Here’s how I see this weekend’s NFL conference championship games:
Baltimore at New England. Tom Brady and his corps of receivers, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, are unstoppable. Because of his release, Brady makes it really difficult to get to him, even if you can get past their stellar offensive line.
Don’t expect the Baltimore back seven to be able to shut the Patriots down. Perhaps they can be contained, but they’re going to get their points. Especially in the middle of the field, look for New England to run plenty of crossing routes, with Welker shallow and the tight ends deep. That way, Brady will be able to pick out a victim, whether it’s Bernard Pollard, Ray Lewis or the Ravens’ nickel or dime backs. I don’t expect the Patriots to be able to run effectively, but I think they can score four touchdowns through the air.
When Baltimore has the ball, I think they need to take the same approach they took here against the Rams back in September. Thirteen of their first 19 plays against the Rams were pass plays, including three touchdown passes to Torrey Smith. One of their runs was actually a scramble by Joe Flacco, so they called pass on 14 of those first 19 plays. For that day, Flacco attempted 48 passes and was sacked twice. So the Ravens dropped back to throw on 50 occasions in that game, while running it 26.
New England’s 31st-ranked defense was No. 31 against the pass and 17 vs. the run. They allowed twice as many touchdown passes (26) as running touchdowns (13). So Baltimore should anticipate running Ray Rice 20 times (the Ravens are 9-0 when he gets 20 carries), but take their shots to Smith and Anquan Boldin directly at Patriots corners Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty.
Utilizing their strength, by going primarily to the run, would be playing into New England’s hands. The Ravens would do well to take a page out of the ’99 Rams playbook, of getting ahead with the pass and then pounding away with the running game. Both teams have outstanding special teams, and I would think will offset each other. Unfortunately, if someone is going to beat New England, it’ll probably be in a shootout. And I just don’t think Baltimore is capable of winning a shootout with the Patriots.
New York Giants at San Francisco. As I mentioned to Chris Duncan in The Fast Lane on Thursday, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen when the conditions are poor. It rained all day on Thursday, and it’s supposed to rain sporadically throughout the weekend. Particularly in San Francisco, when the Candlestick Park turf gets wet, it turns into a quagmire that’s almost impossible to play a normal game in.
That being said, we do have two teams capable of running the ball well. The 49ers have all season, and the Giants have run it well in the post-season. And both teams are strong defensively.
Everything else being equal, the 49ers would get an advantage from their stout front of Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald, and especially their inside linebacker tandem of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. San Francisco is the top rush defense in the league, and I question whether the Giants will be able to run effectively against that group under any conditions. And if Eli Manning drops back to throw, is the left side of the Giants’ line going to be able to handle Mizzou’s Smith brothers, Justin and Aldon? I don’t think so. It’ll be real difficult for the Giants to score.
Meanwhile, the 49ers offense, and Rams fans know all too well, can pound a defense into submission. That offensive line of Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Adam Snyder and Anthony Davis helped San Francisco become the eighth-ranked rushing team in the league. They’re the top rushing team remaining in the playoffs, and will go against New York’s No 19 rush defense on Sunday. New York allowed 121.3 yards rushing per game, and I would think San Francisco can dominate in that department on Sunday.
If they need to throw, Alex Smith will simply try to get it to the apparently uncoverable tight end Vernon Davis. This is another situation in which the conditions will play a role. New York’s pass rushers are predominantly speed rushers. Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka are all more finesse over power. Justin Tuck can overpower an opponent, but will he be able to get enough traction to drive a lineman off the ball? We’ll see on Sunday.
I just think, unless conditions are perfect for throwing, the 49ers have all the advantages vs. the Giants. They’re more of a power team, and their running game and running defense are superior to the Giants’ run defense and running game. If Manning’s receivers can get downfield, perhaps he can take some successful shots. If the field is in good condition, those quick New York front seven players will be able to get good footing and force the 49ers into some passing situations.
If it comes down to special teams, San Francisco has the best in the league with kicker David Akers, punter Andy Lee and return man Ted Ginn Jr. I’m going to trust the forecasters in this one, and take San Francisco to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994.