Flanny's Picks: Championship Sunday
LAST WEEK STRAIGHT UP: 3-1
SEASON STRAIGHT UP: 171-93
LAST WEEK VS. SPREAD: 3-1
SEASON VS. SPREAD: 140-121-3
RAVENS (+7.5) AT PATRIOTS
We all remember what happened two years ago when the Ravens waltzed into Foxboro and stunned the Patriots by jumping to a 24-0 first-quarter lead on their way to a 33-14 playoff upset. Could it happen again? You bet.
The Patriots can look awfully impressive at times when Tom Brady is protected in the pocket and has time to pick apart secondaries. But Brady and Co. look very ordinary when hurried (see Giants game earlier). The Ravens can put some heat on Brady, and that will be their entire focus. The Ravens gave up less than 93 yards a game rushing this year – second best in the league – and chances are the Patriots won't even try to challenge the Ravens' run defense. That will allow the Ravens to dial up all kinds of pressure schemes to get inside Brady's head.
The other factor to consider is that this Patriots team, like the Packers and the Saints, is not a complete team. The Patriots lack a solid defense – don't be fooled by the inept showing of the Tim Tebow-led Broncos last week. The Patriots were 31st in the NFL in defense, giving up 411.1 yards a game. Only the Packers were worse at 411.6, and we all know what happened to the Packers last week. The point is, weaknesses get exposed this time of year.
The big question, though, is if the Ravens have enough firepower to do serious damage. Joe Flacco is on the talent level of Matt Cassel – he can look decent and manage a game when he has a great running game supporting him. But Flacco, like Cassel, will not make creative plays to bail his team out. Flacco was 18th in the league in passing with an 80.9 passer rating. His completion percentage of 57.6 percent was better than only Sam Bradford, Christian Ponder, Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez and Tebow. Yikes.
Fortunately for the Ravens, they have Ray Rice, who had 60 hard-earned yards last week against a tough Texans' front seven. There will be more space for Rice this week against the New England front seven. Naturally, that will be the key. Can the combination of Rice and a few play-action completions from Flacco be enough to play keep away from Brady? Perhaps for awhile.
I do think the Ravens' defense will make it a tough day for Brady. But he will find a way to get the ball to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and find the end zone just enough to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
Patriots 21, Ravens 17
GIANTS (+2.5) AT 49ERS
I keep picking against the Giants, and they keep proving me wrong. There is just something about this Giants' team that knows how to win under tough conditions. They will need that grit again this week against a 49ers team that isn't about to back down from a street fight, either.
The credit for the Giants' success, at least nationally, has gone to their defense. Certainly, much of that is justified. The Giants were 27th in the league in defense during the regular season but have done an amazing job in the playoffs. First, that defense shut out Matt Ryan and the Falcons in a 24-2 win – the lone points coming on a safety, obviously. Then the Giants befuddled the high-powered Packers and Aaron Rodgers, who turned in his worst game in over two years.
But really, not enough credit is going to Eli Manning, who has done a fabulous job of managing the two playoff wins. And when Eli has had to come up with big throws, he has delivered. He has completed almost 68 percent of his passes in the playoffs, thrown for 607 yards and six touchdowns, and has compiled a 121.8 passer rating. He has been unflappable. Manning also is making a star out of Hakeem Nicks, who has caught 13 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs.
The run game? Not flashy, but steady. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw have combined for 240 yards, and they get the tough first downs when needed.
But as mentioned, the 49ers are equally as tough. To beat a team like the Saints, you have to play physical, and the 49ers did just that, forcing New Orleans into numerous turnovers and mistakes. Alex Smith has re-invented himself at quarterback, and while he may not be Rodgers or Brady, he can get the ball to his weapons. The No. 1 weapon, of course, is tight end Vernon Davis, the hero of last week's win. Davis is a beast, as evidenced by his ability to catch everything thrown his way, including the game-winner against the Saints (compare Davis' bruising performance to equally-talented Jermichael Finley, who couldn't even catch uncontested passes last week).
The 49ers will need to give Smith some help in the running game, which means the 49ers' underrated offensive line will have to create some space for Frank Gore.
Early reports suggest the weather will be rainy and cool in San Fran, and the field could get sloppy. That's perfect for this mud-wrestling match-up. In the end, the 49ers' magical season continues simply because they are at home and they can match the Giants' toughness.
49ers 20, Giants 17