After two weeks of fantastic playoffs, we have the final 4 of the NFL tournament. The Ravens, 49ers, Patriots, and Giants have all survived and advanced the war of attrition that composes the single elimination rise to the Super Bowl. Before looking to the savory week 19 matchups, let's glance at how each of these deserving teams ascended to their respective Conference championships.
Ravens I always pick a team to root for in the playoffs once my team is either eliminated or (more likely) fails to qualify for postseason play. The Ravens are that team (which is essentially the kiss of death) this year. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are my favorite all-time players at their respective positions. Combine that with my fondness for Lumberton, North Carolina’s own Fullback Vonta Leach and my heart will simply not allow me to pull for anyone other than B-more’s finest.
The conflict with the team has always been the run/pass ratio with the offense (not to say that every other facet of the team is flawless—the Ravens were 7th in the league in drops, rank 31st in kick return yards allowed, and 24th in punt return yards allowed). Who is going to be the star of this offense; Ray Rice or Joe Flacco. In wins, Flacco averaged 32 pass attempts per game and 39 in losses. More dramatic is the drop off of Rice’s carries in their losses. Rice averaged around 21 rushing attempts in the Ravens’ 12 wins in the regular season, and around 8 or 9 in their four losses. The boiling point of the internal friction came after the Jacksonville loss when Pro Bowl Linebacker Terrell Suggs questioned the play-calling of the coaching staff (http://tinyurl.com/787odk5)
In the one game of postseason play, the Ravens seem to have found their groove. The defense was its usual dominant self against the Houston Texans, and the offense took advantage of its short fields while Flacco made the key throws (14 of 27 for 176 yards for two touchdowns) and Ray Rice (and a surprisingly spry Ricky Williams) pounded the Texans’ talented defense with the running game. Granted, the Ravens ran for less than 100 yards but the fact that Williams and Rice combined for 27 rushing attempts is the stat that matters most.
Having a quarterback as your biggest question mark is never good. It is arguably the most important position in sports. Usually, a team with a weakness at a focal point as crucial as this one would be immediately exposed by the better teams which stock the playoff roster at this late period of the season. Certainly everyone will point to Baltimore’s own Trent Dilfer as the poster boy for winning without an overwhelmingly talented quarterback. While it is true that it is possible, look back at the past 10 Super Bowl champions’ quarterbacks—Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Brady, Brad Johnson, and Brady. In that list, only one is a non hall-of-fame quarterback. Dilfer and Johnson are exceptions that prove winning is possible without an elite-level quarterback, but the dearth of mediocre signal callers holding the Lombardi trophy should give any fan of the Ravens pause.
I’m not of the opinion that the Ravens win in spite of Flacco. While clearly not their best player (even on that side of the ball), he is a capable quarterback. My largest question lies, instead, with the coaching staff. It takes real courage to do what the opposition expects of you. The prospect of changing one’s gameplan to catch the opponent off-guard is tantalizing. Look at this year’s BCS championship for the highs (Saban’s plan of throwing on 1st down) and lows (Les Miles refusing to go to his conventional running game and deciding on an option-heavy offense) of changing the plan of attack. If John Harbaugh can resist the temptation of changing his team’s makeup and force teams to beat the strongest version of the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis can cement his name as the best Middle Linebacker in history with another title.
I think the echo of Alex Smith’s resounding “take that” has finally died down significantly enough so that I can hear myself think sufficiently to write this post. Their biggest question this season has been their QB as well. In fact, there are a number of striking similarities between the Ravens and 49ers; strong running game, underrated receiving corps, and their coaches share DNA. Unlike their east coast counterpart there has never been an identity crisis. They know who they are and didn’t have to go through that awful awkward faze with braces and glasses. They grind teams down with their defense and running, while utilizing their weapons (Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Frank Gore) to outscore their opponents even without blowing them out. The 49ers were involved in 10 one-score games this season—including last week’s thrilling late-game shootout with MVP-candidate Drew Brees.
There’s really nothing to dislike about this team. Their QB, Smith, has been much maligned as a complete bust as the 2005 number 1 draft pick. Their running back, Gore, suffered a catastrophic knee injury in college and battled his way back to become a Pro Bowler. Their other-worldly talent at Tight End, Davis was the subject of this rant by then-coach Mike Singletary (http://tinyurl.com/5ewv5m) to take his rightful position as one of the best tight ends in the game. Yet despite these initial setbacks, they are here starring on a team a game away from The Super Bowl. My major concern is that this team lacks experience across the board (even its coach is a rookie) in big games. They responded fantastically when confronted by a former champion in their victory over the Saints. I just don’t believe after years of being irrelevant they will ascend to the Super Bowl. “You must go to the well and be denied, before being allowed to drink” as my father would tell me as he slaughtered me in chess as a youngster—the same applies here.
Another QB issue is present here…is he the best of all-time? While that is another topic for another time, it presents the appropriate stark contrast to their counterparts this Sunday. In fact, the Patriots and Ravens are perfect foils for one another. The Ravens are comprised of a phenomenal defense and a talented running back with a questionable QB; The Patriots boast a hall-of-fame QB with a collage of average running backs and statistically the lowest ranked defense in the league.
Sidenote: At what point will the NFL change its archaic ranking system of NFL defenses? Who cares who gives up the most yards? It is a stat that is easily manipulated by the number of possessions in a game as well as garbage-time yards that don’t affect the contest in the slightest. A much more appropriate gauge would be the percentage of drives on which the defense allows the offense to score. Having these empty stats misconstrues the landscape of the league and is a stat that wildly misrepresents the reality of what we see every Sunday. PSA over.
Can the Pats win their first Super Bowl since Spygate (yes, as a Carolina Panthers fan, I have not forgotten that they have not won a Chip since they stopped secretly and illegally videotaping the practices of their opponents)? I don’t think two fantastically talented Tight Ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the best tandem that I can think of) and a slot receiver are enough to beat the Ravens’ legendary defense. I’m going to be on the edge of my seat as the grandmasters of offensive and defensive architecture (Brady and Lewis) clash on the field. Watch out for Reed (even on his balky ankle) to have a pick/play late in this game that will change the game.
I’d be lying if I said that after that close call (read: loss) vs the Packers late in the regular season that visions of the 2007-2008 Super Bowl-winning Giants didn’t dance in my head. Tom Coughlin has found a recipe that works and has whipped it up again. Mix a rotating, impossibly athletic and dangerous defensive line with an always underrated running game, add competent quarterback play and let them cook. Coughlin has updated his recipe with an updated Quarterback—Eli 2.0. Manning has been consistently thorough this season. Manning boasted a 61% completion of his throws, nearly 5,000 yards passing, and a 29/16 TD to Interception ratio. The videogame numbers that Brees, Brady, and Aaron Rodgers put up dwarf Manning’s contributions, but only one of them are still competing at this late juncture of the year.
Even with the best defensive line in the NFL, the secondary has struggled. They’ve given up big, gashing plays all year. It wouldn’t surprise me if Vernon Davis scorched them early on a seam route due to either poor coverage or simply not having anyone capable of covering him. Still, without a healthy Ted Ginn Jr. (he may not even play this Sunday due to a knee injury) to stretch the field the Giants may be able to keep the possession-receiver Crabtree in front of it and limit big plays. Hakeem Nicks (from North Carolina) has been superb this postseason, and I think Victor Cruz will burn Carlos Rodgers at least once in the contest.
I have the Giants vs the Ravens in the Super Bowl. While it isn’t great for the story lines (it isn’t a repeat of SuperBowl 42 and isn’t the “Har-bowl”-- the matchup of the coaching brothers as the media has dubbed it) I think it is the matchup we will see. I’m notoriously awful at picking games though, so you may want to do the opposite if you’re betting on these games.
What do y’all got?
Author: Brenden Whitted. Follow Brenden on Twitter: @WBHUalum