Buoyed by predicting a Giants’ upset over Green Bay, Tony finished 3-1 in predicting the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, which gave him a 5-3 overall record in the postseason. I didn’t see the Giants’ win coming, so I split. That puts me at a pathetic 3-5 in the playoffs.
So with that as context, here are our picks for Championship Sunday.Andy:
Baltimore at New England — It wasn’t surprising to me in the least that Bill Belichick was able to dream up a defensive scheme to stymie Tim Tebow over the course of his bye week. Give the evil genius that much time and he’s bound to come up with something.
It will be tougher this week against a Baltimore team with a better defense and more competent quarterback than Denver. No, that’s not to say Joe Flacco has been great this season. Far from it. But he has completed 58 percent of his passes and thrown 20 touchdowns, which Tim Tebow … hasn’t.
The Patriots are a far better team this year than the one that got destroyed by Baltimore in the playoffs following the 2009 season. And Tom Brady seems to love the arsenal of toys he has since acquired, particularly Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
But the Patriots are fairly one-dimensional offensively and terribly vulnerable defensively. The Ravens, on the other hand, are more balanced offensively, with Ray Rice contributing both through the air and on the ground. And they are better — and tougher — defensively.
Most of what I’ve read so far almost makes New England advancing to the Super Bowl a foregone conclusion. I don’t agree.
New York Giants at San Francisco — I really haven’t believed in either of these teams all season long. I thought the Giants would be okay but not great. Hell, I’ve picked against them twice in the playoffs already. I thought San Francisco was going to be terrible. That Jim Harbaugh wanted to bring back Alex Smith seemed more like a play for trying to draft Andrew Luck than trying to win the Lombardi Trophy.
The Giants were absolutely impressive during their win at Green Bay. They won by 17 and, without a couple of really bad calls by officials, that would have been an even bigger margin. They’re the proverbial team that caught fire at the right time and they definitely deserve to be in this game.
The 49ers also impressed the hell out of me last weekend. I definitely believed going into the game that they were much improved and that they had produced a great season, far better than any of their fans should have expected heading into September.
But I also figured they were the beneficiaries of playing the weak NFC West and that the 13-3 mark was somewhat inflated. Last weekend proved otherwise. This might be the most fundamentally sound tackling defense I have watched in years. The run defense has been stout all year, but the pass defense also made Drew Brees earn every single yard he threw for last weekend.
Offensively, there are still things Alex Smith cannot do, but he is playing the best football of his career. And he proved that when a team needs him to make plays at the end of a tight game he is capable of coming through. I think the Niners cap it off this weekend.
Winner: San Francisco
Baltimore at New England — I’ve done a complete 180 degree turn on my Super Bowl thoughts, previously thinking that the AFC had little hope to defeating the Packers (even though I picked them to lose last week) or the Saints, to thinking that the AFC has the significant upper hand. In fact, this may be the best game of the playoffs, right here—strength vs. strength, weakness vs. weakness. I don’t think the Ravens defense is as good as it was in their prime, and is probably a notch below the Patriots offense. At the same time, if there is one team that can possibly match up with that offense, and minimize the three top threats (Gronk, Hernandez and Welker) to force Brady to find another way to win, it’s the Ravens. At the same time, I don’t think the Ravens offense is as bad as they’ve been given credit for—20 points last week wasn’t a lot, but that’s against a tough Texans team. And the Patriots defense, while playing better, still is pretty bad.
In the end, this one might just come down to experience, moreso than pure talent—and in that case, looking at the two men who are being counted on to lead their teams, you have to give the nod to Tom Brady over Joe Flacco.
Winner: New England
New York Giants at San Francisco — In a game straight out of the 80’s, albeit with some twists—the 49ers are known for defense and running the ball, rather than featuring a star QB running the west coast, and the Giants have the bigger stars on the offensive side of the ball (although they still rely heavily on their fierce pass rush, just like the 80’s). While not as intriguing as the AFC matchup, this game could also be fun to watch for the weather factor, with potential for rain and cold hitting San Francisco.
If either divisional matchup had gone the other way, I don’t believe this one would be nearly as competitive as this matchup should be. However, while Alex Smith deserves a lot of credit for getting his team this far, I’m not sure I believe he can get them over the obstacle that is the Giants defensive line. Rain may help, as the 49ers running game is probably better than the Giants—but in the end, again, I think Eli Manning gets the job done to set up a Super Bowl rematch with Tom Brady.
Winner: New York Giants