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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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Albert Haynesworth to the Patriots

Washington Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth (L) walks off the field during the third day of their NFL football training camp in Ashburn, Virginia July 31, 2010. According to the website washingtonpost.com, Haynesworth did not take his third attempt to pass a team conditioning test today, and will rest his legs before attempting the test again August 1. Man on right is unidentified. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Like Mike Florio, I like this trade (not yet confirmed) for both teams.

As Florio points out, people will give Bill Belichick the benefit of the doubt. Other teams would likely be criticized for taking on this head case.

That said, Belichick will likely use Albert Haynesworth properly, avoided the idiotic showdowns in Washington where defensive offensive “genius” Mike Shanahan tried to make this elite interior pass rusher into a hole-clogging nose tackle.

As resident Patriots homer expert Rosenthal points out, the Pats use a 4-3 front roughly half the time. Thus, Haynesworth likely will be a part-time player, but he possibly will be in the alignment he prefers 100 percent of the time that he’s on the field.

And while there’s no way he’d be asked to play the nose tackle position in New England’s 3-4 alignment, thanks to the presence of Vince Wilfork, Belichick surely wouldn’t expect Haynesworth to be a traditional lineman-occupying presence at defensive end in that formation. That’s where Belichick’s brain becomes important. When a player doesn’t like a certain type of system, it’s because he doesn’t play as well in that system. So instead of forcing Haynesworth to eat his brussel sprouts, Belichick will find ways to let Haynesworth get the most out of his talents. Who knows? Maybe that will mean periodically lining him up on the edge in obvious passing situations and letting him maul a tackle one-on-one and chase down the quarterback.

Belichick understands the concept of calculated risks. His team needs a pass rush, and this move makes sense.

Meanwhile, the Redskins are looking for a fresh start, so this helps. We haven’t seen them break the bank yet with idiotic free agent signings, so maybe new GM Bruce Allen might be taking control from Mr. Ego Daniel Snyder.

Patriots did what they had to in order to keep Wilfork: They opened up their wallets

The New England Patriots have long been known as a team that doesn’t pony up when it comes to signing free agents. But Vince Wilfork’s new five-year, $40 million deal proves just how much the Pats value the 28-year-old defensive tackle.

Having a nose tackle that can occupy multiple offensive linemen and keep blockers off of linebackers is a vital component for a team that plays the 3-4. Wilfork, a skilled run defender, is arguably the best nose tackle in the league and while $40 million is a hefty price to pay for his position, New England had no choice but to shell out big money to retain his services.

The Patriots defense didn’t play at the same level last season that everyone has come to expect under Bill Belichick’s guidance. It was imperative that they re-signed Wilfork and in doing so, they’ve filled a potential void that could have been detrimental to their success for the next couple seasons.

Considering he’s only 28 and has shown no signs of decline, there’s a good chance that Wilfork will see the end of his contract in New England.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

Patriots franchise Vince Wilfork

According to beat writer Tom Curran via his Twitter page, the Patriots have designated nose tackle Vince Wilfork as their franchise player.

This news won’t please Wilfork, who has said all along that he didn’t want to be franchised. The one-year deal will guarantee him a $7.003 million salary in 2010, but players want long-term deals because they offer security. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last week that the two sides reached a standoff last week in long-term contract talks and thus, that’s why the Pats inevitably decided to use their franchise tag on the 28-year-old NT.

Wilfork is a top 5 defensive tackle, is outstanding against the run and is vital to New England’s 3-4 defense. So while he probably isn’t thrilled with being franchised, the Patriots were never going to let their centerpiece defensive linemen walk this offseason.

At least the two sides can continue to work on a long-term deal. The deadline for franchise players to sign a multi-year deal isn’t until mid-July so now that the Patriots don’t have to worry about competing with other teams, they can focus on making Wilfork contractually happy. Hopefully the two sides can come to an agreement.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

Vince Wilfork preparing for contract battle

One name to keep an eye on this offseason in the NFL is Patriots’ defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this spring. Wilfork has already stated that he either wants a long-term deal or to be set free.

The problem is that the Patriots have no desire to let him walk. If they can’t reach a long-term deal, they would apply the franchise tag on him, which Wilfork has referred to as being a “slap in the face.”

The Patriots are facing quite a dilemma because they’re not a franchise known for giving players huge contracts when they become free agents, but they also know that Wilfork is a unique athlete. Anyone they would get to replace him would be a downgrade, whether it’s Ron Brace or a rookie like Alabama’s Shaun Cody. So they’ll either have to step up and meet Wilfork’s demands or risk alienating him with a franchise tag.

It might be time for the Patriots to finally step up and pay.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

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