Previewing the best football day of the year (yes, even better than the Super Bowl)
If you asked 100 million Americans what the best football day of the year is, the vast majority of them would undoubtedly say Super Bowl Sunday. To be sure, the fanfare/hype/Madonna-led halftime shows that dominate the Super Bowl every year make it an annual event unlike any other in the sports world.
But for my money, the best football day is conference championship Sunday—two games instead of one, each with huge stakes, without all the distracting pageantry of the Super Bowl. Especially when the games are as good as this year's project to be.
So let's down to business (all times Eastern):
AFC Championship Game: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, 3 pm, CBS
Amazingly, it's been four years since the perennially-elite Pats were even in the Super Bowl and a staggering seven years since they last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. They've exited the postseason in the last two years on mind-numbing homes to the Jets, and yes, the Ravens. But after a 45-10 pasting of the Denver Raging Tebows, they are the prohibitive favorites to overcome a Ravens squad that struggled to beat Houston and its third-string, rookie quarterback, T.J. Yates.
The game will feature matchups between two elite squads (New England's offense v. Baltimore's defense) and two...let's say fairly below-average units (Baltimore's offense v. New England's defense). With gametime temperatures in Foxborough, Mass., projected at 30 degrees with a 20-mph wind, the game will likely come down to which team can be more effective at runs/short passes.
No team does the underneath passing game better than the Pats, who have a super-elite tight end (Rob "Gronk" Gronkowski) an elite tight end (Aaron Hernandez, who doubled as the Pats' leading rusher against Denver), and the best possession receiver in the game (Wes Welker, who's averaged a staggering 111 receptions a season in his five years with New England). Also they have that guy...what's his name... Tim Brady? Gisele's husband is a master at getting his pass-catchers the ball in space—as long as he has time to throw. But the Ravens have a bruising front seven led by veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis and pass-rushing dynamo Terrell Suggs, who had 14 regular-season sacks. The Ravens' Ed Reed-led secondary is not going to allow big plays down the field, so if Suggs & Co. can disrupt Brady's timing on the short throws, the Pats will have trouble moving the ball. And yes, that's a big "if".
The Ravens, meanwhile, will go exactly as far as Joe Flacco takes them. Their best offensive player by far is Ray Rice, who is arguably the best pass-catching running back this side of Darren Sproles and rushed for 1,364 yards this year, second in the NFL. But Bill Belichick is not going to let Rice beat the Pats—they will shadow him out of the backfield and limit his production as much as they can to between-the-tackles runs. That will open the door for some big plays to wideouts Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans—provided, of course, that the mercurial Flacco can get them the ball.
Reed told the press that Flacco appeared "rattled" after throwing for only 176 yards and getting sacked five times against the Texans. And while he did throw for two touchdowns and no interceptions, Flacco did not appear comfortable during the game and could only lead Baltimore to 20 points—seven of which came when the offense got the ball at the 10-yard line following a fumbled punt. If Flacco can keep the turnovers to a minimum (one or none) and make a couple big plays in the passing game, it could force Belichick to pull defenders off the line of scrimmage and give Rice some openings.
So, can the Fu Manchu QB get it done? I can't believe I'm saying this, but yes. Barely. With a huge assist from the defense.
NFC Championship Game: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers, 6:30 pm, FOX
(Full disclosure: I'm a lifelong Giants fan born in 1986 who vaguely remembers my Dad going bonkers when this happened.)