The Glass Eye: NFL Conference Championship Preview

Wow, what an amazing round of playoff games last week! Except for the Broncos-Patriots stinker, every game was chock-full of surprises and turning points. Defense seemed to trump offense in most cases, as the high-flying Saints and Packers were sent home; while defensively stout Baltimore and San Francisco soldier on. If the last round proved anything, it’s that literally anything can happen in the NFL, especially when teams start turning the ball over – but having said that, let’s take a look inside each matchup.

Ravens at Patriots: I expected both teams to win, but each surprised me in different ways. The Patriots had a far easier time with the Broncos than I had expected – although having played them only a month before was clearly to New England’s benefit, as they were able to make key adjustments that Denver seemed to have no answer for. Tom Brady looked great, and his two-headed monster at tight end (Gronkowski/Hernandez) dominated the game. Their defense looked the best they have all season as well, a positive sign for the Pats this week.

On the other hand, Baltimore parlayed two early turnovers into a 17-3 first-quarter lead, then did nothing on offense the rest of the game  – and actually came within a play of losing to a third string rookie QB who threw three picks. Now, I give the Houston defense all kinds of credit, they shut down the running game and applied a lot of pressure on QB Joe Flacco – but still, Baltimore HAS to be concerned about their offense right now. Defensively, the Ravens also were less than dominant – Arian Foster wore them out with almost 140 yards rushing (despite Baltimore expecting a heavy run game from the Texans), and had Houston been able to start Matt Schaub, it’s likely that the Texans would have won that game handily.

Offensively, New England doesn’t have a punishing ground game, but I think they will try to establish SOME momentum on the ground and look to keep the Baltimore safeties honest and out of pure passing situations. This will set up the Pats’ great tight ends in situations against Baltimore’s linebackers in coverage – a matchup that does not favor the Ravens. Baltimore’s defense is still hard-hitting and tough, but Ray Lewis has lost a step or two and the outside LBs do not excel in pass coverage. The good news for Baltimore is that the Pats’ wideouts are not fast, so Baltimore can probably play man-to-man with their above-average cornerbacks on the WRs and give safety attention to the tight ends. Even at that, only Pittsburgh managed to keep New England under 20 points this season and only three other teams kept them under 30 – so look for the Pats to get at least 25 points this weekend.

When Baltimore has the ball, look for New England to try to stop Ray Rice (much as the Texans did) and force Joe Flacco to win the game. I remain a Flacco skeptic – he’s certainly not a TERRIBLE QB, but the consistency is certainly lacking, and he still gets that ‘shellshocked’ look on his face too often in big moments. His own safety, Ed Reed, said this week that he thought the Texans ‘rattled’ Flacco, and when the hapless Jaguars beat the Ravens earlier this year Flacco appeared rattled as well. Any QB can have a bad game – that happens – but a very good/great QB will have a lot more top performances than terrible ones, and thus far Flacco hasn’t had that big game under the harsh glare of the postseason spotlight.

New England’s defense had a fine game against Tebow, but they still are very susceptible to the pass and Flacco definitely has the weapons at wide receiver to have a big game. I predict that he will need to throw for 280+ yards to win this week, and with one INT or fewer.

I know last week defenses ruled the roost, and I know that New England’s defense is still suspect…but I look at this matchup and at the core, I see Brady at home (8-1 this season) vs. Flacco on the road (4-4 this season). Baltimore can win if they force a bunch of sacks and turnovers, but I think the Pats will prevail, and by double digits. PATS by TEN.

Giants at 49ers: These two teams played this season already, a 27-20 win by San Francisco at home on Nov. 13 – and in most cases I’d lean on that result pretty heavily when trying to figure out this week’s contest. In this case, while I perused the stats to see what worked for each team, I’m tempted to not consider that game at all – because the Giants have been so unpredictable most of the season. New York went into that game 6-2, proceeded to lost five of their next six before their current four game winning streak (as an aside,  teams like this year’s Giants have become so common that I plan to discuss the issue further in next week’s column). When looking at the Giants’ schizophrenic season, there’s one constant among their wins: turnovers. When the Giants force more turnovers than they allow, they are 8-1. Then they allow more than they force, they are 0-5. They are 3-1 when each team commits the same number of turnovers, so the Giants are 11-1 this season when they win or tie the turnover battle. Yes, turnovers are key for any NFL team and yes, there are other factors at play with the Giants, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Giants HAVE to protect the ball this week to win.

The 49ers also are reliant on turnovers – their offense is 26th in yards but 11th in points this season, and the reason they were able to score is that their defense gave them the ball in favorable situations all year long. San Francisco won the turnover battle in 15 of their 17 games this season, an incredible stat – and they went 13-2 in those games. The 49ers have not committed more than two turnovers in any game this season, a big factor in their success. Their ability to protect the ball is key, because their offense lacks playmakers – aside from TE Vernon Davis, they have no game-changing passing weapons and their wideouts are far easier to cover than Green Bay’s group. They do run the ball effectively and often, and the Giants have struggled to defend the run much of the season (although they held the 49ers to 77 rushing yards in November). I look for a heavy dose of RB Frank Gore early in the game, to draw in the safeties and linebackers – with more play-action passing to Davis from the second quarter on.

The Giants’ running game has experienced a total reversal in the playoffs, but the 49ers are tough for ANY team to run against, and I expect them to struggle this week. The pressure will be on Eli Manning to win or lose this game through the air, and that’s a favorable matchup – the Giants passed for 300 yards against SF in November, and the Saints torched the Niners for 435 passing yards last week. I expect at least 40 passes from Manning this week.

San Francisco is not a high-scoring team, but the Saints were the first team to score 30+ against them. I look for this game to be very low-scoring, and it will almost certainly be determined by a key turnover. This is more or less a coin-flip game, and while the Niners have been consistent the Giants have been anything but throughout the season. I usually take the best QB in close games like this, but between home-field advantage, their tenacious defense, and their ability to win the turnover battle all season I’m forced to go with the Niners. SAN FRANCISCO by a field goal.

Next week, we’ll look at the devaluation of the regular season over the past 20 years on all major sports.

 

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

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