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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.

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2012 NFL Conference Championship Odds & Spreads

New York Giants QB Eli Manning (10) hurries a pass as San Francisco 49ers Isaac Sopoaga thunders in on him in the first half at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 13, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20. UPI/Terry Schmitt

Ravens @ Patriots, 3:00PM ET, Sunday
The Patriots opened as a 9-point favorite when the odds were first released but the spread has dropped at all major offshore and Las Vegas sports books. Now New England is listed as a 7.5-point home favorite, while the over/under total is sitting between 49.5 and 50.5 after opening at 50.5.

The home team is 4-1-1 against the spread in the last six meetings between these two teams while the Ravens are just 1-3-2 against the number in their last six trips to New England. That said, the last time these two teams met in Foxboro, the Ravens raced out to a 24-0 first-quarter lead on their way to a 33-14 blowout in the 2009 Wildcard round.

Giants @ 49ers, 6:30PM ET, Sunday
This game opened as a pick’em at most sports books but there was an early flood of money posted on the 49ers, who are now 2.5-point favorites over the Giants. The over/under total is sitting between 41.5 and 42.5 after opening at 44.5, so clearly the consensus is that this will be a defensive battle throughout.

These two teams met in Week 10 of the regular season when the 49ers beat the Giants 27-20 as a 4-point home favorite. The favorite is 4-0 against the spread in the last five meetings between these two teams while the home squad is 5-2 against the number in the last seven overall meetings. But the Giants are 5-1 against the spread in their last six games against the 49ers and 7-0 against the number in their last seven playoff road games.

2012 NFL Conference Championship Odds:

AFC Championship Game
Baltimore Ravens +7.5 (50)
New England Patriots –7.5

NFC Championship Game
New York Giants +2.5 (42)
San Francisco 49ers –2.5

Check back nest week for more odds as everyone gets ready for 2012 Super Bowl action as we gear up for the biggest sports day of the year.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Five Questions for the Conference Championships

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has the ball stripped by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs in the first quarter of their NFL AFC wild-card playoff football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts January 10, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Will Flacco raise his game to match Brady’s?
One of the bigger mismatches this weekend lies within the quarterback matchup in the AFC Championship Game. While Tom Brady is coming off a six-touchdown, 363-yard passing performance against the Broncos, Joe Flacco put together a rather uninspiring performance versus the Texans last Sunday. In fact, Flacco has been rather inconsistent all season. He’s completing just 57.6-percent of his passes for an average of 6.66 yards per attempt, and has thrown 20 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions. He’s also fumbled nine times on the year and finished the regular season with a quarterback rating of just 80.9. Flacco took five sacks in that win over Houston and while New England doesn’t have the pass rush that the Texans do, the Pats did sack Tim Tebow five times last weekend. Their run defense is also capable of containing Ray Rice so if Flacco doesn’t elevate his play then the Ravens may once again fall short of their Super Bowl expectations. We know that Brady is going to elevate his game, especially with another Super Bowl within reach. But Baltimore needs to see more of the Flacco from the fourth quarter in that Week 9 victory over the Steelers and less of the lackluster signal caller from last week.

2. Can Smith build on his big fourth-quarter last week?
You have to give Jim Harabugh’s staff a ton of credit for how they attacked the Saints last week. Instead of being timid and conservative like the Falcons were against the Giants, they knew they had to open things up if they were going to pull off an upset (which they obviously did). That said, Alex Smith’s overall performance was a little misleading. While he did throw for 299 yards and three touchdowns, the Niners’ first four scoring drives went for just 54, four, six and three yards because of Saints turnovers. It wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter when Smith decided to channel his inner Steve Young and deliver a handful of excellent passes, most of which found the hands of tight end Vernon Davis. If the Niners are going to repeat that success, Smith will have to build upon his fourth quarter performance from last week. He proved this year that he can be more than just a “game manager” but if the Giants bottle up Frank Gore and force Smith to beat them through the air, can he deliver again?

3. Can the Giants get the best of the Niners’ stout defense?
Actually, they already have. Even though the outcome was a loss, the Giants racked up 395 yards of total offense against the 49ers in Week 10. It was the fourth-highest total any team has posted against San Francisco all season. The Giants, who finished dead last in rushing offense this season, also ran the ball effectively against the Niners that day. New York finished with 93 rushing yards (the fourth-highest total against San Francisco this season) and that came without Ahmad Bradshaw, who sat out with a foot injury. One of the many reasons the Giants have looked so dominant thus far this postseason is because their power running game has finally awoken. They bulldozed their way to 172 rushing yards versus Atlanta in the opening round and while they failed to crack the century mark against Green Bay last week, the Giants were able to put the Packers away in the fourth quarter with a couple of great cutback runs by Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. The 49ers don’t have many weaknesses defensively. They may have allowed 32 points last week against the Saints but anyone who watched that game knows that San Francisco’s defense played well until the fourth quarter. That said, there’s no doubt the Giants have the weapons offensively to take the Niners down. It’s just a matter of if Eli Manning can avoid turnovers and costly mistakes.

4. Can the Ravens pressure Brady from their interior?
This question could be flipped as well: Can the Patriots block the interior of Baltimore’s defensive line? One of the many things the Broncos failed to do last Saturday night (besides, you know, showing up) was generate pressure with the interior of their defensive line. The Patriots got into their up-tempo offense and before you knew it they were up 35-7 at halftime. Brady had way too much time to stand in the pocket and survey the field. But the Ravens bring more to the table defensively, specifically tackle Haloti Ngata. He’s someone that could definitely become a concern for Brady if his offensive line can’t get him blocked. Just like any elite quarterback, the key to beating Brady is to generate pressure with only your front four and commit more defenders to coverage. Obviously the Ravens still need to blitz from time to time, but teams that solely use blitzes as a way to create pressure will often get burned in the end by guys like Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Considering the Jets beat the Patriots in the playoffs last season by constantly providing pressure, this Baltimore-New England game will likely be won or lost in the trenches.

5. How will injuries affect this weekend’s games?
Sorry for leaving this question open-ended but this is something that won’t be answered until after the games have been played. Gore suffered a right leg injury on the 49ers’ final drive last Saturday but says he’s fine. John Harbaugh says Ed Reed will be “all right” for the AFC Championship Game but the safety needed assistance getting off the field last Sunday after suffering an ankle injury late in the fourth quarter. Giants’ defensive tackle Chris Canty said he’s 100-percent after suffering a fourth-quarter knee injury but he was down for quite a while last Sunday in Green Bay. Victor Cruz also suffered a leg injury against the Packers after taking a helmet to the thigh. Nobody should expect these players to miss the conference championship games but all of these injuries could have a huge factor on this weekend’s matches. We’ll just have to wait and see whether or not any of these injuries will have an impact on the four teams’ Super Bowl chances.

Fade Material: NFL Week 10 Predictions

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison sits alone on the bench on the sidelines during the closing minutes of the Steelers NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, Maryland September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Joe Giza (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Most writers would be upset with a .500 week but I’m overjoyed. The two wins I mustered in Week 9 were two more than I had in Week 8 so…small victories, people.

The Giants and Dolphins won outright, while the Colts and Chargers pooled their money together to give me a big, fat 2-2 Sunday. That runs my season record to 15-21, which would be good if we were talking about my hits-to-at bats or competitions-to-attempts radios. But we’re not. We’re talking about my hideous record against the spread this season. The same hideous record that would still be hideous even if I went 4-0 this Sunday.

Ah, well. Here are a couple of losers for you on this glorious Sunday:

Saints @ Falcons, 1:00PM ET
Even if my life were dependant on it, I still couldn’t choose a side in this game. I would die starring off into space as the words “Saints” and “Falcons” bounced around in my head. The Saints have enough firepower to blow the Falcons out of the Georgia Dome this weekend but Atlanta is playing good defense at the moment, while New Orleans is not. So again, I’m lost when it comes to the side. The total, however, seems like a no-brainer. The Saints are averaging over 30 points per game and the Falcons have seemingly fixed their issues on offense. Assuming Julio Jones (hamstring) is fine after being added to Atlanta’s injury report on Thursday, I envision a high-scoring game this Sunday. While these two teams played to a 17-14 chess match last year in Atlanta, the over has hit in five of the last seven meetings between these two teams. Light ‘em up again, boys.
THE PICK: SAINTS/FALCONS OVER 49.5

Steelers @ Bengals, 1:00PM ET
Had oddsmakers given the Bengals four points or even 3.5, I would have taken a hard look at Cincinnati or laid off the game completely. And had the Steelers actually been able to defend 92 yards and beaten the Ravens last Sunday night at home, I again would have leaned towards the Bengals. But with the spread only sitting at 3 and with the Steelers ticked off from their loss last week, I love Pittsburgh this week. The Bengals’ defense has played extremely well this season and I fully expect that trend to continue. But the last time Andy Dalton faced one of the top defenses in the league, the Bengals mustered just 8 points in a 13-8 loss to the 49ers in Week 3. James Harrison is going to be a monster to deal with on Sunday and I just don’t see Dalton making enough plays to win this game in the end. And if you like the Steelers to win, you like them by a field goal or more so I’m happy to lay the 3.
THE PICK: PITTSBURGH STEELERS –3

Giants @ 49ers, 4:15PM ET
Even though the Niners are 7-1 this is a classic letdown game for Tom Coughlin’s team. They’re coming off a huge win in New England and now have to fly cross-country to play a San Francisco team that will certainly be fired up to beat one of the NFC’s top teams. That said, I don’t like laying 3.5 points on the Niners with the way the Giants have played as underdogs this season. If New York was favored or playing some hapless team that has no business being in the game, I’d be all over said hapless team. Instead, I see major value in the total. Both of these teams have the ability to score but Frank Gore is hobbled and the Niners have played well defensively all season. As long as there aren’t a ton of big plays, I like the under.
THE PICK: GIANTS/NINERS UNDER 42.5

Patriots @ Jets, 8:20PM ET
I’m probably going to look like a sucker for thinking this way, but I just don’t see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady losing three-straight games. Especially when that third loss would come at the hands of Rex Ryan and the Jets, who are playing great defensively right now but aren’t trustworthy offensively. New England’s defense played well until the final drive against New York last week and you know Brady is going to be as focused as ever. It’s not often that the Pats are underdogs so you might as well take advantage.
THE PICK: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS +1

Last Week: 2-2
Season: 15-21

Check out the most current NFL Football Betting odds.

2011 NFL Week 10 Point Spreads & Odds

New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan (R) talks to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the Jets beat the Partriots during their AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Foxborough, January 16, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Four spreads of note:

Patriots +1 @ Jets, 8:20PM ET
This has got to be the most interesting spread on the board this week. The Jets opened at –1 at some books while others had them listed as a 2.5-point favorite. I would be shocked if the line didn’t flip to Patriots –1 by kickoff because everyone must have the same thought: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady aren’t going to lose three straight games. That said, Rex Ryan’s defense is playing championship caliber football right now. The Bills could do absolutely nothing offensively last Sunday against the Jets, and at home, no less. Plus, this is a revenge spot for Ryan and Co. so again, it’ll be interesting to see where the line moves from here.

Steelers –3 @ Bengals, 1:00PM ET
I’m really surprised that the line for this game didn’t open at 3.5. I know the Bengals are at home and are 6-2, but the last time they played a top-notch defense they were held to 8 points at home by the 49ers. Judging by the public betting numbers that are listed at sites like The Spread.com, it appears everyone is on Pittsburgh and why not? They’re the more experienced team and they’re coming off a loss to Baltimore so you know Mike Tomlin and Co. are ticked off. Unless oddsmakers are assuming this will be a three-point game either way, why not put the line at 3.5 and try to generate more two-sided action? In other words, I like the Steelers because I don’t have to worry about the hook. There’s very little value in Cincinnati outside of the fact that they’re a home dog.

Saints –1 @ Falcons, 1:00PM ET
The Saints opened as 2.5-point favorites at most books and now the game is down to a pick’em at some places. New Orleans is still the better team on paper but Atlanta has won three straight, are at home, and the Saints are just 2-3 on the road this year. Also, the Falcons still have a bad taste in their mouths from when several New Orleans players took photos on Atlanta’s logo after the Saints won in the Georgia Dome last season. This game should tell us a lot about the direction of the NFC South and I’ll tell you what, the Falcons’ defense has played very well the past couple of weeks. Don’t assume that Drew Brees is going to light them up in thier own house. This should be a great game.

Giants +3.5 @ 49ers, 4:15PM ET
Unlike the Steelers-Bengals game where I thought the line should be 3.5, I’m wondering why this spread isn’t 3 on the nose. Is this is a trap game where oddsmakers want you to overvalue New York because of the hook? The Giants are coming off a huge win against the Patriots and some are waiting for the 49ers to fall, so why is there extra motivation to take New York (i.e. if you take the Giants, you also get the hook so why not ride Big Blue)? I don’t get it. Either way, I see more value in the total. I have a hunch this is going to be a low-scoring game. I could see Eli Manning struggling against a stingy San Francisco defense and New York’s D answering the challenge of slowing a hobbled Frank Gore. The total (42.5) is set right based on how these two teams have scored this season, but I like the under.

2011 NFL Week 10 Point Spreads:

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