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NFL Playoffs: Conference Championship Week

   by Al McMordie - 01/15/2012

We are down to the Final Four in the NFL: the Patriots, Ravens, 49ers and Giants. The Pats are a No. 1 seed, the 49ers and Ravens are No. 2 and the upstart Giants are the only Wild Card team to advance.

This will be a find round of physical versus finesse to see who makes the Super Bowl. It was a year when finesse, high flying passing offenses dominated the NFL, with the Saints, Packers, Patriots and Lions have record setting passing offenses. Yet, here we are in the Final Four and only one of these teams (Patriots) is still alive.

So what happened? What happened is that defense and power football on both sides of the line has been the story of the postseason, with the Giants, 49ers and Ravens advancing. The big story was in the NFC with both the Packers and Saints getting upset by hard hitting defenses. Simply put, it was turnovers that killed them.

It has the feel of the 2007/08 postseason for the Giants, a team that struggled just to make the playoffs that went on a remarkable run to win the Super Bowl, winning three straight close games with Eli Manning and a great pass rush. The Giants (11-7 SU/ATS) are on a 4-0 SU/ATS run, topping the Jets (29-14), the rival Cowboys (31-14), the Falcons (24-2) in the Wild Card game and Sunday’s shocker at Green Bay (37-20).

The Giants ground game has been dormant most of the season (last in rushing), yet rushed for 173 yards against the Falcons 6th-ranked run defense all game long while the NY defense allowed 247 total yards. The ground game wasn’t as effective against the Packers, but Manning threw for 330 yards and 3 TDs while the defense forced three Green Bay turnovers on the way to a 30-13 lead before holding on.

QB Eli Manning (35 TDs, 17 INTs) leads an offense that is 5th in the NFL in passing, with 296 yards per game, but 32nd in rushing (89 yds pg). WR Victor Cruz has been outstanding with 1,536 yards and teams with WR Hakeem Nicks (1,192 yds). Cruz has had a fantastic season, but it was the 6-foot-5 Nicks that was the hero against the Packers with a monster day, including that incredible Hail Mary TD on the final play of the first half that gave New York a 20-10 lead and stunned the Lambeau Field crowd.

The NY Giants lead the NFL with 48 sacks with Jason Pierre-Paul (16½ sacks) and DE Osi Umenyiora. They sacked Aaron Rodgers 4 times Sunday. The Over is 22-10-1 in Giants last 33 games against the NFC. The Giants are also 7-1 ATS in their last 8 playoff games, and the under is 7-2 in the Giants last nine postseason games. The Giants are 20-8 ATS in their last 28 road games vs. a team with a winning home record.

The upstarts 49ers (14-3 SU, 12-4-1 ATS) have a powerful ground game, a conservative offense and a punishing defense under first-year Coach Jim Harbaugh. The defense is 4th in total yards allowed and second in points (14.3 ppg). The 49ers made 23 interceptions during the season. On offense, Harbaugh simplified the offense for QB Alex Smith (20 TDs, 5 INTs) and the 27-year old cut down on his turnovers. However, he still holds the ball too much getting sacked 44 times.

It has been a conservative offense until shocking the Saints Saturday with 407 yards in a 36-32 thrilling upset. Alex Smith threw 3 TDs and no picks, 299 yards, the last a 14-yard TD to Davis with 9 seconds left. Their final 2 drives: 6 plays, 80 yards, 7 plays, 85 yards! Let’s face it: We didn’t know he had hit in him.

And how good has this new San Francisco coaching staff been? On 3rd-and-8 at the Saints’ 28 in the final minutes, the Niners dialed up a quarterback sweep left that Smith turned into a touchdown run. Smith’s game-winner to Davis was installed for the first time last week based on what quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst saw the Saints secondary based on his time as a coach with the Panthers, who are also in the NFC South.

San Fran is on an 8-4 run under the total. The 49ers will get after Manning with their front four, which has accounted for 34 of the team’s 47 regular season sacks (3 more sacks against New Orleans). The 49ers are 18-6-3 ATS in their last 27 home games. These teams met Nov 13 on this field and the 49ers had a 27-20 win. The Giants had the edge in yards 395-305 and held San Fran to just 77 rushing yards (3.9 ypc), but the 49ers won the turnover battle 2-1. San Fran led 9-6 at the half and it was 13-12 New York in the 4th in a defensive game.
In the AFC it’s a classic battle of finesse versus physical as the Ravens head to Foxboro to battle the Patriots in a rematch of their 2009 first round playoff game, won by Baltimore 33-14 as a dog. The Ravens are making their fourth straight appearance in the playoffs under John Harbaugh, though they have not been to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens got here with defense, ranked No. 3 in the NFL in yards allowed and points, just 16.6 ppg. RB Ray Rice (1,364 yards, 4.7 ypc) carries the offense, as QB Joe Flacco (20 TDs, 12 INTS) continues to carry an underachieving moniker despite beating the Steelers twice this season as Baltimore won the division.

The ground game has been strong with 124.8 yards per game, 10th in the NFL, even more impressive when you realize they had major changes and question marks on the offensive line. Flacco has completed 54 percent of his passes and thrown 6 TD passes to seven interceptions in 8 career playoff games. Baltimore comes off a 20-13 win over Houston getting outgained 306-228. 4 turnovers (and facing a rookie, 3rd string QB) saved them. Keep in mind the Ravens are 9-0 SU, 4-5 ATS at home, but 4-4 SU/4-4 ATS on the road. The Ravens were one of the NFL’s best at bringing down opposing QBs, but in their four losses, they totaled just five sacks combined.

The Patriots (14-3 SU, 9-7-1 ATS) are the top-seeded AFC team for the second straight year with a deadly offense but a very suspect defense. Only Green Bay gave up more yards than New England, and we saw the Packers give up 37 points in their early exit to the Giants.

This offense is explosive behind QB Tom Brady (45 TDs, 13 INTs), WR Wes Welker (1,569 yards) and budding young star Rob Gronkowski (1,327 yards). Brady threw 6 TDs on Saturday in a 45-10 rout of overmatched Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos with an edge in yards 509-252, but you really can’t read too much into that. Denver is a poor defense and a one-dimensional offense.

The only good news for the Pats is that they have had personnel losses on defense most of the season, but safety Patrick Chung was flying around on Saturday making plays, LB Brandon Spikes was finally back in his rightful inside linebacker and DE Shaun Ellis was impressive after being a no-show most of the year due to injuries.

The Patriots did something a little different the last game, starting the game in no-huddle; generally they don’t switch into it until they’ve had a couple of possessions. Don’t be surprised if they go no-huddle early against Baltimore to try and tire out the Ravens’ strength, their defense.

They are 12-5 over the total, including a 7-0 run over in the playoffs.

The teams didn’t meet but the Pats won a 23-20 overtime game last year at home in Week 6 over the Ravens. Baltimore blew a 20-10 lead with 6 minutes left as the Pats went to the no-huddle. Flacco was 27 of 35 for 285 yards, 2 TDs and no picks, while Brady was 27 of 44 for 292 yards, 1 TD and 2 picks. The Ravens are 0-6 all-time against the Patriots in the regular season, 1-0 in the playoffs, winning 33-14 in 2009. And of course, check the weather reports as both these title games are outdoors. Good luck, as always....Al McMordie

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