It's down to four now as the countdown to Super Bowl XLVI in three weeks ticks down to the NFL conference championship round. Only two divisional winners survived second-round games over the weekend, leaving matchups of the New York Giants at NFC West-champion San Francisco in the NFC and the Baltimore Ravens at AFC No. 1 seed and East-champion New England for the AFC title tilt.
All four playoff games this past weekend were fairly close, except for the Patriots' 45-10 beatdown of a totally outmanned Denver Broncos team that ran out of miracles behind quarterback Tim Tebow. The Patriots' game was effectively over by halftime, with Tom Brady and Co. holding a commanding 35-7 advantage going into the intermission.
The Giants' surprise win over the Packers at Green Bay wasn't as shocking as was the relative ease with which New York was able to throttle the highly potent Packer offense. In truth, it wasn't so much the New York defense that made the difference in the day as the numerable drops by Packers' receivers. Green Bay receivers dropped six passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 264 yards, far below his season average, and was the Packers' leading rusher with 66 yards, which speaks volumes by itself. The Packers also lost three fumbles.
"I think we're a dangerous team right now," said Giant's head coach Tom Couglin following his team's improbable win at Lambeau Field. Indeed they are, but their next opponent on the road to the 2012 Super Bowl is a team with which they have not had a lot of success historically. San Francisco, which defeated New Orleans in probably the most exciting playoff game of the weekend, is 4-3 in playoff games against its cross-country NFC rivals.
I have to admit that I'm a bit surprised that the 49ers were able to go toe-to-toe with the offensive-minded Saints as well as they did. It certainly helped to be playing a home and outdoors, which had to have had an impact on New Orleans' comfort and offensive effectiveness. The Giants' win over Green Bay will help out the Niners again this weekend, delivering them another home game.
So with both the Packers and Saints out of the picture, New England should wear the favorite's banner all the way to New Orleans, and as the lone No. 1 seed remaining in the hunt should be favored against the NFC champion, regardless of whom it might be.
That will be the conventional wisdom, certainly, but I, for one, am not buying it. I don't think we've seen the end of the surprises yet in this season's NFL playoffs. If any team can give the Patriots well-oiled offensive machinery fits it is Baltimore. Couple that with New England's highly suspect defense, I believe the Ravens' have a real decent shot at upsetting Bill Belichick's boys and on their home field in Foxboro. On paper, the Patriots have the next-to-worst defense in the league, giving up an average of 411 yards a game in the regular season.
Despite this, New England has been pretty stingy at the goal line, yielding opponents' 21 points a game, while scoring 32 of its own. Baltimore has only averaged 23 points per contest in winning the AFC North crown. The Ravens have been able to get the most out of those points, though, allowing an average of 16 points in winning 12 games this season, one less than the Patriots.
A lot depends on the injury suffered by the Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed on the final play of Sunday's win over Houston, which would amount to a huge loss defensively for the Ravens if he is unable to go against the Patriots, but I look for Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco to have one of his best games of the year, and for the Ravens' defense to bring constant pressure against Brady, forcing him to throw out of rhythm and putting him in uncomfortable passing situations. Meanwhile, the Ravens' offense will exploit the holes in the New England defense and find ways to score in the red zone, where the Patriots have been at their best, limiting touchdown opportunities all season.
As the late afternoon chill sets in next Sunday in New England, it will be the Ravens, not the Patriots, celebrating in the center of the field at Gillette Stadium and moving on to their first Super Bowl appearance since their one and only prior trip to the NFL's championship game in 2001. Care to guess who the Raven's opponent was in Super Bowl 35? It was the New York Giants, whom Baltimore defeated 34-7 to win its first Super Bowl in its only appearance.
Sorry to say, however, that Super Bowl XLVI won't be a reprise of the 2001 game between the then-five-year-old Ravens and the Giants. San Francisco has been near perfect at home all season, winning eight of its nine games. The Giants have not been a bad road team this season, actually faring better away from home (5-3) than they did at Meadowlands Stadium, where they split eight games. One of New York's road losses this past season, however, was at San Francisco, where the NFC East champs dropped a 27-20 decision to the 49ers in Week 10.
The Giants have won five of their last six games, including regular season-ending wins over Dallas (twice) and the New York Jets and playoff wins over Atlanta and No. 1 overall seed Green Bay, but that won't be enough against rookie NFL coach Jim Harbaugh's 49ers, who are on a mission and have won four of their last five themselves. The Niners will break the hearts of the Giants and the NY fans in San Francisco and end their wild-card run, walking away with a 24-21 win on a wet and miserable day in the Bay Area. Miserable for everyone but the 49ers, that is, who will be on their way to New Orleans for a date with the Baltimore Ravens.
I've got a feeling about Super Bowl matchup between San Francisco and Baltimore, too, but I will hold off until after conference championship weekend to reveal those thoughts.
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