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2012 NFL Conference Championships Primer

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco comes to the line during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on January 15, 2012. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Ravens @ Patriots, 3:00PM ET, Sunday
Call me old fashioned but I think this game will come down to the play of the quarterbacks. Joe Flacco usually doesn’t have to throw for many yards because Baltimore’s defense limits the production of the opposing offense. But what if Tom Brady and Co. is firing on all cylinders this Sunday? What if the Patriots do the unthinkable and draw the Ravens into a shootout? Can Flacco beat Brady in a wildfire?

If the Patriots were smart, they’d use the Chargers’ 34-14 Week 15 beat down of the Ravens as a blueprint to beat Baltimore. In that game, Philip Rivers got the ball out of his hand quickly, attacked Baltimore down field and thus, never allowed the Ravens’ fierce pass rush to get into a rhythm. If Baltimore, which led the league in sacks this season, can’t get to the quarterback then its defense can become ordinary. In their 12 wins this season, the Ravens sacked the quarterback 43 times. In their four losses, they got to the opposing signal caller just five times. Considering New England has one of the better offensive lines in the game, it’s not unfathomable that the Ravens will have trouble defensively this weekend.

Which leads me back to Flacco. Can he be the quarterback that threw for 300 yards and led the Ravens to that great fourth-quarter comeback in Pittsburgh this season? Or will he succumb to the pressure of trying to go toe-to-toe with Brady? Nobody will confuse New England’s defense with San Francisco’s but the Patriots did harass Tim Tebow last weekend. If they’re able to take away Ray Rice and Torrey Smith like Houston did last week, will Flacco step up?

Baltimore has often been a match up problem for New England. But the Patriots seem hell bent on getting back to the Super Bowl so it’s probably safe to say that the Ravens will get New England’s best effort this weekend.

New York Giants QB Eli Manning (10) cranks back to throw a long pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the second half at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 13, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20. UPI/Terry Schmitt

Giants @ 49ers, 6:30PM ET, Sunday
With all due respect to the other contenders still left in the playoff field, the Giants are probably the most complete team remaining. The Patriots have the better offense and the 49ers have the better defense, but the Giants aren’t far off in either category. They also have a better quarterback in Eli Manning than the Ravens have in Joe Flacco, the latter of which has been highly inconsistent this season.

But the question is whether or not the Giants have started to read their own press clippings. As I’ve written before on this site, the G-Men are the perfect underdog. When their backs are pressed firmly against the wall and they believe that it’s them against the world, they beat teams like the Packers and Patriots (multiple times, in fact). When they’re well aware that they’re the favorite, they’re liable to lose to inferior opponents like Washington, Seattle or a Michael Vick-less Philadelphia team. The Giants are just weird that way.

That said, New York has very few weaknesses. They finished dead last in rushing during the regular season but the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs looks much more potent now that at any time this year. When he protects the football, Eli is tough to beat and he has a trio of wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham that can win individual matchups in coverage. If the defense has a weakness, it’s in the secondary but the pass rush is so good that it masks the holes in the backfield. Yes, the Giants are a complete team.

But let’s pay a little respect to the 49ers, who knocked off a team in the Saints that many people believed was unstoppable. Led by Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Carlos Rogers and rookie Aldon Smith, the Niners don’t have many weaknesses defensively (if any). And while they don’t have as many weapons offensively as the Giants do, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis have proven that they can take over games this season.

The Niners also have home field advantage and have already beaten the Giants once this season (27-20 in Week 10). So again, if the Giants think they’re going to breeze in and out of San Francisco on its way to Indianapolis, they better pause to re-focus. They’ll have to earn what they get this weekend.

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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2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Falcons vs. Giants

The Giants absolutely destroyed a hapless Falcons team on Sunday, 24-2. Here are quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard drubbing.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) passes under pressure against the Atlanta Falcons during their NFL NFC wildcard playoff football game in East Rutherford, New Jersey, January 8, 2012. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- While their pass rush was suspect early on, the Giants’ offensive line did a fantastic job opening holes for Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Then the Falcons’ defense helped out by constantly diving at shoestrings instead of wrapping up. The G-Men hadn’t run the football well all year but they finally got their bruising, punishing style back today.

- It took a while for Eli Manning to get going but once Jacobs and the running game started to open up passing lanes, the Giants’ offense really took off. One thing Manning did was stay patient. John Abraham was getting a ton of pressure on him early on, but Eli stood tough and constantly kept his eyes downfield. When his receivers started to beat the coverage, he made accurate passes and then guys like Hakeem Nicks did the rest. (Again, with a lot of help from piss poor tackling by Atlanta.)

- It’ll be interesting to see how New York fares next weekend heading into Green Bay. They hung with the Packers earlier this year in New York and they certainly have the weapons to pull off an upset. They’ve also looked like a more confident team these past three weeks, so we’re probably in store for a great matchup in the Divisional round. Then again, the Packers aren’t going to piss themselves like the Falcons did today.

- While the media will surely make this game about the Giants (who did dominate, there’s no question), you can’t overlook the fact that Mike Smith, Mike Mularkey and Matt Ryan continue to kill the Falcons in big games. His defense bailed him out by getting a safety on the next possession but Smith blew it by going for it on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter. Instead of taking a field goal after a successful drive (the Falcons’ first in three possessions), Smith went for it, then the Falcons’ o-line didn’t get any push and Ryan was stopped short. Then, in the same situation in the third quarter, Smith elects to go for it again and Ryan is stuffed on another sneak. This isn’t the first time that Smith has blown it on fourth-and-1 this season. He cost the Falcons a potential victory against the Saints earlier this year by going for it on his own 29-yard-line in overtime. The Falcons were stuffed then too, and the Saints received a rather easy victory. Smith clearly has no idea what “risk versus reward” means and he cost his team yet again today. Both of those plays deflated an offense that couldn’t move the ball to save its life and a defense that had kept the team in the game. It was stupid, stupid coaching from a man that has been fantastic in the regular season but now 0-3 in the playoffs.

- Of course, Smith doesn’t call the plays for the Falcons – that’s Mike Mularkey’s job. Why Mularkey would run two quarterback sneaks when his offensive line had gotten zero push all day is beyond me. Mularkey wants to be a head coach again in the NFL and the Falcons should be praying he gets his shot. He’s a horrendous playcaller in big games because he gets too conservative, too predictable and he puts his players in losing situations. He has no imagination when it comes to game planning for good defenses and he can’t make in-game adjustments either. His game plan today was to run Michael Turner 25 times and hope that would be enough. When the Giants’ shut down the Falcons’ running game, Mularkey had no other plan. For this offense to only score two points is pathetic, especially when you consider how vulnerable New York’s secondary was coming into the playoffs. And hey, the Falcons’ offense wasn’t even though ones that scored the two points – that was the defense. I just keeping thinking about the Miami Dolphins, who are reportedly interested in Mularkey as a head coach. What are they thinking after today? “Yep, that’s our guy! Dude clearly knows how to win.”

- Of course, Mularkey isn’t on the field. Matt Ryan has proven to be a pretty good regular season quarterback but he quivers when the spotlight is on him. Just like he did versus Chicago, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans earlier this year, Ryan anticipated the rush instead of reacting to it. When he’s scared, he takes his eyes off his receivers and immediately looks to dump the ball off. At this juncture, it’s entirely fair to play the, “Can Matt Ryan ever win a playoff game?” card.

- Hey Roddy White, that’s not a flaming arrow coming at your face – it’s the ball. Try catching it.

- I actually feel for Atlanta’s defense because until the fourth quarter, they played well enough to win. They didn’t tackle well but their top corner Brent Grimes was deemed inactive before the start of the game and they were without starting strong-side linebacker Stephen Nicholas as well. They also lost their starting strong safety William Moore in the first half, yet despite being overmatched they hung in there while the offense continued to fail them. It’s certainly not the defense’s fault that Atlanta came up short in the postseason yet again.

- When you watch a punchless, scared team like the Falcons, you have a greater appreciation for teams like the Packers, Saints, Steelers, and Patriots, who don’t lack that killer instinct when it comes to the postseason. Unfortunately for the Falcons, they can’t trade up in the draft for a backbone.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend Preview

New York Giants Eli Manning gets set to pass in the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in week 5 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 9, 2011. UPI /John Angelillo

Bengals @ Texans, Saturday, 4:30PM ET
The biggest concern for the Bengals right now might be the fact that rookie Andy Dalton has hit a wall. He’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice on Wednesday after being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. In his Week 14 matchup against Houston, he went 16-of-28 for 189 yards and one touchdown, which wasn’t enough as the Texans rallied for a 20-19 victory. For all the talk surrounding Houston’s quarterback situation this week, Dalton may be the key to this game. The Texans’ pass rush is one of the best in the league and their run defense has been stout as well. Cedric Benson was limited on Wednesday because of a foot injury and he’s also been dealing with a back issue. If the Bengals can’t get their running game going, Dalton will become the focus. Wade Phillips will surely throw a few wrinkles at the rookie in his first postseason game, so it’ll be interesting to see how Dalton responds to his biggest test as a pro. Win or lose, Dalton has had a great year and performed well beyond expectations. But for the Bengals to advance to the Divisional round, he’ll have to raise the level of his play.

Lions @ Saints, Saturday, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
The key to this game isn’t Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson or Detroit’s secondary. Believe it or not, it isn’t Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham or Sean Patyon either. The key to this game is Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and the rest of the Lions’ defensive line. You don’t beat an elite quarterback by blitzing him on every play. You beat him by dropping defenders into coverage and rushing him with your front four. Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady – they’re all the same. They can beat a blitz because they know their respective offenses like the back of their hand and they know exactly where to go with the football to burn a defense. But like any quarterback, they struggle the most when under pressure. Granted, it’s easier said than done to only bring four down linemen on a given play. If Suh and Co. don’t reach Brees, he’ll have plenty of time to wait until his receivers get open before delivering those accurate passes of his. Plus, a big reason why Brees is so good is because his offensive line has been excellent in pass blocking this season. Opponents try to overload with blitzes because Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod and Jahri Evans have been immovable objects up front. But it’s gut-check time for the Lions. They certainly have enough offensive weapons to match Brees and Payton, but if they can’t bring heat using their front four then they’ll be dead upon arrival.

Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
While most of the national focus this week is on the explosive battle in New Orleans and whether or not Tim Tebow has any magic left in that inaccurate left arm of his, this Falcons-Giants matchup might be the most even of the four Wildcard games. Both teams are built to run the football and therefore, fans may be treated to a heavy dose of Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. But it’s been the play of Matt Ryan and Eli Manning that has gotten the Falcons and Giants as far as they are. Ryan’s 92.2 QB rating is his best in four seasons as a pro and in his last four games he has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0. Manning, meanwhile, has compiled a QB rating of 92.9 this year, which is only bested by his 93.1 mark in 2009. He also set franchise records for passing yards (4,933), attempts (589) and completions (359), and has set an NFL record by throwing 15 of his 29 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He’s one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, that the Giants have five wins this season in which they erased fourth-quarter deficits. While Atlanta’s ability to slow New York’s pass rush will be a huge factor this weekend, this game will likely come down to the basics: penalties, turnovers, and execution (or lack thereof).

Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM, Sunday
With how pitiful Tim Tebow and the Denver offense looked last week at home versus Kansas City, there are plenty of NFL observers who envision a blowout this Sunday at Sports Authority Field. But as I wrote earlier this week in my “Five Questions…” piece, the Steelers aren’t exactly steamrolling into the playoffs. In their last four games Pittsburgh is averaging just over 14 points per game, which includes a 27-0 win over the hapless Rams in Week 16. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers’ offense started to struggle when Ben Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in a Week 14 victory over the Browns. But even two weeks prior to that when Big Ben was healthy, the Steelers managed just 13 points in a 13-9 win over the Chiefs. For as bad as Tebow has looked the past two weeks, Denver’s defense certainly has the capability of keeping things close, especially if the Steelers can’t run the ball without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury). Granted, the Broncos aren’t going to win if they only manage a field goal like they did last Sunday, but this might not be the rout that many people expect.

NFL Offseason Notes: Rice, Jacobs, Hillis, Bush & combine QBs

Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis (40) is stopped by Miami Dolphins Tim Dobbins (51) after a short gain in first half action at Sun Life Stadium in Miami on December 5, 2010. UPI/Michael Bush

What’s the deal with Rice’s hip?
There have been conflicting reports about the status of Viking receiver Sidney Rice’s hip. Said coach Leslie Frazier on Friday: “Our medical staff has assured us that he’s going to be fine…productive for years to come.” He also stressed that Rice is a high priority and the Vikings want to sign him to a long-term deal. But Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Sid Hartman reports that “close friends” of Rice claim that he’s dealing with an arthritic condition in his hip after playing hurt last season. If you’re looking to choose a side in this race, I’d go with the head coach over the beat reporter. But that’s just me.

Shurmur likes the idea of Hillis and Hardesty teaming up
New Browns coach Pat Shurmur told the media on Friday that he likes the idea of a two-back tandem featuring bulldozer Peyton Hillis and second-year back Montario Hardesty. I don’t know why he wouldn’t. Bill Walsh used Roger Craig and Tom Rathman together in his version of the West Coast Offense when the Niners won the 1988 Super Bowl. The book is still out on Hardesty, but Hillis proved to be a one-man wrecking crew at times last year and showed that he can catch the ball out of the backfield, too. Good coaches use the weapons they have and it would be a shame for the Browns not to incorporate some two-back looks with both Hillis and Hardesty lined up in the backfield.

Coughlin admits Jacobs needs to carry the ball more
It’s assumed by many that the Giants will dump running back Brandon Jacobs and his $4.65 million salary this offseason. But after hearing the comments coach Tom Coughlin made on Friday, maybe the G-Men plan to keep Jacobs around next year. “As you look at everything at the end of the year, Brandon was fresher than he’s ever been, healthier than he’s ever been and probably needs to carry the ball a little more,” said Coughlin, who also said that Jacobs has “a lot of gas in the tank.” Considering Ahmad Bradshaw is a free agent, Coughlin’s comments are rather interesting.

Bush not expected to be released
Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune doesn’t expect the Saints to release Reggie Bush before the end of the league year on March 4. Triplett writes that the team will probably wait and work on a “possible extension or restructure.” I find it hard to believe that the Saints would pay Bush the $11.8 million he’s owed next season, so he’s going to have to take a dramatic pay cut if he wants to stay in New Orleans. As of right now, it seems like he is willing to do that.

Newton “physically imposing,” Mallett…not so much.
Wes Bunting of the National Football Post is at the scouting combine this week and was there when the quarterbacks weighed in on Friday. Cam Newton checked in at 6-5 and 248 pounds, while Ryan Mallett was nearly 6-7 and 253 pounds. According to Bunting, Newton looked “physically imposing” and has an “impressive” athletic build, while Mallett “had a bad body” and seemed “soft.” For those who have seen photos of Tom Brady at his combine weigh-in, these comments could mean very little. (That’s not a knock on Bunting, who is an excellent draft analyst. I’m just pointing out that Brady didn’t look like an extra from the movie “300″ when he was drafted and he’s gone on to win three Super Bowls.)

Brandon Jacobs wants Giants to trade him

August 16, 2010: New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs (27) colliding with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) during the NFL preseason game between the New York Giants and the New York Jets at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Brandon Jacobs is following the handbook for disgruntled athletes to a “T” right now, as he’s already openly complained about his role in the Giants’ offense, made a public scene and will now ask the Giants to trade him.

With the way Jacobs has handled his demotion over the last couple of weeks, which includes a recent run-in with the media during a locker room interview session and throwing his helmet into the stands during last night’s loss to the Colts, the Giants probably wouldn’t mind if the two sides parted ways as well.

The problem is that Jacobs is only in the second year of a four-year, $25 million contract that the Giants gave him in February of 2009. He’s owed $3.65 million this year, $4.65 million next year and $4.9 million in 2012. He’s only 28, but it’s not like he’s a bargain right now – at least not how he’s a) acting and b) playing.

And that’s the bigger problem: his on-field play has been brutal over the past year and two weeks. He gained only 3.7 yards per carry last season and is gaining just 3.3 YPC in two games this year. Granted, he’s only had 16 carries, but he’s done little to nothing with those 16 carries that would convince a team to make a deal for him.

The Bills haven’t made it public, but they would probably be willing to trade Marshawn Lynch for a mid-round pick. Even with all of his baggage, why wouldn’t a team want to acquire him over a disgruntled Jacobs, who-oh-by-the-way is four years older than Lynch?

It appears as though Jacobs is stuck in his current situation for the foreseeable future.

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