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NFL Championship Weekend Preview

A few leftover thoughts from a divisional weekend that went more or less by the book in the AFC while veering wildly off script in the NFC. Let’s focus on the latter.

History will determine where 49ers 36, Saints 32 ranks among the all-time classics. In terms of dizzying back-and-forth finishes to an NFL playoff game, it’s right there at the top of the list. Twenty-eight points and four lead changes in the final 4:02 after nearly 56 minutes of extremely physical, defense-dominated football made for a game the likes of we which we may not see again for a very long time.

While the Saints were in excellent shape to steal a berth in the NFC Championship game after clawing back from a 17-0 deficit to take their first lead (24-23) with four minutes remaining while simultaneously deflating what had been a raucous crowd, both defenses were running on fumes by that point, which laid the groundwork for the track meet that ensued over the final 242 seconds.

Defenses traditionally tire in the waning minutes of bone-crushing bloodbaths like the one these teams waged at Candlestick Park. In a game that featured everything ranging from extracurriculars to flat-out brawls after nearly every whistle, it becomes a lot easier to understand why neither defense had anything left in the tank for the furious finish. The last team with the ball was going to win, and the 49ers were that team …

The Packers didn’t merely lose to the Giants, they were completely undone. If it weren’t for some questionable calls and Aaron Rodgers’ ability to scamper for multiple first downs in key situations, the game could have been even more lopsided than the 37-20 final score.

NFL offensive Player FootballThe second-quarter fumble by Greg Jennings that was correctly called on the field, incorrectly changed to a down by contact after an officials conference and inexplicably upheld after a Giants challenge was an egregious officiating error. That sequence led to a Green Bay touchdown that tied the game at 10 early in the second quarter. Then in the fourth quarter with the Giants leading, 30-13, a phantom roughing the passer call on Osi Umenyiora gave Rodgers a new set of downs that enabled the Packers to ultimately strike for a touchdown that made the game close again.

In addition to the officiating nightmare and Eli Manning picking apart the Green Bay defense, what stuck out most was how New York’s defense defied conventional wisdom in stopping Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Going into the game, the consensus was that the only way the Giants could slow Rodgers was via their front four. Yet for much of the first three quarters, the Green Bay offensive line did its job against the Giants’ pass rush. Rodgers frequently had all day to throw but no one to throw to, which forced him into seven scrambles for 66 yards. Six of those carries went for first downs, which were all that that prevented the game from turning into a laugher. While Rodgers also uncharacteristically missed his target on more than one occasion, the play of the Giants’ secondary and linebackers in coverage was exceptional …

Now, on to championship weekend, which is guaranteed to spit out a headline-grabbing Super Bowl, be it Harbaugh Bowl II (Ravens-49ers), a 2000 Super Bowl rematch (Ravens-Giants), a Tom Brady extravaganza (Patriots-49ers) or a seismic and end-all sequel (Patriots-Giants).

With everything on the line, matchups will be key. Here are three matchups from each championship tilt that will go a long way toward determining the AFC and NFC champs.

AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Matt Light vs. Terrell Suggs

When the Ravens tuned up the Patriots in a 2009 wild-card game, Suggs abused Light, and consequently, Tom Brady. The likely 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has made no secret of his feelings for Brady (they are not warm), and thus will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. While the Patriots will attempt to slow Suggs with chips of their own (likely from tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), it is incumbent on Light to do his job and keep T-Sizzle away from his quarterback.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Patriots linebackers vs. Ray Rice

Anyone who recalls the ’09 playoff game knows Rice had a field day from the outset against New England, his 83-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage setting the tone for a 22-carry, 159-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Patriots’ linebackers will need to have their heads on a swivel to keep track of the diminutive and explosive Rice, who is often tough to pick up behind a mountain of offensive and defensive linemen. Brandon Spikes – whose return has been key for the New England run D – must repeatedly punish Rice. If he can do that, the pressure will shift to quarterback Joe Flacco, which gives the Patriots the advantage.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Tom Brady vs. Ed Reed

There may be no love lost between these teams, but between Brady and Reed there is no doubt a deep-seated mutual respect. Reed remains one of the greatest freelancing safeties in the history of the game. Brady has consistently lit up opposing defenses between the hashmarks, his receiving trio of Hernandez, Gronkowski and Wes Welker proving to be virtually impossible to cover in open space. Whoever prevails in the cat-and-mouse game between Brady and Reed will be leading his team to Indianapolis.

Bottom Line: In 2009, Brady didn’t have Welker (injury) or his tight ends (college). As long as he is upright, the Ravens can’t contend with all three downfield.

Patriots 27
Ravens 21

NFC Championship: New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Smiths vs. Giants offensive line

The Giants have done a fantastic job of protecting Eli Manning throughout the playoffs, but neither the Falcons nor eli3Packers boast anything resembling the duo of defensive end Justin Smith and outsider linebacker Aldon Smith. The twin terrors combined to sack Drew Brees twice and hit him an additional nine times last week. Manning’s Achilles heel is making bad decisions in the face of a strong pass rush, which has been the calling card of the Smiths this season.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Bradshaw/Jacobs vs. Patrick Willis

Lost in the sublime play of Manning and the Giants’ defense of late has been the resurgence of the New York running game. Ahmad Bradshaw appears to be fully recovered from the foot injury that cost him the month of November and Brandon Jacobs has reprised his role as the ultimate downhill runner, the kind that evokes images of a boulder careening down the side of a mountain. With rain having pounded the Bay area all week, the Giants will need to get something from their rushing attack if they want to hold the San Francisco pass rush at bay. Willis spearheads the Niners run defense. If he is swarming to the ball and choking the point of attack, the Giants will have no choice but to become one-dimensional.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Giants kick units vs. 49ers return units

San Francisco was exemplary on special teams during the regular season, ranking first in the NFL in yards per kickoff return (27.2) and fifth in yards per punt return (12.4) while taking one of each to the house. The Giants, meanwhile, were middle of the pack in terms of return yardage allowed. They tied for 10th in the league in kickoff returns, allowing an average of 22.9 yards per, and tied for 16th by allowing 9.9 yards per punt return. If New York can battle the 49ers to a stalemate on special teams, that will be as good as a victory.

Bottom Line: It’s nearly impossible to lose a playoff game with a plus-four turnover ratio, which the 49ers almost did last week. The Giants won’t be nearly as careless with the football.

Giants 23
49ers 19

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