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.)
A month ago, you could have thrown a dart at all the pundits and sports prognosticators in the world and not found one who thought the Giants could win the Super Bowl. The team was 7-7 and had just gotten pasted by the lowly Redskins for the second time in the season. With the Jets and Cowboys remaining on the schedule, everyone figured the G-Men would lose both games, fire coach Tom Coughlin and start over with a new staff around star quarterback Eli Manning.
Instead, New York has won four straight games by double digits, including a 37-20 pasting of the 15-1 Packers in Lambeau Field last weekend. Now they face a 49ers team led by first-year coach Jim Harbaugh that until last week was like a really high-level football robot—consistently excellent, but never great. Then the Niners scored two touchdown in final three minutes to knock off Drew Brees and the Saints, the final scoring play coming with just eight seconds left. Now the raucous Bay Area will "welcome" the Giants for a rematch of the epic 1990 NFC Championship game that ended with Matt Bahr's game-winning field goal for New York (shown in the link above).
This Giants team is pretty much a polar opposite of that Bill Parcells-led squad that went on to beat the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. That team had a great secondary and power running, the two biggest weaknesses of the 2011 Giants. Until their recent renaissance, the Giants simply could not run the ball or defend against the long pass. So against Green Bay, Perry Fewell repeatedly dropped seven guys into coverage and let the pass-rushing troika of Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck harass Aaron Rodgers.
Expect to see a different strategy against (still) mediocre QB Alex Smith and the San Fran offense come Sunday, though. The Niners relied primarily on the power running of Frank Gore and the pass-catching of tight end Vernon Davis to move the ball during the season—Smith's job was basically to not lose the game. Despite his late-game heroics against New Orleans, Smith is still the same slightly-above-average quarterback who will make mistakes if he feels pressure and has no real deep threat down the field (Ted Ginn will either not play or play hurt, and Michael Crabtree is...ehhhhh). Without the threat of the bomb, expect the Giants to creatively bring blitzes and runs stunts with their talented defensive lineman to force Smith into mistakes. The key to the 49ers offense may be Gore, who has not been the same runner after suffering an ankle injury in midseason.
The 49ers real strength is their defense, led by relentless pass-rusher Justin Smith and the elite linebacker tandem of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The unit will be tested by a Giants offense that is gelling on all cylinders. Finally blessed with an elite group of receivers, Eli Manning is carving up defenses and letting Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks do the bulk of their work after the catch. So far that's worked out—the G-Men have had a touchdown pass of at least 65 yards in each of their last four games, and that doesn't include Nicks' 37-yard Hail Mary TD at the end of the first half against the Packers. If the Giants can establish even a semblance of a running game and avoid turnovers, they will score points in the balmy San Francisco weather.
If the game comes down to special teams, though, the Giants are in trouble. Niners' kicker David Akers set an NFL record for points in a season this year and is pretty much automatic inside of 50 yards. The Giants counter with Lawrence Tynes, who had a 40-yard field goal attempt blocked last week and missed two late field goals in the '07 NFC Championship Game before improbably making the game-winner in overtime. Advantage: Niners.
Unfortunately for Bay Area fans, it won't be that close. The Giants are peaking at the right time, and Eli has more big-game chops than Smith. In the end, that's what will matter.