The sun has set. The dust has settled. And while I rarely toot my own horn for my NFL predictions (since predicting games has as much to do with luck as it does skill), I have to point out that I picked all four NFL divisional games right on down to the upsets. Proof.
Next weekend, in the conference championships, the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers will host the New York Giants. Both games feature very deserving teams, but I’m sure fans of the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and Houston Texans all feel like they should’ve been part of conference championship weekend. But that’s partly why the NFL is the biggest sport in America. When it’s a one-game elimination, all you have to do is make the playoffs and you have a chance. Just ask the New York Giants, who sported a 9-7 record in the regular season and lost to the Washington Redskins twice. To put it even more into perspective, the Giants lost as many games in the regular season as the 49ers, Packers, and Saints combined. Playoffs, man.
1. When asked, Vernon Davis called it “The Grab”. He called it “The Grab” rather than “The Catch III”. With 14 seconds left, and the 49ers down by three to the Saints, Alex Smith rifled a pass to Vernon Davis who caught it at the goal line, took a hit from Roman Harper, and held on for the game winning touchdown.
Here’s a great YouTube video of the TV call and both radio calls, including Eric Davis’ loud whoop:
3. At some point, the Denver Broncos were going to lose a game in which they had to score more than 20 points. When Tim Tebow started, the Broncos went 8-5, including playoffs. In four out of those five losses, the opposing team scored 40 points or more. That was the key. If you make Tim Tebow play keep up, he’s taken out of his game, and the Broncos are taken out of theirs. There’s no better team to lead the keep up game than Tom Brady’s Patriots. In the last 7:42 of the first half, Brady connected on three passing touchdowns to put the game away completely. Tebow finished 9-26 for the game, while Brady completed as many passes as Tebow attempted.
4. The Patriots are the only juggernaut offense remaining. The Patriots, Packers, and Saints all scored over 500 points this season. The Giants (394), 49ers (380), and Ravens (374) didn’t come close to scoring 500 points. But out of the four remaining, only the Giants gave up more points than the Patriots in the regular season.
5. On the legs of Arian Foster, the Houston Texans made it as close as humanly possible, considering the situation. With rookie TJ Yates starting against one of the best defenses in football, it looked like dire straits. He threw three interceptions, and to show how dominant the Ravens were defensively, the Texans only crossed the 50-yard line three times in the second half, getting as far as the Baltimore 32-yard line on their missed field goal attempt. Even though Baltimore was fully in control of the game, they should be a slight bit worried that they accumulated just 227 yards of total offense and just 140 yards passing. That won’t get it done in New England.
6. Remember the old adage – offense entertains, but defense wins games? That’s Baltimore in a nutshell.
7. And then there was Green Bay. Earlier this season, I predicted that they would go 16-0 after looking at what I thought was a pretty darn easy schedule for a defending Super Bowl champions. They had just one mess up in Kansas City. What was alarming was that while the offense was putting games out of reach, their defense was letting teams back into them. Aaron Rodgers and company put up over 40 points five different times in the regular season in victories. When you put up that many points, you should win fairly easily, especially if you’re a great team. Yet, in three of those games, they won by seven points or less, which means that their defense gave up 34 (to New Orleans), 38 (to San Diego), and 41 points (to Detroit). All of those offenses are worthy of scoring that many points, but against the supposed best team in football?
8. And this is exactly why I thought the Giants had a great chance. The Packers let teams hang around. And the Giants are the ultimate hanging around team. The Packers couldn’t get stops when they needed and turned the ball over four times. And here’s the weird thing: their offense only had 14 turnovers all year long. The Packers’ defense, while terrible at stopping teams as I stated above, had 31 interceptions this season and six fumble recoveries, yet it was the Giants who won the turnover battle four to one. That’s stuff that you just can’t predict.
9. AFC Conference Championship: The Patriots have to be heavily favored in this game. They’re the only offensively explosive team left and football fans love offense. They’ll be begging and pleading for Tom Brady and company to get back in the Super Bowl. But here’s why I think it won’t happen: they can’t stop anyone either. While the Packers gave up huge amounts of points in a handful of games and a serviceable amount in others, the Patriots were consistently giving up over 20 points per game. They gave up 20 points or more in 11 out of their 16 games. That’s fine for the most part because of how powerful their offense is. But they didn’t really play many good defenses. Their schedule was fairly easy all season long. They beat the Jets twice (5th defense yardage wise) and the Eagles (8th defense), but lost to the Steelers (1st defense).
Baltimore needs to get out ahead early and force Brady into situations where he starts to try and thread the needle too much. The Patriots’ run game is probably going to be non-existent, so much like Drew Brees had to do, Tom Brady have to put the football up in the air a lot as long as the game is close. I predict that the Ravens’ defense gets a pick early to help them get an early lead and they hold off Brady and company, which is extremely hard to do. Ravens 30, Patriots 28.
10. NFC Conference Championship: The Giants are the definition of wild card. They’re the one team that everyone thought was really good, but they were inconsistent in the regular season, infuriating their fans. They beat New England and then lost to Washington twice. But against really good teams, for the most part, they failed. Unless you consider Dallas and Philadelphia as good teams, their only truly impressive win was against the Patriots. They lost to the 49ers, New Orleans, and Green Bay, the three best NFC teams, in the regular season.
But they usually win close games. They were 5-1 in games decided by four points or less. In order to win in San Francisco, they must hang around early on. And against the 49ers, that shouldn’t be too hard. While the 49ers scored 36 points against New Orleans, they only scored over 30 points four times (plus the playoffs). So this looks like a game that’s going to be in the 20s, just like their regular season game was. But that’s where the 49ers play their best. In games in which the 49ers score at least 20 points, they’re 12-2. And you have to expect that they’ll score at least 20 points and probably more.
The two teams are built similarly defensively in that their defensive lines are strong enough to bring pressure without having to blitz. But that’s really where the similarities end defensively. The 49ers are the best team in the NFL at stopping the run. The Giants are in the bottom half of the league. The 49ers are average in pass coverage, but the Giants were one of the worst teams in the league at stopping the pass (3rd worst to only New England and the Packers) and they didn’t have the same excuse of being out in front all game long. The game will be close, but in the end, the better overall team will win. 49ers 27, Giants 20.
(And yes, I just picked the Ravens vs. the 49ers in the Super Bowl, Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh. Might as well call it the Harbowl II: Electric Boogaloo.)