by TOM WEPPEL
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Only in college basketball is there such a thing as a ‘FINAL FOUR’! The NCAA has trademarked the phrase!
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to say that we are down to the final four teams alive in the NFL playoffs! Maybe I should just go ahead and call these guys the Last Four! Would that help?
And so, here we are…the Ravens, Patriots, Giants, and 49ers are essentially the last ones standing here for this NFL season. All four teams will be playing for the right to participate in the final game of the season…which we all know as the Super Bowl!
In the AFC, it will be the Baltimore Ravens, coming off that grinding victory last weekend over the Houston Texans, going up to Foxboro to take on those New England Patriots…a team that absolutely clobbered Tim Tebow and the Broncos last Saturday night, 45-10.
All week long, the main characters most fans have been talking about and focusing on are with the Patriots, since they have been much more popular as a team, thanks to their veteran All-Pro QB, Tom Brady. And of course everyone knows their HC, Bill Belichick, as he has been at the helm through these glory years, when the Pats have been going to the Super Bowl (and usually winning!) quite often.
And while there is no question New England has been a strong force in the AFC this season, especially on the offensive side, they certainly haven’t been as solid or consistent in their play as they have been in the past. Their defense overall was ranked LAST (32d) in the League in yards given up for the regular season. Also, in their last six games of the regular season (all wins), they didn’t hold one opponent under 20 points! All it seems they were doing was outscoring people in order to win games!
Of course, give the Pats credit in holding Denver to only ten points last week. They did a good job putting pressure on Tebow in shutting them down. Just remember, though…the Broncos were a very mediocre group (8-8), and were lucky to still be playing!
So, the strength of this outfit clearly is on the offensive side. Brady has done a masterful job this season, with a solid cadre of receivers, including WR Wes Welker, and hulking TE Rich Gronkowski. They have been very fluid in their work, and you can look for them to put some numbers on the board, despite going up against a strong Ravens defense.
For Baltimore, it is indeed their Defense for which they are always known for. Baltimore ranked third overall in the NFL, mainly due to their ability to simply shut down their opponents in all phases. They are led by future HoFamer LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed. You can also look for LB Terrell Suggs and DT Haloti Ngata to make plays as well.
Offensively, it will be up to QB Joe Flacco to move his outfit down the field and score. They will also look to RB Ray Rice to run effectively behind a pretty good O-line.
Going into this game, the Patriots are a 7.5-point favorite. Obviously, they are the ‘sexy’ pick, as no one has really warmed up to the Ravens around the country. But I would look for a closer game than that. The key will be turnovers…the team that does the best job in that category will most likely pull off the win. We’ll see how it plays out…
In the NFC, we’ve got the upstart Giants…a team coming off a surprising road win (the only visiting team to win so far in these playoffs!) against the Packers, now flying across the country to face a San Francisco team they’ve already played this season…and LOST to!
And what can you say about the New York win in Green Bay last week? Obviously, Tom Coughlin brought his guys in to play rough, tough, solid football last weekend at Lambeau Field, and that’s exactly what they did, forcing Green Bay into four turnovers while mounting a fantastic 37-20 win…a win that still has folks in Wisconsin in shock and disbelief! Give the Giants credit…they have cranked up their level of play from the regular season, without question, on both offense and defense. They are executing their play and performing like they know they have wanted to all season long.
And now they will face the 49ers…a team that narrowly got past the Saints last weekend, 36-32, thanks to the standout play of their QB, Alex Smith, and their top shelf TE Vernon Davis! Those two guys are obviously THE KEY to San Francisco moving the ball and producing.
And while we can all talk about the 49ers beating the Giants, 27-20, in the regular season, please note these two teams are NOT playing like they were back then! They are two completely different squads, in all ways.
Also note…the San Francisco defense is MUCH better overall than the Packer defense! Watching the Niners smack and crack New Orleans last week, forcing the Saints into FIVE turnovers, easily shows the disparity…one that New York damn well better be ready for!
If the Giants are going to win this one, it’ll be up to QB Eli Manning and his solid corps of WR’s (Victor Cruz, Hakeen Nicks, Mario Manningham) to make plays, while their defense does a good job in putting pressure on Niner QB Smith. For San Francisco, they will have to force the Giants into making mistakes, led by rookie DL Aldon Smith (14 sacks).
Again…the team that wins the turnover battle will win this ballgame. The 49ers are a 2.5-point favorite, mainly because they have the home-field advantage. This should be a fun one to watch!
One note…if Baltimore and San Fran win their games, you will be looking at a first…the first time two BROTHERS will be coaching against each other in a Super Bowl…with Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, and his brother John in Baltimore coaching the Ravens!
One other note…if the Pats win, it will be the FIFTH time you will see QB Tom Brady starting in a Super Bowl. Only ONE other QB in history has done that…John Elway.