Who will play in Super Bowl XLVI?
When you nail all four games — including two significant upsets — in the Divisional Round, as I did in last week’s “Cheat Sheet,” things change.
Strangers on the street stop and ask you to shake their hands and kiss their babies. Grown men on the subway approach you and ask you for stock tips and what they should do with their 401k. Weather guys from cities across the country send you unsolicited emails that read, “Hey, what do you think the weather will be like tomorrow?”
But crystal balls are tricky objects, and prognosticator success is fleeting. You’re only as “wise” as your last accurate prediction. With three games left to go in the 2011 NFL season, one perfect weekend hardly makes me Nostradamus.
But it was pretty impressive, right? I mean, the Giants and the 49ers? Who had that? That’s pretty darn good.
Before we get to the picks for this weekend (and we will, I promise), I wanted to look ahead to the four potential Super Bowl matchups and rank the best games that we’d have to look forward to. The days of Super Bowls and concerns over TV ratings are long gone, as an Arizona Cardinals-Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl — one that sports media mavens fretted wouldn’t have a national appeal — broke ratings records in 2009.
Here are the four games, in order of football, I’d be most interested in seeing on Feb. 5.
1. New York Giants vs. New England Patriots
The Game: The two teams playing the best football over the past month, going at it in a rematch of one of the 2011 regular season’s best games on a neutral field. There are obvious Super Bowl XLII subplots, here, but both teams are quite different than the ones that went at it in Glendale four years ago. It’s hard to believe, but this game may end up being even better than the one they played in November … and in February of ’08.
Potential Media Headlines:
• “Eli vs. Brady II—in the House that Peyton Built”
• “Coughlin and Belichick: Two Old Colleagues, Going at it…Yet Again”
• “Boston vs. New York, Just One More Time”
Current BetOnline.com Odds of Matchup Happening: 33-20 (+165)
2. Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Game: In an era of big offense and star quarterbacks, this would go down as The Throwback Bowl — a meeting of two teams with decidedly old-school approaches. Two of the league’s most punishing defenses — and two of its least celebrated quarterbacks — going at it in a low-scoring, ugly affair may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but it could make for the most enticing matchup. If the Giants-Patriots was a Top 5 regular-season game this year, San Francisco’s trip to Baltimore on Thanksgiving night is certainly in the Top 10. Let’s do it again.
Potential Media Headlines:
• “The Harbaugh Bowl: Jim and John For All the Marbles”
• “Mayflower 2: Of All Places, a Baltimore franchise Travels to Indianapolis to Bring Back the Lombardi Trophy”
• “Two of the Greats: With their careers winding down, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed look to put final stamps on their Hall of Fame legacies”.
Current BetOnline.com Odds of Matchup Happening: 4-1 (+400)
3. New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Game: A titanic clash of contrasting styles, the high-flying Patriots go up against the defensively sturdy, run-first 49ers. New school vs. old school in every sense of their approaches, this one could be defined as a meeting of two different NFLs. As a new era of big-offense NFL football takes flight, one of the few old school teams left in the game defends the almost forgotten “Defense Wins Championships” mentality.
Potential Media Headlines:
• “Michigan Men: Tom Brady vs. Jim Harbaugh in a Clash of Two Wolverine Quarterback Legends”
• “A Quarterback’s Second Act: In 1995, Jim Harbaugh Came a Win Short of Taking the Colts to the Super Bowl. He Returns to Indianapolis to Win His First”
• “New School vs. Old School: The Battle of Offense and Defense”
Current BetOnline.com Odds of Matchup Happening: 6-5 (+120)
4. New York Giants vs. Baltimore Ravens
The Game: A rematch of Super Bowl XXXV would pair two teams from two tough, storied football towns. 54 years after “The Greatest Game Ever Played”, Baltimore and New York will go at it, in Indianapolis — ironically enough, the current home of the Colts.
Potential Media Headlines:
• “Baltimore and New York, a Football Rivalry that Spans Generations: From the ’58 NFL Championship to Super Bowl III to Super Bowl XXXV to Now”
• “Where in the World is David Tyree? From Super Bowl hero to Ravens IR to out of the league”
• “The Curious Case of Jim Fassel: A Super Bowl Coach for the Giants, an Assistant with the Ravens, and now Coaching in the UFL”
Current BetOnline.com Odds of Matchup Happening: 11-2 (+550)
But hell, it’s the Super Bowl. I’ll take all four options over watching whatever’s on Sunday nights from Feb. 12 to September.
Now, on to my picks.
2011 Regular Season Record: 170-86 (66%)
2011 Postseason Record: 7-1 (87.5%)
Baltimore at New England, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Sports books in Las Vegas have the Ravens listed as 7.5 point underdogs in this one, making Sunday’s game the first time since 2007 that an opponent’s been favored by more than a touchdown over Baltimore. Based on Sunday’s underwhelming Ravens win over a Texans team helmed by a rookie quarterback drafted in the fifth round nine months ago, paired with Saturday night’s complete destruction of Tebow Time, that point spread’s not too surprising.
But I think back to 2000.
Third Eye Blind was an incredibly popular band, Napster was driving the music industry wild, and those Budweiser “Whasssup” ads were all the rage. The 2000 Raiders were also awfully similar to this year’s Patriots. Oakland went 12-4 during the season, secured a first-round bye in the playoffs, and walloped an overmatched Dolphins squad 27-0 in the divisional round. Oakland led the league in several offensive categories in 2000 and Rich Gannon was the quarterback on the NFL All-Pro team.
The 2000 Ravens, despite boasting the statistically best defense in NFL history, were big underdogs when the two teams squared off in the AFC Championship Game.
And what happened? Tony Siragusa fell on Rich Gannon, the Raiders offense stalled and the Ravens cruised to a dominant 16-3 victory on the road. Oakland’s high powered offense, one that averaged over 400 yards per game during the regular season, was held to just 191 yards and three points.
Am I suggesting that Terrence Cody or Pernell McPhee will fall on Tom Brady in the first quarter and the Ravens will beat a disheveled Brian Hoyer-led Patriots squad on Sunday? No. But, I do think there’s a lesson to be learned from that 2000 game — let’s not underestimate a hungry, defensive Ravens squad going up against a high-powered, highly decorated offense.
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s getting roasted in Baltimore this week for his tepid play-calling last Sunday, and rightfully so. The offensive gameplan was horrendous. But this Patriots defense isn’t nearly as potent as the Texans one they faced a week ago. Ray Rice, who struggled mightily against Wade Phillips’ front-seven, will get his yards against a porous Patriots D. In three career games against the Patriots (including the playoffs), Rice has averaged 145.7 scrimmage yards per game. Dennis Pitta and Torrey Smith — two guys who didn’t do much last week — will get their looks. The Ravens are going to score points on Sunday. They’re going to have to.
The only time these two teams played in a playoff game, it was a 33-14 win in the wild-card round up in New England in 2010. Joe Flacco’s 1-0 in playoff games in Foxborough. He’s already played in seven road playoff games. There will be no “jitters” from the fourth-year quarterback.
It’s going to come down to the Ravens linebackers covering those Patriots tight ends. Suggs, Lewis, Johnson and McClain will be up to the task.
I know it sounds crazy, but I like the Ravens on Sunday. Like the Cowboys did earlier this season vs. New England, the defense should stifle Brady just enough to give the offense a chance. And unlike the Cowboys earlier this season, the Ravens offense will be able to get the job done.
I’m taking the Ravens. And if Cody happens to knock out Tom Brady on Sunday, I’ll be sure to give you those stock tips next week.
The Pick: Ravens 30, Patriots 27
New York at San Francisco, Sunday, 6 p.m. ET
The Giants are 4-0 all-time in NFC Championship Games, with three of those wins coming as underdogs. Eli Manning has now won four straight road playoff games and is playing as well as he ever has, 2007 playoff run included. These 49ers sure hit hard — ask Pierre Thomas — and I know they handled the Giants when the two teams met back in November in Candlestick. But this Giants team is playing at an entirely different level. It's their game to lose.
Alex Smith had a career-defining (saving?) win last weekend and likely secured himself yet another new deal with the 49ers. That's all well and good. But I think the storybook season in San Francisco ends on Sunday night. For as well as Carlos Rogers and the rest of the San Francisco defensive backfield played all season, I just can’t see them putting the clamps on Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz in this one. It’s supposed to be a rainy, muddy one come Sunday evening. Any other team, perhaps any other year — I’d give this ground-and-pound 49ers team the advantage in those conditions. But not against this Giants squad; not after what I've seen them do over the past month.
Call me biased, call me a “homer”, call me what you will — but having seen the Giants ruin the postseason dreams of Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers fans in consecutive weeks, I can’t pick against them in good conscience. The 49ers fan base — as potent as any — is about to have its dreams crushed, too.
A Joe Flacco-Eli Manning Super Bowl might not make for the sexiest game in the world, but it’s how I see things unfolding.
Upset specials in both the AFC and NFC Championship Games? You bet.
That crystal ball of mine? It apparently has quite a pair of cajones.
The Pick: Giants 27, 49ers 16