giants the last time they played, allowing only two sacks. Even last week against the Saints, Smith got sacked four times but still prevailed. As long as the Niners avoid what happened against Baltimore (nine sacks), Smith should be alright.

As for the running game, they have to get that going. They had success against the Saints, while the Giants had a tough time containing the Packers’ rushers (especially Aaron Rodgers). However, New York held them to 77 yards in their last meeting. San Francisco must rebound.

All quarterbacks benefit from having extra time to throw, and Manning is no different. He threw for over 300 yards the last time they faced San Francisco after getting sacked only once, but the Niners’ pressure was evident by the two interceptions that Eli threw. Against the Saints, the Niners showed that they can survive in a shootout,when they play their physical style of football. They were hard hitting all day and Giant’s receivers may think twice after getting hit for the first time by a Niner defensive back.

With the way the 49ers shut down the Saints rushing attack, they shouldn’t have too much of a problem with the Giants’ run game who they held to 3.2 yards per carry earlier in the season. It will be a fascinating matchup to see the physical Brandon Jacobs (who should have been used earlier against the Packers) against Justin Smith and the 49ers' front seven, but I see Smith and his crew prevailing.

The battle will be won in the trenches. The 49ers need to get to Manning in order to slow him down. Otherwise, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham will run wild. Expect Jim Harbaugh to have his defense ready.

One way the Giants have succeeded in their playoff run is through the big play and one way they have gotten the big play to work is by breaking tackles. Nicks is a physical receiver and Cruz is very slippery, but the 49ers are disciplined and know how to tackle.

The 49ers should be able to get their running game going while the Giants will struggle to. However, Eli should outduel Alex in the passing game. Don’t expect him to throw a pick though; Smith has shown a new poise this year.

Ultimately, San Francisco’s defense will step up and show why it has been the most dominant unit all year. They will get to Eli and although they won’t completely shut him down, they will do a good job at slowing down the offense and forcing turnovers, which is what I believe the tipping point is. I was so close to picking the Giants because of what Manning has been doing, but I think he will not find the same success against San Francisco. That is the key for the Niners, and the ultimate reason as to why I believe they will win the game and head to the Super Bowl.

San Francisco 23, New York 20

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ravens-Patriots: Colossal opportunities for Brady, Flacco

The Ravens closed out an ugly win against Houston on Sunday. The Patriots rolled to a romp over the Broncos. It’s easy to say that New England holds the momentum, but the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Baltimore’s defense harassed Tom Brady.

A trip to the Super Bowl is now on the line.

The way Brady played on Saturday was out of this world. 363 yards and six touchdowns. Unreal is a good word for his performance. If Brady can keep this up, he’s going to beat whoever he plays. However, he faces an interesting matchup in the Baltimore defense.

They are a physical bunch that can really rough up Brady, which will be the key. Not trying to take anything away from the Ravens’ secondary, who had three picks on Sunday, but Brady is not T. J. Yates. Brady has the advantage over the secondary, which is why the Ravens will need to get pressure.

Everyone knows that Brady is a different quarterback when he is under duress. The Broncos couldn’t get any pressure on him and he tore them apart. The Ravens’ pass rush will have to hit him early and often if they want to have any chance in this one. Expect Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and the rest of the purple birds to have sacking Brady on their mind.

The real x-factor is Haloti Ngata. Ngata is an athletic defensive tackle that has a nose for not only stopping the run, but getting to the quarterback as well. He could pose problems for Brady, who isn’t a very mobile signal caller.

The Ravens played a pretty good game against the Texans. They are 4th against the pass and 2nd against the run. They face a new element in Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and the New England offense. Gronkowski will be a top priority for Suggs and the defense. They cannot let him have a big game.

John Harbaugh will probably catch on to the use of Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez in the backfield, so Bill Belichick will have to get creative again in the rushing attack. BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn’t have much success (13 carries, 28 yards) against Denver, but Steven Ridley and Danny Woodhead were effective in limited touches. A big game by Green-Ellis could go a long way for New England, but if Brady is on his game, it may not matter.

There has been a question mark on the Ravens offense and it has been mainly Joe Flacco, but after the game against the Texans, there may be cause for concern about Ray Rice.

I said that the Ravens would need to give Rice plenty of carries if they wanted to win. They gave him 21 carries, but he only got 60 yards. That smells like trouble. Although the Patriots run defense is not like that of the Texans’, they aren’t slouches either, and they’ve also had to face some elite running backs (Ryan Mathews, Darren McFadden, LeSean McCoy, Willis McGahee, Fred Jackson, and Reggie Bush twice). It didn’t hurt the Ravens too much last week, but Rice must get going for that offense to have success.

Back to Flacco, he has shown nothing to make me believe in him. Mark Sanchez has gotten criticized so much this season, but is there really a difference between him and Flacco? Flacco has only had more success because he has a better team surrounding him.

On Sunday, Flacco completed barely over half of his passes for less than 200 yards. I understand that it was against a dominant Texans’ secondary, but now is Flacco’s chance to prove to the world why he is a good quarterback. He has a perfect matchup against the New England secondary that has been shredded all year. If he can beat Brady and lead his team to the Super Bowl, he will be regarded a lot higher.

It remains to be seen if the New England pass rush will be as effective against they were against Denver. If they can do the same against the Ravens’ offensive line, Flacco will be in for a long day.

The biggest key for the Ravens’ success will be field position. Turnovers gave the Ravens great field position and helped Flacco throw his two touchdowns. If they can force the Patriots into turning the ball over in their own territory, a win may be imminent.

This matchup looks to be one similar to the Saints-49ers duel, a battle between offense and defense. However, I don’t see Flacco doing what Alex Smith just did, and the 49ers defense is better than the Ravens.

Brady should have a good day but I think the Ravens defense will do a good enough job limiting him to keep it close. Rice will have a nice bounce-back game and do his usual work for the Ravens’ offense. However, the difference maker is Flacco, and I’m just not ready to trust him yet.

New England 31, Baltimore 23

Friday, January 13, 2012

Giants-Packers: The Smoking Guns of Aaron and Eli

In a rematch between two incredibly high-powered offenses, the Giants have a chance to prove that they can beat the Packers. To do so, they must make sure that the ball is not Aaron Rodgers’ hands in the final moments of the game.

Everyone is talking about how this season compares to the 2007 playoff run that sent the Giants to a Super Bowl championship. While there certainly are some differences, it still looks eerily similar. However, now it’s Eli Manning, not the defense, who is the driving force behind this New York team.

In this game, Manning must be close to perfect. Last time the two teams met, Manning torched the Packers’ secondary for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, his one mistake was a pick six to Clay Matthews, something he cannot afford in this contest.

These Packers are last in the league in passing defense, even worse than the Patriots. However, they are built on getting turnovers, as Matthews’ play shows. While Manning’s career has been plagued by turnovers, he has done a much better job limiting them this year. They being said, he has still had his miscues. Manning must not turn the ball over on Sunday. Giving Rodgers a short field or even a defensive score would be devastating.

Manning should have at least one of his main guys in single coverage. Whoever the Packers decide to double team, either Victor Cruz or Hakeem Nicks, the other should be open fairly often. And then there’s always Mario Manningham.

The case has been made that the Packers defense has not been as bad as the numbers show, it’s just because teams throw on them a lot to keep pace with Rodgers. If that is true, the defense will need to step up in a big way on Sunday.

Another key for the Giants is the run game. Abysmal this season, it has been revitalized by having a healthy combination of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. A solid day on the ground will eat up the clock and limit the time Rodgers has the ball. However, I think the Giants may struggle a bit running the ball. The Packers’ rush defense is much stronger than their secondary, and the Giants barely reached 100 total rushing yards the last time they met.

When Rodgers has the ball in his hand, he’s going to produce. He has been a monster all year. He threw for almost 400 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Giants despite getting little help from his running game. Rodgers would love to have Ryan Grant and the rest of his back help him a little bit, but he should be able to get the job done on his own. That’s how good he is and how bad the Giants’ secondary is. Rodgers should go off on them. Expect a heavy dose of Jordy Nelson deep, as well as a healthy Greg Jennings. Rodgers has so many options that it will be impossible to stop him.

The Giants pass rush is the key. They must get to Rodgers and they must do it fast. Rodgers releases the ball so quickly, which is why Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora must be on the top of their game. They need to rattle Rodgers if they want to have any chance of stopping him. Having Chad Clifton back for the Packers will certainly help.

This game looks to be another shootout and defensive stops will be the key. Whoever can force the most punts or get a key turnover will win the game. Rodgers should be his usual self and throw for 300 plus yards and multiple touchdowns. Manning should do slightly less, but I think the Packers will be able to get another game-changing interception on him. Both running games are going to struggle, so it’s going to come down to the quarterback play.

In a battle between Rodgers versus Manning, Rodgers will come out on top.

This will be the last game of the weekend and possibly the most exciting. There will be a lot of scoring and it will keep fans on the edge of their seats. In the end, the Packers will be sitting pretty in Lambeau, on their way to a second consecutive NFC championship game.

Green Bay 34, New York 30

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Texans-Ravens: An Old Fashioned Brawl by the Bay

Many people are calling this one a no-brainer. The Baltimore Ravens can already punch their ticket to the AFC championship game. But it may not be as clear-cut as everyone has been making it out to be.

I see two very similar and even teams in this matchup. One of them is going to have to make plays to win. Both teams have very good defenses and running games, but they could use some work at quarterback play.

You can’t really blame Houston though. Injuries have forced rookie T. J. Yates under center. However, he hasn’t done as bad as many would have expected. Yates’ starting record and touchdown-interception ratio are the same (4-3). He has been doing enough to win some games for the team at times, and not enough other times.

Yates is going to try and face the daunting task of throwing on a Ravens’ pass defense that ranks 4th in the NFL. Ed Reed hasn’t lost much of a step and the whole secondary is very solid. Lardarius Webb (5 interceptions) and some of the other corners will be making some plays and make it extremely difficult for Yates to throw the ball.

Along with that, the Ravens have a terrifying front seven. They rank 2nd in the NFL against the run. The defensive line of Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding, and Terrence Cody get the job on trying to contain one of the best backs in the game, Arian Foster. Foster was shut down by the Ravens the last time the met, but he looks like a solid bet to go off after his game against the Bengals. The offensive line will help him there.

Then you have the linebackers. Jarrett Johnson. Ray Lewis. Jameel McClain. Terrell Suggs. Nobody wants go up against those guys. Throwing Ben Tate in the mix for the Houston rushing attack should mix things up a bit and try to get the offense going against the stingy Ravens.

With all that being said about the Ravens’ defense, don’t forget what Wade Philips has done for the Texans’ defense this season. They are 3rd against the pass and 4th against the rush. Not too shabby for a unit that was the weak spot last year.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has fallen off in the second half of the season, not once topping 300 yards. However, the Ravens did go 6-2 in those games. Flacco needs to step in this game and truly show that he is the quarterback that will lead this team to the Super Bowl. Jonathan Joseph and the Texans’ secondary will not make this easy for him, but otherwise, things look to be set up well for Flacco to succeed. He is playing at home, where the Ravens haven’t lost all season.

Torrey Smith will be key for Flacco. He’s going to need to use him to stretch the field. Anquan Boldin must get going as well. But nothing is more important than Ray Rice and the ground game.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for Ravens’ offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to give Rice the carries he deserves. Even if it isn’t working at first, they must not stray away from running the ball.

Rice is without a doubt one of the best backs in the league, which is why it is a must to give him the ball in the first place. Hopefully Baltimore has learned that by now. In their four losses, Rice carried the ball and average of 9 times.

There are some differences between this game and the game they played earlier this season. The Texans have Andre Johnson back, but are without Matt Schaub. Yates will need Johnson to make some plays for them if they want to have any chance in the passing game.

That being said, I have to give the advantage to the Ravens. Playing at home and with a quarterback who has experience in the playoffs will be enough for them. I can see Yates throwing a couple of picks that will ultimately be the difference. Foster and Rice will both have good days on the ground, but expect the seasoned Flacco to outduel Yates, the newcomer. The Ravens will squeeze by into the championship game.

Baltimore 17, Houston 10

Broncos-Patriots: Do You Gotta Believe?

A true David vs. Goliath battle may be even bigger than the game itself. It will be Tim against Tom, with the winner taking his team to the AFC championship game.

The list of accomplishments for Tom Brady is enormous. Even looking at what he has done this season, there may be no better quarterback in the league. But with the way things have gone this season, it may not be out of the question to think that Tebow can lead his team to victory in this one game.

We’ve all heard it by now, the Patriots defense routinely stinks up the building. While their run defense isn’t anything to write home about, their pass defense has been especially atrocious, ranking 31st in the league. For Tebow, a quarterback who just shredded the top ranked pass defense in the NFL last week, this should be a breath of fresh air.

Tebow took up a new game-plan last week, listening to John Elway’s advice: “Pull the trigger.” He tossed the ball downfield like he was Elway himself and had great success in doing so. With great success comes great confidence. The confidence Tebow built last week can help him in this game, and I truly feel he will take advantage of the suspect New England secondary.

One of the big reasons why he will do so is Demaryius Thomas. When these teams met earlier in the years, Thomas torched the Pats for 116 yards on seven catches. He has the kind of breakaway speed that will leave the New England corners in the dust.

Then you have the running game. While I doubt they will have as much success as they did last time (252 total rush yards), they should do better than last week against Pittsburgh (3.9 yards per carry average). The key here is to have a balanced offense, but to make sure they run it enough so that Willis McGahee can control the clock and the Denver offense can keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. The Patriots won the time of possession battle last game by a slim margin.

There are two keys for the Denver offense. First, don’t turn the ball over. In their previous meeting, the Broncos had three fumbles while the Patriots didn’t have a single turnover. If that happens again, there’s no way they can win. Second, play the game at your pace. This Denver team isn’t built to win in a shootout. If they can play the game at their speed and score enough points, there may still be some Tebow magic left after all.

Now to the other side of the ball: the vaunted New England offense. Yes, this is one of the best offenses in the league, but there are some problems that the Patriots may run into. While I think Tom Brady will have a good day throwing the ball, he has been notorious for starting games slow because of his shoulder tendinitis. He often needs some time for his arm to warm up. However, this is the playoffs, and that is something that could doom the Patriots, if not in this game, then later on.

The New England running attack is miserable. BenJarvus Green-Ellis leads what is the 20th ranked rushing offense in the NFL. They go up against Denver’s top ranked rush defense. I don’t like the Patriots in that area.

The running game could be crucial, because if they can’t anything going, the Denver defense can put more pressure on Brady, who tends to struggle a bit under duress. If the Broncos can get sacks the way they did last week, it could throw Brady off his game, a key for Denver.

Another interesting note is that the Broncos held Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker to only four catches each last time. Sure, they may have let Aaron Hernandez run wild on them, but if they can slow down Welker and the Gronk, that could go a long way in giving Brady trouble.

The previous Denver-New England meeting could have been a lot closer. Had Quan Cosby not muffed a punt return right before the half, it would have stayed a one possession game at halftime. The Broncos were in the game, they just needed to take care of the ball better.

Once again, the stars may be aligning for the Broncos. On offense, Tebow has finally found his groove and should be a threat in the passing game, while Willis McGahee will eat up the clock on the ground.

The Denver defense should be able to stop the run and get pressure on Brady. While it’s impossible to completely stop Brady, they should slow him enough to get the pace the way they want it.

If the defensive pressure can get some sacks and a turnover or two, the Broncos are in business.

Make no mistake; this won’t be easy. Denver needs to execute this game plan nearly perfectly. However, they seem to be in the position to do so, and have all the momentum in the world. I truly believe that Tebow is in to pull off another upset. His success is an amazing story, and I think that John Fox and the Denver coaching staff has learned from their first meeting with the Patriots. If Denver plays the way they did on their winning streak (Tebow taking care of the ball, stingy defense, strong run game) with a mix of downfield throws, I believe that will continue their improbable run to the AFC championship game.

Denver 24, New England 20

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Saints-49ers: The Golden Boys Square off in a Battle of Offense vs. Defense

In what may be the most highly anticipated and competitive matchup so far in the playoffs, the irresistible force (the New Orleans Saints) goes up against the immovable object (the San Francisco 49ers).

Drew Brees, who now owns the record for most passing yards in a season, has people talking MVP. But how many guys on the San Francisco defense could be potential candidates for defensive player of the year?

Patrick Willis. Justin Smith. NaVorro Bowman. Aldon Smith. A fearsome group, “four” sure.

The biggest battle will obviously be Brees versus the 49er defense. While they do have an intense pass rush and frightening linebackers, their secondary is not as amazing. They have allowed the 16th most passing yards to opposing quarterbacks this season. That’s average, right in the middle of the league. While it is notable to say that this San Francisco defense has defeated the likes of Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, and Michael Vick this year, Brees is a completely different player.

Brees throws the ball with accuracy that is not comparable. He makes long throws, short throws, and throws that no one else can make. I see Brees getting the best of this 49er defense on Saturday, even though the game is on the road, which I’ll discuss more later on.

The reason why many think that the 49ers can stop Brees is because they have the best rushing defense in the league. The three-headed monster of Christopher Ivory, Darren Sproles, and Pierre Thomas has no doubt helped Brees have this magical season. The question is, can he continue his torrid pace if San Francisco shuts down the running game?

On the other side of the ball, things are a little bit cloudier. The Saints have struggled mightily against the pass this year, which is an area that Alex Smith must take advantage of. If San Francisco wants to win, they’ll need Smith to truly shed his label as a bust and make some plays.

Another interesting factor is that the Saints have been a defense that feeds off turnovers. This is the philosophy preached by defense coordinator Greg Williams. Smith is a quarterback who has thrown only five interceptions this year. We all know Smith’s history, but if he can play turnover free like he’s played all year and still throw the ball well, that will be a huge edge for San Francisco.

The 49ers’ offense is built on their run game. They are 8th in the league in rushing and will need Frank Gore to really have one of his better games. Gore has struggled down the stretch, as he hasn’t had a 100-yard game since November 6th against the Redskins. Kendall Hunter will surely help out the rushing attack, but I just don’t know if they can get the kind of ground game they’ll need to control the clock.

The fact that this is a home game for San Francisco makes it more even matchup. Brees and the Saints have thrived at home, where they have not lost this year. However, I just can’t see that being much of a factor on Brees. Sure, he would do better if this game was at the Superdome, but I can’t see a quarterback of his caliber dropping off that much because he isn’t in a dome. Brees did win five road games this year.

Wrapping it all up, Brees figures to have his usual good day of 300 plus passing yards and multiple touchdowns. Having a physical tight end like Jimmy Graham as well as vertical receivers who can stretch the field like Marques Colston and Devery Henderson will make sure he doesn’t miss a beat. However, San Francisco will make it extremely difficult to run the ball, slowing down the offense at times. For the 49ers, the defense will surely help out the offense, but I just can’t see the running game doing enough to win this game. Smith will probably have at least one interception but I expect him to have an otherwise solid day. The 49ers are a very scary team, but in the passing league that we have today, expect Brees and the Saints to be just a bit better.

Saints 30, 49ers 23