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Reactions from NFL Championship Sunday: Giants, Patriots set up Super Bowl rematch

For the second time in four years the New York Giants and New England Patriots will meet in the Super Bowl after the two teams won their respective conferences on Sunday. Here are some quick-hit reactions from both games.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dives in for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter during the NFL AFC Championship football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Patriots 23, Ravens 20

- I feel for Billy Cundiff, I really do. He’s a professional kicker and professional kickers need to make 32-yard field goals when the snap and hold are perfect. It doesn’t matter what the stakes were or the fact that the Ravens blew opportunities during the game that could have saved him the horror of costing his team a chance to play in the Super Bowl. He’s a kicker and he should have made the kick, period. That said, he’s also a human being and there’s nothing anyone could say to make him feel worse than he already does. It sucks for him and it sucks for his teammates, who killed themselves for 18 weeks just to see their Super Bowl hopes dashed in a blink of an eye. Eighteen weeks have hard work flushed away on one bad kick…

- …of course, had Lee Evans bothered to hang onto the ball two plays before, Cundiff would have been spared all of this misery. Cundiff will absorb most of the fans’ barbs this week but the fact of the matter is that his kick would have only tied the game. Evans had a chance to potentially win the game for the Ravens had he hung onto a beautifully thrown pass by Joe Flacco on a second-and-1 from the New England 14. The damn thing was in his hands as he was about to stick his second foot into the ground and he had it knocked away by safety Sterling Moore. If Evans hangs onto the ball we’re talking about a Ravens-Giants rematch instead of Patriots-Giants II.

- Some Baltimore fans are complaining that John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron mismanaged the time when the Ravens drove the ball down to the New England 14-yard-line with less than two minutes remaining in the game. I get that. The Ravens had a second-and-1 from the 14, and a third-and-one from the 14. They could have handed the ball to Rice on either down and have him pick up the first, which would have given the Ravens a fresh set downs with two timeouts remaining. But just last week Cameron watched as Rice was stuffed at the goal line versus Houston so maybe he didn’t want to re-live the moment by playing into New England’s hands. The Patriots’ front seven did a great job bottling up Rice all day so ask yourself this: Was it the play calls or the execution that was the problem? Again, if Evans hangs onto the ball on second down then the Ravens are probably heading to Indianapolis. We fans are great at second guessing coordinators but in this case, Cameron gave his team a chance to win and the players just failed to execute.

- The numbers don’t paint a very pretty picture for the New England defense this season but the fact remains that Bill Belichick’s D is playing its best football over the past few weeks. Vince Wilfork was a freaking beast today and allowed Rice very little running room, while the rest of his front seven ‘mates also played extremely well. The secondary still has leaks but this isn’t the same defense that struggled so mightily earlier in the season.

- Have the Patriots ever won an AFC championship game when Tom Brady didn’t play well? If they have, I certainly don’t remember when. While everyone was questioning Flacco’s confidence heading into today, it was Brady who was the lackluster quarterback. Following Brandon Spike’s interception of Flacco mid-way through the fourth quarter, Brady gave the Ravens new life on the very next play by throwing into triple-coverage and getting picked off himself. Granted, the two interceptions he threw were both incredible plays but Baltimore defenders but Brady was off the entire game. In some respects, I don’t even know how the Patriots won. They’re heading back to the Super Bowl so that’s all that matters in the end, but this was not a very compelling performance by New England. That said, even though the Ravens continue to be a thorn in Brady’s side, his fourth-down touchdown leap proved to be the game-winning score for the Pats. And that was one hell of a gusty leap.

- Apparently Rob Gronkowski left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot, although he says his left ankle is “fine.” Good thing the media now has two weeks to talk about his injury every hour like they did with Pittsburgh offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey leading up to last year’s Super Bowl. Because that wasn’t nauseating or anything.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter during the NFL NFC Championship game in San Francisco, California, January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Giants 20, 49ers 17

- Kyle Williams wasn’t even supposed to be returning punts for the 49ers: that job belonged to Ted Ginn Jr., but he was inactive today with a knee injury. So it’s only fitting that Williams muffed two punts that indirectly propelled the Giants to their second Super Bowl appearance in four years. Just like Billy Cundiff, I feel for Williams. It’s not like the kid woke up this morning and said, “Yeah, this is a good day to cost my team an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.” It was just a really bad day for the former Arizona State product. Granted, the conditions weren’t ideal for any ball carrier but Williams shouldn’t have been close to the bouncing ball that hit his knee and his fumble that set up Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning field goal was caused in part because he was carrying the ball away from his body. Making matters worse, he didn’t record a single catch so it might be a long offseason for Williams, who nearly lost a fumble on a poor pitch earlier in the game, too.

- Just like Cundiff, Williams will draw most of the ire from fans and the media this week. But the blame cannot be laid at his feet alone. Did Williams put the Niners in bad position with his two muffed punts? No question. His turnovers led to 10 New York points, which proved to be the difference in the game. You can’t ignore that. But let me throw out some numbers: 1-of-13. That was San Francisco’s third-down efficiency today. They converted one third down on 13 attempts, which is absolutely horrendous. Here are some more numbers: 12-of-26. Alex Smith completed just 12 passes and only three of which came on the 49ers’ final two drives when they had an opportunity to win the game. Williams cost his team dearly but rarely does a football game come down to one or two plays.

- There were many factors that played into the outcome of this game but to me, the play of the quarterbacks was the difference. Alex Smith made two great throws to Vernon Davis that resulted in 14 points, but he was at the root of San Francisco’s ineptitude on offense. He often looked for the rush instead of anticipating it, his pocket presence was non-existent on some drives, and he often held onto the ball too long. When the 49ers had an opportunity at the end of the fourth quarter to put a drive together and potentially win the game with a field goal, Smith threw three straight incomplete passes and only 14 seconds came off the clock. He looked like a quarterback who couldn’t wait to get off the field on the 49ers’ lone possession in overtime, too. Take away Davis’ 112 receiving yards and the Niners did nothing on the outsides today. Don’t get me wrong, without Alex Smith’s play in the fourth quarter lat week, the 49ers aren’t playing in the NFC title game. But it’ll be interesting to see if San Francisco wants to invest making him their franchise quarterback when he still has a lot of the same issues that have haunted him throughout his career.

- On the flip side, Eli Manning got his ass handed to him repeatedly by a very good San Francisco defense and he continued to make plays to give his team a chance to win in the end. This Giants team was severely banged up at the beginning of the year and everyone essentially wrote them off when they lost to the Redskins in Week 1. And when they lost to the Redskins again late in the season, nobody expected the G-Men to even make the playoffs. But just like Eli did today in ‘Frisco, the Giants just kept hanging in there and now they’re heading back to the Super Bowl. Were the Giants a work of art offensively today? No, but let’s give San Francisco’s defense their due. They weren’t going to allow Manning to come in and do whatever he wanted on their home turf, and they certainly didn’t. At the end of the game Eli looked like someone who had been run over by a sewage truck. Justin Smith used his body as a rag doll on several occasions and yet there was Manning, peeling himself off the turf play after play. Criticize this guy all you want for not having Tom Brady’s bravado or his brother’s passing records but don’t say he’s not a winner. Manning proved to a national audience today what he’s proven to Giants fans all year: That without him, the G-Men don’t even win nine games this season, nevertheless have a chance to win their second Super Bowl in four years.

- Victor Cruz caught 10 passes for 142 yards today, all of which came in the first half. That is not a misprint.

- Considering the Giants have beaten the Patriots the last two times these two teams have met, I would love to see the media have some balls and talk about whether or not New England can beat New York, instead of the other way around. The Patriots are already listed as 3.5-point favorites and you know the media is just chomping at the bit to talk about Brady and Belichick. But seriously, let’s see if the national media has any marbles and spends the next two weeks discussing whether or not the Pats can get the best of the Giants.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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NFL Playoff Preview: Sunday games

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
1:00 pm ET
TV—CBS

Last season, the Ravens began their playoff journey as a wild card by upsetting the AFC East champion Dolphins, and then upsetting the top seeded Tennessee Titans, before losing to the eventual champion Steelers in the AFC championship game. This season the Ravens went 10-6 and eked into the playoffs in Week 17, but their losses have mostly been close games, including a 27-21 defeat in New England in Week 4. The Ravens’ fifth ranked rushing attack is led by RB Ray Rice, and they will once again use their stout defense (ranked third overall) to try and stop Tom Brady, Randy Moss and company. The Patriots will try to run the ball to control the clock and keep it away from Rice, and also try to use said running game to allow Brady and his receivers to stretch the field. Of course, everyone knows that Wes Welker is out for the season after jamming his knee into the Reliant Stadium turf last Sunday. But did anyone expect rookie WR (and 7th round draft pick) Julian Edelman to catch 10 passes for 103 yards and run up and down the field looking like a Welker clone doing it? Not really. Still, Brady didn’t have guys named Lewis, Suggs and Reed lining up on the other side last week, and those guys in purple jerseys could force him into making a few mistakes. The bottom line, however, is that the Patriots are 8-0 at home this season, and a Bill Belichick coached team is a tough out in the playoffs.
THE PICK: PATRIOTS 26, RAVENS 17

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
4:40 pm ET
TV—FOX

Amazingly, this game is the third contest of the weekend that is a rematch of a Week 17 game, and like the Philly/Dallas game, this one is also in the same building, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. Will it be the same outcome though? Last week, the Packers played all of their starters in annihilating the defending NFC champs 33-7, but Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt did not use star QB Kurt Warner after the first quarter. Still, how much of that crap about tipping your hand before playing an opponent again do you believe? This is the NFL, and the team that executes their game plan usually wins. Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy believed that letting Aaron Rodgers and his receivers stretch the field against the Cardinals’ 23rd ranked pass defense, as well as mixing in a heavy dose of Ryan Grant and Ahman Green to run the ball and keep it away from Warner and Matt Leinart was an effective strategy. Of course, McCarthy’s Packers boast the #1 rushing defense in the NFL and the #5 passing defense, so they feel like they can stop whoever is trying to move the ball against them anyway, especially if star CB Charles Woodson suits up after aggravating a shoulder injury last week. Remember, though, that the Cardinals are recently playoff tested, and came within a brilliant Santonio Holmes touchdown catch from winning it all less than a year ago.
THE PICK: PACKERS 33, CARDINALS 30

Five Intriguing Super Bowl Storylines

If anything, the 2008 NFL Season was far from dull. While the Cardinals and Steelers each won their respective divisions to secure playoff berths, neither team was a slum dunk to make it to Tampa at the start of the postseason.

Let’s recap, shall we?

The Steelers entered the playoffs with huge question marks to be answered, most surrounding their offense. In their last regular season game of the year, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was taken off the field strapped to a stretcher after the back of his helmet slammed against the turf following a hit between two defenders. Along with his health, Pittsburgh’s offensive line, although starting to gel in the final month of the season, seemed to be a weakness that defenses like the Titans and Ravens could exploit if they had the opportunity to face the Steelers in the postseason.

So while they ranked first in total defense entering the playoffs, the Steelers had major issues. Yet they steam rolled an overmatched Chargers team in the divisional round, then turned Joe Flacco’s inexperience against him in the AFC Championship Game and now they’re one win away from winning their second Super Bowl title in three years.

Conversely, the Cardinals had a little steeper hill to climb. Although their offense was explosive throughout the season, they played poorly down the stretch and many believed that if they had to go on the road in the playoffs, they would never survive. Not only that, but many pundits also didn’t believe ‘Zona would get past a good running team like the Falcons, who were sure to ride Michael Turner to victory in the opening round.

Thanks to three Atlanta turnovers and a soundly executed game plan to shut down Turner, the Cards beat the Falcons to set up a regular season rematch with the Panthers in the second round. Six Jake Delhomme turnovers later and Arizona was heading to the NFC Championship Game despite everyone and their mother suggesting that they would never be able to win on the road. Then despite the Eagles’ best efforts at a second half comeback, Arizona was able to hang on Sunday to secure a trip to the Super Bowl, which seemed like an improbable task at the start of the playoffs.

Now that the matchup has been set, what do we have to look forward to? Plenty, actually. Below are five storylines that should wet your appetite for the next two weeks before kickoff on February 1.


Read the rest after the jump...

Six Pack of Observations: Steelers to play Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII

Here are six quick-hit observations on the Steelers’ 23-13 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship.

1. My thoughts go out to Willis McGahee.
McGahee took a hell of a pop from Steelers’ defensive back Ryan Clark and appeared to be knocked out before he even hit the ground. It looked like Clark was trying to turn his body to level a shoulder hit on McGahee, but clearly caught him with his helmet first. Not that it was intentional, but Clark should have been flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Regardless, McGahee was carted off the field on a stretcher and my thoughts go out to him. Word is he was talking and moving his legs, which is a positive sign. This is just one of the many examples of how nasty the game of football is. Hopefully both McGahee and Clark (who was also shaken up on the play) return to full health and no permanent damage was suffered by the collision.

2. Joe Flacco’s inexperience was bound to catch up with him.
Flacco was perfect the last two weeks because he didn’t turn the ball over and allowed his running game and defense to win games. But all rookies (even good ones like Flacco) are bound to make mistakes and the young signal caller certainly did tonight. He threw three interceptions, with the one to Troy Polomalu in the fourth quarter being the most damaging. It looked like offensive coordinator Cam Cameron didn’t want to handcuff Flacco and allowed him to throw down field, which wasn’t the problem. At some point, you’re going to have to take cracks down field in order to get the Steelers’ defense on their heels. But clearly Flacco rushed some of his throws and tried to force the action when it wasn’t there. His performance Sunday reminded me a lot of Ben Roethlisberger’s play in the 2005 AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Big Ben (who was a rookie at the time) tried to make plays happen by throwing down field and New England ate him alive. The next season Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory and just like Big Ben did, Flacco will learn from this performance and continue to develop. He’s got a bright future.

3. Let Big Ben do his thing.
Ben Roethlisberger has to scare the beajesus out of his teammates, coaches and fans with the way he plays the game. He hangs onto the ball way too long and sometimes it costs his team dearly because he takes sacks and turns the ball over. But with the way he escapes the pocket and the grasp of would-be tacklers to find receivers that have shaken loose in the secondary, you have to let him play his game. Does he take unnecessary sacks? Without a doubt. Should he be more careful with the football? Yes. But how many times does he keep plays and drives alive by waiting those extra seconds? No coach should recommend that their quarterback play the way he does, but it clearly works for Big Ben and once again, he’s led the Steelers to another Super Bowl despite lining up behind the weakest offensive line of his career.

4. How does Troy Polomalu do it?
Granted, Joe Flacco threw the ball right to him, but Polomalu’s pivotal interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter was yet another example of how good the safety is. How does he always seem to be in the right place at the right time? Well the fact that he never takes plays off has a lot to do with it, but he also has some of the best instincts in the game. Sure, he’ll whiff on plays at times, but even the best defenders miss tackles in the open field. Polomalu consistently is one of the best playmakers in the game and what was great about his pick tonight wasn’t the actual interception, but the return. The play never stopped for him and thanks to a bevy of blocks, he was able to find open space and reach the end zone to turn the game on its head.

5. Way to bounce back, Limas Sweed.
Sweed went from goat to quiet hero over the course of this game. His drop at the end of the second half was a killer because not only was it right in his bread basket, but he was also all alone and would have walked into the end zone. Granted, he should have never had the opportunity to drop the pass because the Steelers got a gift from the officials after a phantom roughing the kicker call on the Ravens, but back to the topic on hand…. Sweed’s drop (his second in as many weeks) was awful, but he made one of the better plays of the game when he turned into a defender late in the third quarter by knocking the ball loose on a pass play in the end zone when it looked like Frank Walker was going to come down with a huge interception. Thanks to Sweed’s play, the Steelers salvaged the drive with a 46-yard Jeff Reed field goal to go up 16-7 with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter. It was a play that will go largely unnoticed (especially compared to his easy drop), but Sweed deserves credit for not disappearing after his embarrassing drop.

6. Cardinals vs. Steelers? I like it.
A lot of football fans consider the Cardinals one of the worst teams to ever make the postseason and will no doubt refer to Arizona as one of the worst teams to ever play in a Super Bowl. But with the way the Cardinals’ offense is clicking, an Arizona-Pittsburgh matchup is intriguing. Some will write this game off as an easy win for the Steelers because their defense will get pressure on Kurt Warner and shut the Cards’ dynamic passing game down. But if we’ve learned anything from this postseason it’s that the Cardinals come to play.

Six Pack of Observations: Chargers at Steelers

Here are six quick-hit observations on the Steelers’ 35-17 playoff victory over the Chargers on Sunday.

1. Welcome back to the party Willie Parker.
In Parker’s final six games of the regular season, he rushed for over 90 yards just once (Week 17 vs. Cleveland). He rushed for 146 yards on Sunday and it completely opened up the Pittsburgh offense. Thanks to Parker’s dominance, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t face much pressure and he was able to produce a couple of big plays in the passing game. It’s no secret that when the Steelers can run the ball, their offense can be as dominant as they were tonight. But when the defense doesn’t have to honor the run or commit extra defenders, that’s when Big Ben gets in trouble and turnovers occur. Parker was easily Pittsburgh’s MVP on Sunday.

2. Mike Tomlin is learning.
Mike Tomlin has come a long way in one year. In the Steelers’ postseason loss last season to the Jaguars, Tomlin made several poor decisions that aided in his team’s demise. Down 7-0 early in the first quarter, the Steelers faced a 4th and 8 from the Chargers’ 34-yard line. Tomlin sent his offense back onto the field in an apparent attempt to go for it, but the Steelers then shifted into punt formation and Ben Roethlisberger pooch-punted the ball, which was downed at the 9-yard line. Sometimes Tomlin forces the action by being overly aggressive. In that situation, there was no reason for Pittsburgh to go for it. The likelihood that they pick up the first down was slim, it would have given San Diego the momentum had they been stopped and it would have taken the home crowd out of it early. Instead, Tomlin wisely punted it and allowed his defense to force a punt, which Santonio Holmes turned into a 67-yard touchdown. Granted, Tomlin’s decisions to run a fake punt in the first half and go for it on 4th and goal in the second half backfired, but hey, you can’t fault the man for being aggressive. At least he’s learning when to take calculated risks.

3. Complete this sentence: Philip Rivers is…
A) A great young quarterback or B) A quarterback who operates by smoke and mirrors. Check out Rivers’ final numbers: 21-35, 308 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT. Besides the one pick, those are phenomenal numbers. But you watch him play and you wonder why his stats are so good. Can anyone honestly say that they were greatly impressed with his play tonight? He hung onto the ball too long, he threw into double coverage and threw an interception in the red zone (albeit the ball was batted at the line of scrimmage), which is a cardinal sin for quarterbacks. No disrespect to Rivers, but how did he finish with such great numbers this season? It’s quite the mystery.

4. The Chargers need to do everything in their power to re-sign Darren Sproles.
Even though he only finished with 15 rushing yards on 11 carries, Sproles once again showed his speed and play making ability on returns and in the passing game. It’s clear he’s not an every down back, but the guy is explosive. The Chargers let Michael Turner get away last offseason and it would be wise if they didn’t let Sproles escape without making a huge push to retain his services.

5. Ravens-Steelers is a fantastic AFC Championship matchup.
How good is the AFC Championship matchup? Baltimore and Pittsburgh hate each other and gave fans two great games during the regular season. It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season, which is the challenge the Steelers now face after topping the Ravens twice this year. It’s too early to start breaking down the matchup, but the game will likely come down to which team can run the ball effectively because both offenses rely on creating balance. What a great defensive matchup.

6. Useless, but interesting stat of the weekend…
…the Chargers held onto the ball for just 17 seconds in the third quarter, compared to the Steelers’ 14:43. That’s absolutely crazy.

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