NFL

AFC, NFC title games: Key matchups

Patriots QB Tom Brady discusses New England's showdown with the Ravens in the AFC title game.
Patriots QB Tom Brady discusses New England's showdown with the Ravens in the AFC title game.
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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With the Championship Games on tap Sunday, here are the most compelling matchups within the games that figure to make the difference.

New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

Quarterback play: Eli Manning is continuing his quest to become one of the elite NFL quarterbacks. On the flip side, Alex Smith is proving all his doubters wrong by showing that he deserves to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. As quarterbacks always do, both Manning and Smith will play critical roles in Sunday’s matchup, but they will go about it in different ways.

For Manning, he has found a natural fit with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. What is often lost in the art of completing a pass is the trust a quarterback must have in his receivers. For example, Manning must trust that either Nicks or Cruz will read the defense in the same way he sees it and either throttle down in zone coverage or run past man coverage. The Giants have mastered this art and rarely will you see Manning and his receivers on a different page.

For the 49ers, they will also rely on the passing game, but in a much more controlled fashion. The Niners will create confusion in the play-action game or set up mismatches with pre-snap alignments and motions. Last week we saw them isolating Vernon Davis on either a linebacker of a safety by using a 3x1 formation. With trips to one side, Smith is able to read just that side of the field rather than having to scan sideline to sideline. If the safety is pulled out by the outside two receivers, he can find Davis in a one-on-one matchup in the deep middle of the field.

Defensive line: The 49ers' defense has been praised all season, but the Giants’ defense is finally healthy and playing at its highest level of the season. For both, the defensive lines play an integral part in both stopping the run and applying pressure on the opposing quarterback.

Now fully healthy, the Giants are able to benefit from the front four rotation that has been so successful for them in years past. Cycling in fresh players to apply continuous pressure with only four down lineman allows them to drop seven into coverage, which is a nightmare combination for opposing quarterbacks. In Sunday’s game they will want to do the same thing, but can’t be compromised in the trap running game of the 49ers. The Niners do an excellent job of cracking down on the last man on the line of scrimmage, or in some alignments, the edge rush defender at the second level, and then pull around an offensive tackle to kick out the next defender that shows. This is a simple off-tackle running play, but the crack-back and kick-out blocks create leverage for the offense, especially against a team that likes to rush up-field quickly.

The 49ers' defense is similar to the Giants in strategy, but they utilize a 3-4 defensive front and often can create pressure with only three rushers. We saw that last week with Justin Smith completely dominating the Saints' offensive line. The 49ers know that Smith will be the key, and he will most likely shift all over the line of scrimmage and line up anywhere from the A gap all the way to a 7-technique defensive end. With that versatility, it will be hard for the Giants to draw up a blocking scheme that can anticipate where they will double-team Smith. Conversely, the 49ers often use Smith to pull the offensive line one way and then stunt on the backside rush to free-up Aldon Smith on the other side. Keep an eye out for this chess match as the game plays out on Sunday.

WHO WILL GET TO INDY

ROAD TO INDY

Travel: The Giants’ win over the Packers last week at Lambeau Field has been the only road victory in this postseason. They have inadvertently taken on the persona of the “road dogs” that play with an us-against-the-world mentality, but, as always, traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast is difficult in the NFL. Since 1980, the Giants are only 3-11 against San Francisco. With the Giants having already played an extra game and are coming off an emotionally draining regular season, it will be interesting to see how they come out in the first quarter of this game.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Offensive strategy: This is a game that will feature two very different offensive approaches. The small-ball spread 'em style of the Patriots against a much more traditional balanced attack of the Baltimore Ravens.

The Patriots will want to establish an up-tempo pace and force the Ravens to compete with them in a track meet. To do so, they will use their talented tandem of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. As they have all year, expect the Patriots to line both of them up in multiple formations and put them on the same side, opposite sides, in the slot, on the outside, in the traditional tight end alignment, and even in the backfield. Having said that, I wouldn’t expect to see them attempting to run the ball with Hernandez out of the backfield much this week. While it was semi-successful against the Broncos, the Ravens are a veteran defense that won’t fall for any cute gimmicks.

I actually believe Deion Branch may play an important role in this game with Ed Reed keeping his eyes inside on those tight ends and the slot presence of Wes Welker. Branch is going to have a lot of one-on-one opportunities to run free down the sidelines.

For the Ravens, it will be just the opposite. They'll want to slow down the pace of the game and play a more controlled style of offense in which they keep possession by running the ball and pulling the defense down with 10-15 yard patterns in the passing game. The Ravens must understand that yes, they are playing the 31st ranked defense in the NFL, but this defense was also 19th in scoring and tied for third in the NFL in takeaways. So it not just about accumulating yards, but more about taking advantage of being in the red zone and staying patient on those eight-, nine-, and 10-play drives. Even with such a dominating defense, the best way to eliminate Tom Brady is by keeping him on the sidelines.

Forcing Tom Brady out of the pocket: This will be a big factor for both teams simply because that is exactly what the Ravens want to do defensively, and it is exactly what the Patriots want to avoid offensively.

Defensively, the Ravens are built specifically for this. Nothing collapses the pocket faster than internal pressure from right up the middle, and there is no one better at doing it than Haloti Ngata. With Ngata’s deadly combination of speed and strength, he will consistently draw a double-team from the guard and center to his side. He can walk them back into the pocket just three yards, which eliminates Brady’s ability to climb the pocket to avoid outside pressure, and more importantly, his ability to step into his throws.

Additionally, with Ngata drawing an interior double-team, that will leave rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder on an island with Terrell Suggs on the outside. That is something a veteran tackle wouldn’t be excited about, let alone a rookie playing in just his second playoff game. To his credit though, Solder has held his own this year, but he hasn’t had to face the likes of Suggs, a potential defensive player of the year candidate. This will be an interesting battle to watch.

Turnovers: As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots were tied for third in the NFL in takeaways, and also didn’t have many turnovers of their own. They were third in the league in turnover differential, and not putting your struggling defense on a short field pays dividends — such as a 13-3 regular season record and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

The Ravens were ranked 11th in the NFL in turnover differential, and they won’t want to give Brady any extra opportunities to put points on the board. Defensively, they will want to get takeaways, but can’t jeopardize their coverage in order to jump a route. Brady is too good to guess against and he will make you pay if you take too many chances. This is a delicate balance that Reed will need to display throughout the course of the game. He may be the most instinctual player I have ever coached, but he has free rein back there, and if he takes a chance at the wrong time, it could be the difference in the game.

Tagged: Patriots, Giants, 49ers, Ravens, Justin Smith, Tom Brady, Ed Reed, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Haloti Ngata, Aaron Hernandez, Victor Cruz, Nate Solder, Aldon Smith

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