Check out the video above showing Ray Lewis in the Baltimore locker room following their loss to the Patriots. You’ll be hard pressed to find a classier post-game speech from an athlete. Lewis finds a way to put the loss in perspective and motivate everyone to do something for others.
It’s hard to believe this guy has come so far since his early brushes with the law. The guy works at being a great player, and he also seems to be working on being a better human being.
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.
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
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.
In what turned out to be a battle of strength on strength, the Ravens outlasted the Texans in Sunday’s Divisional round playoffs. Here are some quick-hit reactions from Baltimore’s 20-13 victory.
Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice runs against the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on January 15, 2012. UPI/Kevin Dietsch
– If it weren’t for the final score, you would have thought Houston dominated this game. The Texans absolutely owned the trenches, which was never more apparent then when they stuffed Ray Rice on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the 1-yard line during the fourth quarter. Rice looked like he ran full force into a brick wall on that play, and never got going throughout the day as he was held to just 60 yards on 21 carries. Even though Houston’s season is over, the job Wade Phillips did re-shaping the defense cannot be overstated. His defensive unit kept the Texans in the game throughout the entire second half.
– One thing that will be overlooked because of the final score is the job Jonathan Joesph did on Torrey Smith. The Houston corner completely took Smith out of the game, which limited what Baltimore could do in the vertical passing game. Because of this, Joe Flacco was sacked five times and largely settled for short passes aside from one 30-yard completion to Lee Evans. Granted, Evans and Anquan Boldin still combined for 103 receiving yards and a touchdown, but the Ravens’ offense wasn’t very effective as a whole. It’s ironic to think that Houston desperately wanted Nnamdi Asomugha this offseason and then “settled” for Joseph, who wound up having the much better season.
– How can you not love Arian Foster? I thought Baltimore would shut him down and all he did was man up to the tune of 132 yards on 27 carries. He essentially put the Texans’ offense on his back and said, “Follow me.” He ran with purpose, determination, and a hell of a lot of heart. I wasn’t excited to get another helping of T.J. Yates in this year’s playoffs but I could watch Foster run every day. Houston needs to pay the man this offseason. (He’s an impending restricted free agent.)
– My comment about T.J. Yates in the paragraph above wasn’t intended to be a knock on the rookie, who has done an incredible job for the Texans given the circumstances. It’s just painfully obvious that Houston’s offense is limited with him under center and as a football fan I would rather see Baltimore have a crack at New England than a Yates-led Texans team. (Sorry, Houston.) That said, Yates did lead a couple of impressive drives today, but the Ravens were always there when he made mistakes. Like most rookie quarterbacks, Yates has a habit of locking onto receivers and at this level, you’re going to be in trouble when you telegraph passes. (Look at Yates’ pass attempt that Ed Reed intercepted to essentially seal the win for Baltimore.) Still, it was quite the season for the youngster out of North Carolina, who has already blossomed into a solid backup for Houston.
– X-rays came back negative on Ed Reed’s ankle, which is obviously huge for Baltimore’s defense. The injury, which Reed suffered on Houston’s final offensive play, looked serious when it first happened. But it looks like the Ravens will have their All-Pro safety next week for Tom Brady and Co.
– Ravens-Patriots next week at Foxboro? Sign me the f#&k up. When you consider the matchup problems that Baltimore’s defense gives New England, it’s going to be a great game.