It may not be March, but Madness reigns this weekend in the NFL. Our Sports Staff breaks down the final four teams of the Divisional Championship round.
Baltimore at New England: Last week, the Patriots showed what they are capable of after they annihilated Denver by putting up 35 points on the Broncos … in the first half. New England is playing on another level offensively at this point in the season with Tom Brady using a multitude of weapons to spread the field. Baltimore used a stellar defense to defeat the Texans last week, but that was a Houston team starting a rookie as a quarterback. Brady will find Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez open all day to overpower a Baltimore team with a less than explosive offense that will not be able to keep up. Coach Bill Belichick will once again guide the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Patriots: 31 Ravens: 23
New York at San Francisco: Both these teams impressed last week with efficient offensive play and stifling defense. Alex Smith showed he can lead the 49ers to victory after Saturday’s thriller over New Orleans in which he drove San Francisco down the field for two separate game winning drives. With Smith’s newfound confidence this season to go along with Jim Harbaugh’s impossibly stubborn defense, the 49ers have all the tools to slow down Eli Manning and a suddenly deadly Giants passing game. New York has the defensive pass rushing to challenge San Francisco, but Harbaugh’s team will find their way to the Super Bowl for the first time since the days of Jerry Rice.
49ers: 24 Giants: 20
♫ “First you give the ball to Rice,Then you throw two touchdowns.
What do you get?
Joe Flacco! Joe Flacco! Joe Flacco! Joe Flacco! Joe Flacco! Joe – ” ♪
“I don’t know why you keep pushing the Joe Flacco. Research shows normal people like Tom Brady. Your classic offense made with two tight ends, running back and a receiver, all for 31 points per game at home. It’s all your good players on one side of the ball.”
“They killed my Joe Flacco idea?”
I don’t know about Joe Flacco, but the Patriots have zero wins against teams with a winning record. The Fightin’ Flaccos have seven.
Ravens 30, Patriots 28
Giants are scary, but Patrick Willis grew up on Buck Ditch Road and isn’t scared of anything. That includes rematches from Week 10, in which the 49ers won 27-20. Super Mario Manningham, Hakeem “Stevie” Nicks and the Dump Truck, Brandon Jacobs, will do their best against a defense that is much more competent and capable than the one they saw last week in the Packers. Meanwhile, A. Smooth leads the oft-overlooked 49ers offense against a Giants defense that has played superbly over the last month. Frank Gore should get more than the 13 carries he had last week, and that will allow “V-Day” Vernon Davis to get open enough times. Roll Tide.
49ers 21, Giants 20
The common saying in football is that defense wins championships, but not this time. The Patriots have too many weapons and too much versatility for a defense to protect against. Aaron Hernandez is apparently a running back now as well as a dangerous receiving tight end, and he and Rob Gronkowski together are a defense’s worst nightmare. Add to that Wes Welker, who led the league in receptions, Deion Branch, and the Pats’ bottomless supply of running backs and you get an offense that is virtually guaranteed to have something open on every play.
The defense is also improved. Their pass rush was certainly better than it’s been all season helped in part by the return of safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes from injury, as well as undrafted rookie corner Sterling Moore has been a revelation.
Then there is the Brady factor. I can’t remember the last time I saw the offense move with such urgency and efficiency. He is playing like he has something to prove, and that is not a Tom Brady that any team wants to face, especially now that the offensive line is healthy. The Ravens are much better than the Broncos, but they barely beat a banged up Houston team led by a third string rookie quarterback. The Patriots will take the 35-27 win.
Picking against the Giants has been a bad idea of late, but I just don’t see them keeping their current level of play against the San Francisco defense. With players like rookie Aldon Smith, Navarro Bowman and the one and only Patrick Willis, the Niners sport one of the scariest and most talented defenses in recent memory. I see Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning, who relies a great deal on the skill of his receivers to haul in some of his more questionable throws, having a very tough time against the defense that forced the Saints’ high-octane offense to cough up the rock five times. All Alex Smith will have to do to lead his team to the Super Bowl is not turn the ball over, which is actually something he is exceptionally good at.
That is not to say the game will be easy by any means for the Niners. The Giants are without a doubt a talented team. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are as dangerous as any receiver tandem in the league. The Giants have a revitalized and highly skilled defense which could make life unpleasant for Alex Smith. In the end, however, the Niner defense will hold the Giants in check and Alex Smith will do just enough to lead his team to a conference title and a 24-21 victory.