Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Conference Championship Weekend

In the AFC, the conference championship will be played between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The top-seeded Patriots advanced to this round after a 45-10 thrashing of Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. Quarterback Tom Brady threw for six touchdowns, and later added a punt that was pretty impressive in its own right. The Patriots boast a two headed monster at tight end comprised of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. New England coach Bill Belichick used Hernandez not only at the traditional tight end position, but also out of the backfield. Another offensive player to watch for the Patriots is Pro Bowl wide receiver Wes Welker. Welker, who is predominantly used in the slot, uses his speed to get open and create chaos for the opposing defense.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have one of the lowest ranked defenses in the NFL. That being said, they did a good job shutting down the Broncos, holding them to ten points. A few players to watch on defense for the Pats are linebacker Rob Ninkovich, safety Patrick Chung, and cornerback Devin McCourty.

The Ravens, who are coming off a 20-13 victory over the Houston Texans have one of the best defenses in the league, and are led by future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed at linebacker and safety, respectively. Some other standouts on the defensive side of the ball for the Ravens are linebacker Terrell "Sizzle" Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and cornerback Ladarius Webb. Webb is coming off a huge game against the Texans in which he picked off T.J. Yates twice. The Ravens will need to play some of their best defense of the season if they are to slow down the Patriots high-powered offense.

On offense, the Ravens are led by fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco, who has drawn some critcism from the fans, media, and even his own teammates has a chance to prove that he can win a big game. The Ravens running game relies heavily on All-Pro running back Ray Rice, with some carries also taken by veteran running back Ricky Williams and full back Vonta Leach. A key for the Ravens will be to utilize Rice properly, meaning he should get at least 20 carries. A good running game will open up the passing game for Flacco, who has some good targets in wide receivers in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, as well as tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.

In the NFC, the resurgent San Francisco 49ers won one of the best games in recent memory over the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, earning the right to host the NFC Championship Game. Their offense is led by quarterback Alex Smith, running back Frank Gore, and tight end Vernon Davis. After three lead changes late in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game, Smith and Davis connected on a touchdown pass with nine seconds left in the game to win the game for the Niners.

For most of the game, the high-powered San Francisco kept the Saints in check, forcing five turnovers against one of the best offenses in the league. Leading the defense is All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive linemen Justin and Aldon Smith, and cornerback Carlos Rogers. If the 49ers are to go back to the Super Bowl, they will need to do everything they can to make Eli Manning uncomfortable in the pocket and force him to make bad throws. Their secondary, which had 38 takeaways this season, will try to repeat their performance from last week.

On the other sideline, the red-hot New York Giants look to keep their perfect record in conference championship games as they try to exact revenge against the same 49ers team that beat them 27-20 in Week 10. A key for the Giants is to get the running game going early with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs against a defense that gave up three rushing touchdowns all year. An effective rushing attack will give open up the passing game for Manning, who can pick apart a defense of any caliber. If the offensive line can give Manning as much time as they did against the Green Bay Packers, Manning will have plenty of time in the pocket to make good throws to Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz downfield.

Defensively, the Giants boast one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Defensive ends Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Justin Tuck all have the ability to get to the quarteback on any given play, and will look to take advantage of an offensive line that gave up the seventh most sacks in the NFL. In the secondary, they have solid veteran safeties Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle, as well as cornerbacks Corey Webster and a much-improved Aaron Ross. The key on defense for the Giants, as it has been all year, is to get pressure on the quarterback and force him to make him make bad decisions.

With all that being said, here are my predictions. In the AFC, the popular pick is the New England Patriots. I guess you can call me a non-conformist, because I'm picking the Baltimore Ravens to go into Foxborough and knock off the Patriots, much like they did in January of 2009. The Patriots haven't beaten a good team all year, and although they have an incredible offense, John Harbaugh will have his experienced defense prepared to shut them down. I think Flacco will make up for his subpar performance last week with a big game. Although the Texans, for the most part, shut him down, the Patriots' defense is much worse. Flacco will be able to hit Boldin and Smith downfield for big plays, while Rice, Williams, and Leach wear down the defense on the ground. Ravens 35, Patriots 24.

In the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers will have an opportunity to set up the first coaching matchup between brothers in Super Bowl history. However, the Giants will be able to create pressure on Alex Smith, and shut down the Niners' passing game. The 49ers defense will make the game equally as tough for the Giants, but Manning's experience will lift the Giants over the Niners in a defensive battle, and send the Giants back to the Super Bowl. Giants 17, 49ers 10.

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