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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 Saints vs. 49ers

The 49ers and Saints kicked off the Divisional round of the 2012 NFL Playoffs with a wild one in ‘Frisco. Here are some quick-hit reactions from the Niners’ 36-32 upset over the Saints.

San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith runs across the goal line for a fourth quarter TD against the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park in the NFC divisional playoffs in San Francisco on January 14, 2012. The 49ers defeated the Saints 36-32 in a thriller. UPI/Terry Schmitt

- That was easily one of the wildest finishes I’ve seen in any game, nevertheless a postseason contest. Four touchdowns in the final four minutes? There’s nothing that beats the NFL playoffs. NOTHING I TELL YOU!

- Gregg Williams is an aggressive defensive play-caller. He has always been an aggressive defensive play-caller and will always be an aggressive defensive play-caller. He’s won a Super Bowl by being aggressive so by no means should he change his spots. That said, the Niners had 67 yards to cover with 40 seconds remaining in the game. Did Williams actually think that sending six defenders and leaving Vernon Davis in one-on-one coverage was the best play-call in that situation? Davis beat Malcolm Jenkins on the play and went 47 yards to the New Orleans’ 20-yard-line. Three plays later Alex Smith drilled a bullet to Davis for the eventual game-winning touchdown. Again, Gregg Williams needs to be aggressive or he’s not Gregg Williams. But you can still be aggressive and not leave the man who had torched you all game in one-on-one coverage while you rush over half your defense. That’s a play-call that may haunt him for the next eight months.

- Back in the day I used to write profiles for the top NFL draft prospects each year. In 2006 I absolutely fell in love with tight end Vernon Davis. I would tell everyone who would listen (which included about four people, including my own mother) that Davis was going to be a monster at the next level. He was the perfect prospect: Built like a tight end but with the speed and athleticism of a wide receiver. I used to clamor about how big of a mismatch he would be either on or off the line. Then the dude stunk for three years and those four people (including my own mother) would constantly mock me. “The perfect prospect huh? Guy looks pretty average.” Davis still hasn’t had the career I expected him to have back in ’06 but he reminded me today of why I was so high on him coming out of Maryland. The Saints couldn’t stop him, especially on the Niners’ game-wining drive. He beat a cornerback in Jenkins on that long completion that put San Francisco in scoring range and then he beat a safety in Roman Harper for the game-winning score. (A play in which Davis took an absolute shot from Harper and still hung on to the ball.) When he’s involved in the offense and playing with confidence, he’s such a weapon in the middle of the field. And now he owns the single-game playoff record for tight end yards, surpassing Kellen Winslow’s mark of 166 yards in that legendary performance against the Dolphins back in 1981.

- After his outstanding performance today (24-for-42, 299 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), I can’t help but chuckle about all of the Alex Smith critics that have emerged over the years. “He’ll never lead a team to the playoffs!” “He’ll never win a playoff game if he’s lucky enough to get there!” “He’s not a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback!” “He isn’t contributing to his retirement fund!” Smith has been one of the most polarizing quarterbacks over the past five years and finally, after all of those different coordinators and coaches, lack of talent and confidence issues, he won his first postseason game by outperforming Drew Brees. It’s amazing when you think about it. He’ll still have plenty of doubters if he stinks up the joint next week in the NFC Championship Game, and he still has plenty of doubters now, I’m sure. But at least he’ll sleep well tonight. The guy deserves it after the show he put on today.

- Speaking of Smith, that 14-yard designed run he had was a freaking great play call. And the blocks that were executed on that play were outstanding as well. I thought that was going to be one sweet game-winning play-call but who knew that 15 more points were going to be scored?

- It’s amazing to watch Justin Smith play now compared to earlier in his career with Cincinnati. It’s like watching a completely different player. It’s not as if he was bad with the Bengals but now he’s a disruptive force and easily one of the best defensive linemen in the game. He and his ‘Frisco teammates did something that so many teams tried and failed to do this season: Bring the heat against Drew Brees. The Saints’ offense still wound up scoring a ton of points in the end but the scoreboard isn’t a true representation of how well Smith and Co. played today.

- Granted, they scored 32 points and Brees did attempt 63 passes so it’s not like Sean Payton was conservative with his offense. But the Saints don’t play with the same swagger or confidence on the road as they do at home, especially on defense. When they’re inside the Superdome, the Saints are unbeatable and unstoppable. The defense flies to the football, plays with physicality and aggression, and forces turnovers. Today, the New Orleans defense allowed 36 points and nearly 300 passing yards to a team that averaged just 183.1 yards through the air during the regular season. I said it all week: The Saints are just a different team on the road than they are at home.

- Of course, when you turn the ball over five times and spot your opponent a 17-point lead on the road, you’re not going to win most games. I don’t care how explosive the Saints’ offense is: They can’t win if they kill potential scoring drives with turnovers and sloppy play.

Five best and worst NFL offseason acquisitions from 2008

Michael TurnerThe 2008 NFL Season has entered its second half and while some teams are rejoicing over the moves they made this past summer in either signing or trading for players, others are wondering what the hell they were thinking.

Below are five of the best acquisitions from the 2008 NFL offseason, as well as five of the worst. Granted, these moves might look differently at the end of the season or in a year or two, but for now, these are the best of the best and the worst of the worst from the 2008 offseason.

Five Best Offseason Acquisitions:

1. Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons handed “The Burner” a six-year, $34.5 million contract in early March and while some pundits loved the move, others thought it was too much for the unproven Turner, who had spent his entire career backing up LaDainian Tomlinson. But the signing has paid huge dividends for a Falcons team that ranks second in the league in rushing thanks to his bruising running style. He’s formed a nice “Thunder and Lighting” combo with Jerious Norwood and more importantly, has taken a lot of pressure off rookie Matt Ryan by demanding opponents to focus on taking away the run. He hasn’t fared well against top defenses this season, which is a concern, but outside of that he’s been everything Atlanta had hoped for. He has rushed for 890 yards on 203 carries and has scored seven times.

2. Asante Samuel, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
There was a lot of talk last offseason that Samuel would never live up to the hype that surrounded him in New England. But through 10 games this season, it’s hard to argue that the former Patriot hasn’t lived up to his big play billing. Samuel has recorded three interceptions on the year and has fit into Jim Johnson’s defense better than most expected. He’s not a shutdown corner, but he plays well in zone and rarely gets burned deep. He has also helped the Eagles rank sixth in the league in pass defense and ninth overall in yardage allowed. He was pricey at just over $57 million for six years, but so far Samuel has been worth the money.


Read the rest after the jump...

49ers’ defense gets boost with addition of LB Takeo Spikes

The San Francisco 49ers signed inside linebacker Takeo Spikes, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles. To make room for the signing, the team also released LB Brandon Moore.

Spikes, 31, and the 49ers had been talking since March after he was released by Philadelphia after just one season. He was due to make $5 million in 2008, and the Eagles felt they could use that money elsewhere since they liked their younger linebackers.

Spikes started 14 games for them last year before tearing a rotator cuff and having surgery. The 49ers’ doctors had to check out his shoulder Sunday before the club would agree to a deal. When Spikes visited their headquarters in March, he was rehabbing the shoulder and couldn’t pass a physical.

Spikes has lost a step over the years, but playing inside linebacker in Mike Nolan’s 3-4 defense doesn’t require sideline-to-sideline ability. This move solidifies the run defense a bit, but the question remains if whether or not the 49ers will get enough of a pass rush from their front seven. Either way, Spikes is a terrific leader and it brings a lot of experience to San Fran’s defense.

Even though it didn’t transfer to wins, the 49ers had a very productive offseason in 2007 and did so again this year. With the additions of Nate Clements, Michael Lewis, Tully Banta-Cain, Justin Smith, Takeo Spikes and DROY Patrick Willis (photo), San Fran has vastly improved its defense over the past two offseasons.

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