For the first time in seven seasons, the NFL was primed to save its regular-season best for last.
That was until the New York Giants gave the “discount double-check” pitchmen a reality check.
After three of the top four postseason seeds advanced into next Sunday’s conference championship round, the team with the league’s best record was soundly dispatched by a Giants squad that entered the playoffs with the No. 4 berth. A 37-20 road upset of Green Bay (15-2) secured New York’s spot in the NFC title game at San Francisco on FOX.
The AFC still fields a 1-versus-2 matchup for a spot in Super Bowl XLVI. Earlier on Sunday, Baltimore advanced to face host New England with a 20-13 home victory over Houston.
Here is an analysis of the pending Ravens-Patriots/Giants-49ers matchups:
Baltimore (13-4) at New England (14-3), 3 p.m. ET, Sunday
Last meeting: The Patriots edged Baltimore in overtime, 23-20, in Week 6 of the 2010 season. Baltimore, though, should enter Gillette Stadium with confidence after topping New England in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, 33-14.
New England’s edge: Besides an outstanding postseason home record — 12-3 since Robert Kraft took ownership in 1994 — the Ravens have proven far less formidable when playing away from M&T Bank Stadium.
Baltimore’s edge: New England will probably have a tougher time stopping the run than Houston, which held the Ray Rice-led Ravens to a 2.8-yard average on 31 carries.
New England’s key offensive player: Tight end Rob Gronkowski. If Ravens safety Ed Reed is hobbled by a leg injury suffered late against Houston, the likelihood of coverage problems against Gronkowski will be amplified. Gronkowski continued his record-setting season in Saturday night’s 45-10 romp with 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
Baltimore’s key offensive player: Quarterback Joe Flacco. Rather than bemoaning a lack of media respect like he did last week, Flacco would be better served earning it with far better output than against Houston.
New England’s key defensive player: Outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich. He brought the heat against Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, forcing a first-half fumble that New England converted into a touchdown. Ninkovich and Mark Anderson are the key pass-rushers in New England’s defense since the loss of defensive end Andre Carter.
Intangibles: Although no quarterback has ever won more games in his first five NFL seasons (49), Flacco still isn’t considered in the same class as New England’s Tom Brady. Flacco could go a long way toward earning such respect with a quality outing against a still-suspect Patriots pass defense.
Prediction: The Patriots will win — and it won’t even be close — if Baltimore’s offense doesn’t execute better than against the Texans. The key for the Ravens: Getting running back Ray Rice back on track to help field a ball-control offense that keeps Brady on the sideline.
New York Giants (11-7) vs. San Francisco (14-3), 6:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, FOX
Last meeting: A 27-20 home victory over New York in mid-November validated the surprising 49ers as a legitimate NFC threat.
San Francisco’s edge: The 49ers field the league’s best defensive front seven. End Justin Smith (Defensive Player of the Year) and rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith (Defensive Rookie of the Year) are leading candidates for postseason honors. If the 49ers can stymie the recent improvement of New York’s ground game, quarterback Eli Manning will be forced to shoulder a heavy load like in his earlier loss against San Francisco.
New York’s edge: Pass rush. The 49ers have struggled at times to protect quarterback Alex Smith. That doesn’t bode well against standout rushers like New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. The Giants also caught the Packers off guard Sunday with more blitzes and fronts that varied from New York’s standard four-man rush.
San Francisco’s key offensive player: Running back Frank Gore. Alex Smith and tight end Vernon Davis — who snared the game-winning touchdown pass Saturday against New Orleans as part of a seven-catch, 180-yard showing — could duplicate the same kind of success if Gore can keep New York’s defense on its heels. A 42-yard jaunt that set up a 49ers touchdown highlighted Gore’s 13-carry, 89-yard output against New York.
New York’s key offensive player: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. Victor Cruz has taken a back seat in recent weeks as Nicks reemerged as Manning’s top target. Nicks has 13 receptions for 280 yards and four touchdowns in New York’s two playoff games.
San Francisco’s key defensive player: Justin Smith. He was a terror against a Saints offensive line that fields three Pro Bowl selections. The 49ers may target Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie, who has struggled at times this season against quality pass rushers.
New York’s key defensive player: Weak-side linebacker Michael Boley. One of the league’s most athletic players at his position, the Giants unleashed Boley on blitzes against Green Bay that produced two sacks. He also finished with a team-high nine tackles.
Intangibles: With its late-season surge, New York is riding the same wave of momentum that lifted the 2007 Giants into Super Bowl XLII. Roughly 20 percent of San Francisco’s roster had playoff experience entering the postseason but the 49ers continue to disprove critics waiting for the franchise to wilt. NFL Coach of the Year favorite Jim Harbaugh has worked wonders.
Prediction: A true toss-up. These teams are so evenly matched that a repeat of the excitement from the Saints-49ers matchup is possible. Playing at home could prove the difference for San Francisco, but the confidence New York takes into this game can’t be discounted. Because the 49ers haven’t reached a Super Bowl in almost two decades, give the battle-tested Giants a small edge.