Three games left in the NFL season. Hard to believe. It comes down to today to see who will represent their Conference in the Super Bowl. Both games are great match ups of very close teams, and those that have been playing the best over the last few months of the season. When it comes to picking the games - each one seems to get harder to decide the more you think about it; but here goes nothing. Enjoy them both, they should be very entertaining.
Baltimore vs. New England (Sun - 3:00pm)
So now that the Pats proved they can win a playoff game, it's time to do it against a more formidable foe and earn a trip back to the Super Bowl. After last weeks' cakewalk over Denver, a lot of people are hopping back on the Pats bandwagon - but Baltimore ain't no Denver. And no, that has nothing to do with Tebow. The difference is Denver's slightly above average Defense vs. Baltimore's top notch D. Last week we discussed the importance of turnovers and performance in the Red Zone as keys to winning in the playoffs. I think all of the playoff games so far showed us just how important turnovers are, so lets focus on the red zone for this match up. During the regular season, the Pats sported the 2nd highest Offensive Red Zone TD percentage in the NFL, while Baltimore had the 1st ranked Defensive Red Zone TD percentage. So this is a match up of strength vs. strength in the most important stat of the game. The Ravens also ranked 2nd in 3rd down defense. Those are the two key areas to watch in my opinion.
Last week I talked quite a bit about how good Suggs, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Ngata are; and Ed Reed showed he's still the best in the league with that ridiculous pick to end the Houston game. Suggs and Ngata will be key today - can they generate pressure on Brady without needs to bring extra rushers? Both have had success against NE in the past, lets hope they don't today. Another Baltimore defender that will be key to watch is Bernard "ACL Killer" Pollard. He was the one who took out Tom's knee in '08 and was also in coverage on Wes in '09 when Wes tore his ACL. The Pats didn't face Pollard last season, so watch your ACL's today boys. Pollard is a large Strong Safety and figures to be used in coverage against Gronk and Hernandez.
On the other side of the ball, Baltimore starts with Ray Rice. He led their team in both rushing and receiving yards, and limiting him will be priority #1 for the Pats D. The run D looked stout last week against Denver's NFL leading rushing attack, but Baltimore uses a much different style than the Tebow Triple Option. Baltimore loves going big, using extra linemen, unbalanced lines and letting Rice run behind the NFL's best fullback, Vonte Leach. This is a true smashmouth running team, so the Pats big bodies are going to have to step it up today. We saw how explosive Ray Rice can be in the 2009 playoff game, with his 89 yard TD run on the games opening play. Having Spikes and Chung back should help in a major way to stop his running, but what about receiving. Dane Fletcher's first real performance in the NFL came in 2010 when he was effectively used as a spy on Rice coming out of the backfield, so that would be a good place to start. Elsewhere, WR Torrey Smith has had flashes of looking like a fellow AFC North WR, Mike Wallace. Smith is a burner and a true deep threat, someone to keep an eye on today. Lee Evans is a familiar face from his Buffalo days, and has traditionally given the Pats a hard time.
It should be a hard fought battle today, and a close game either way. I think the Pats D will stand tall, and Tom will have enough time to pick about Baltimore.
New England 28 - Baltimore 20
NY Giants vs. San Francisco (Sun - 6:30pm)
Both teams managed to pull the upsets last week and knock off the two teams that most thought were the safest bets to win the Super Bowl. The Giants still continue to have that look that I discussed two weeks ago, and San Fran had one of the more exciting wins in recent playoff memory (barely hanging on for the win despite 5 New Orleans turnovers). I haven't had a chance to watch San Fran much this year, so I don't really know what to expect. In the battle of #1 overall picks from 2004 and 2005, it's the defenses that will decide the outcome. Is San Frans D good enough to stop all of NYG's weapons? Will their offensive line be able to protect Alex Smith? I wasn't quite sure who to pick, but after typing the name Alex Smith in the same section as NFC Championship Game, it seems unfathomable. He's been a great story so far this season, but I see that coming to an end today.
NY Giants 20 - San Francisco 13