Matchups: Conference RoundSaturday, January 21, 2012
Baltimore @ New England
Ravens Must: Get big-time throws from Joe Flacco. In terms of physical skill set, Flacco is capable of shouldering an offensive load and pouring points on opponents with the pass game. Flacco's stumbling blocks have been deliberate in-pocket decision making and a wide receiver corps that struggles to create separation. No defense this season has shown the ability to stop New England's passing attack; double teaming Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker has resulted in monster games for Aaron Hernandez. The Ravens will have to rack up yards and points to keep pace, and the best way to do it against New England's porous secondary will be via Flacco's arm.
Patriots Must: Take away Ray Rice. The Ravens make it no secret that the rushing attack is their offensive foundation, and that Flacco is most effective managing games. Including the playoffs, Flacco has averaged just 26 pass attempts in his last eight contests while Rice has been Baltimore's offensive centerpiece. New England's run defense has stiffened lately, holding a Broncos rushing offense that ranked first in the league during the regular season to 144 yards on 40 Divisional round carries (3.6 YPC). The Pats were stuffing the run late in the game, even up by several touchdowns. Stopping Rice would effectively remove the Ravens from their comfort zone.
X-Factor: Patriots DT Kyle Love. A 6'1/310-pound fire hydrant, Love has emerged as arguably New England's top run defender a year removed from going undrafted out of Mississippi State. Teaming with more well-known Vince Wilfork, Love gives the Patriots two immovable big-bellied pluggers on the interior. Generating push against Ravens linemen Marshal Yanda, Matt Birk, and Ben Grubbs will be vital for New England's chances of containing Rice. When Rice gets to the perimeter, weak-side 'backer Jerod Mayo and safety Pat Chung must be there to clean up.
Why the Patriots Will Win: The Pats have the poorest defense left, but I still think they're capable of stopping what the Ravens do best offensively. Historically, Flacco has struggled in the second season. In eight career playoff games, he is 112-of-211 (53.1%) for 1,226 yards (5.81 YPA) with a 6:7 TD-to-INT ratio. While this isn't necessarily indicative of future performance, I think New England can score enough points and plug the run with enough efficiency to force the Baltimore offense to lean on Flacco. And Flacco has routinely come up short on the big stage.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 23
NY Giants @ San Francisco
Giants Must: Make Alex Smith play without Vernon Davis. Assigning safety Kenny Phillips to Davis may be coordinator Perry Fewell's best bet. While they've gotten better in the playoffs, it's worth noting that New York struggled mightily in tight end coverage to end the regular season. In their final nine games, the Giants allowed league highs in receptions (63) and touchdowns (8) to opponents at position, along with a weekly average of over 76 yards and seven catches. The stats suggest Davis will have a very big night if the Giants defend as they did for much of 2011, and loudmouthed Antrel Rolle did his team no service by lashing out at Davis in the media this week.
49ers Must: Keep forcing takeaways. The Niners set the tone in last week's Divisional round upset, as safety Donte Whitner delivered a fumble-causing blow to Pierre Thomas to kill a promising Saints first drive. All told, San Francisco created five turnovers against New Orleans. The 49ers can't count on Smith to repeat his career-best performance, but can control the game with their physical, aggressive defense. Individual matchups to watch include Tarell Brown on Hakeem Nicks, Carlos Rogers versus Victor Cruz in the slot, and Mario Manningham against rookie Chris Culliver. As a unit, the Niners' secondary played its best game of the year last week.
X-Factor: Giants center David Baas. 49ers defensive end Justin Smith was a one-man wrecking crew throughout the regular season, and finally caught national attention with a dominant showing against the Saints. Credited with a sack, tackle for loss, and five hurries, Smith was the most ferocious lineman of the Divisional round. On passing downs, Smith often rushes from the interior, where he'll attempt to split double teams from Baas and left guard Kevin Boothe. A former 49er, Baas lined up against Smith in practice for three seasons before defecting to New York in 2011. More so than any center in the league, Baas is familiar with Smith's moves and bull rush.
Why the Giants Will Win: The G-Men have been the best team in football for the past month. They've won each of their last four games by at least 15 points, defeating teams with a combined record of 41-20 (.672) and eliminating all four from the playoffs. To a far greater extent that the Saints did, I think New York's defense can affect Alex Smith and force him to make bad decisions. Expect a hard-fought, relatively low-scoring game with plenty of bone-crunching hits.
Prediction: Giants 20, 49ers 17