Prior to the Snap: Championship Sunday

Let’s dispense of the formalities and get right to it:

#2 BALTIMORE AT #1 NEW ENGLAND

You ready to get Gronked? That sounds disgusting.

What percentage of Patriots fans have worked the verb “Gronk” into their regular vocabulary? I haven’t heard it yet, but I assume 100. “Gronk,” interestingly enough, is almost always modified by the adverb “totally” and takes the direct object “workout.”

Now seriously, can the Ravens stop Rob Gronkowski? I wouldn’t frame the question that way. Stopping the Patriots isn’t about stopping any one of their wide receivers/tight ends (and like, what’s the difference; we can even throw running back into that slash line) so much as it is about stopping Tom Brady. How does one stop Tom Brady? You get pressure on him, obviously.

You stole my question: And the Ravens haven’t been getting pressure of late. But if Terrell Suggs can have one of his occasional dominant three-sack kind of games, well then, the Pats won’t be running no-huddle empty sets too often, will they?

At this point, why doesn’t every moderately good offense run a no-huddle? You know, everybody always says how the no-huddle tires a defense, preventing substitutions. But nobody ever talks about how tired the offensive linemen, who never sub out, get during the no-huddle. Seems unfair.

But: It really does neutralize the pass rush, doesn’t it? Especially when you get the ball out as quick as Brady and the Patriots typically do.

So, since you’re focusing on the other game, what does this one come down to? Besides the pressure thing I already mentioned? Flacco.

How insightful: “This is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.” —DFW

Snooze: This is all to say that there’s a reason everyone says this game will come down to how Joe Flacco plays. This is because this game will come down to how Joe Flacco plays. New England isn’t going to let Ray Rice beat it on the ground, and its defensive flaws are in the secondary more than anywhere else. Further, Baltimore’s going to need to score 20+ to win in Foxboro. Flacco’s going to have to make some plays to do it.

How might he? Anquan Boldin is still really good, and Torrey Smith can probably beat a Pats corner deep at some point. Flacco has to hit him.

How might he not? He might play like he has for most of this season, which has ranged from very poor to adequate.

Who does a Giants fan want to win this game? Probably Baltimore. The Giants would have a better shot of beating the Ravens, I think, plus it would allow for Super Bowl XXXV vengeance.

At the same time, beating the Patriots a second time in the Super Bowl would be really cool.

Who does a Niners fan want to win this game? The Patriots, so we can focus on football instead of an individual family for the next fortnight.

Does Flacco play well? I think he plays better than usual, and that the Ravens are in the game.

But: But he doesn’t make enough big plays to keep up with Brady. Patriots 24-17.

#4 NEW YORK AT #2 SAN FRANCISCO

How about this? Man, this is nuts.

What do Giants fans think about this team? We love this team. Like LOVE love. Of course, we hated them a month ago when they predictably lost to the Redskins. Let me try to explain this briefly.

Please do: In the fourth quarter of the Giants’ November game with the 49ers, I was sitting on my recliner as Eli Manning attempted to lead a second consecutive touchdown drive to tie the game. The Giants had just come back the week before to beat the Patriots at Foxboro, they were 6-2, and so I’m thinking to myself, “You know what? No matter what happens here, I can’t complain. This team is really fun to watch.”

Fast forward only a week from then, when the Giants came out sluggishly and lost late to Vince Young and the Eagles at home, and all I could think about was how much I was dreading having to watch them play the Saints and Packers each of the next two weeks.

This has been the back-and-forth nature of this franchise for quite a few years. They often play up to top competition and when they’re on the road, and down to poor competition and when at home. This year seemed to exacerbate that to an even greater degree. They have lost twice to the Redskins, at home to the Seahawks, and at home to Young and the Eagles. But they swept the Cowboys, beat Vick and the Eagles on the road, and won in New England. They are very difficult to read.

What’s your read on them now? They are playing fantastic football. This is about as good as the Giants have looked in my fandom, which stretches to about 1992. This team is better than the 2000 team, better than the ’02 team was down the stretch (I want to make a point about them later), and right now, playing even better than the ’07 team did during the playoffs. The best analogue is probably when the ’08 team was 11-1 and regularly crushing good football teams.

Better than ’07? The 2007 team won its three NFC playoff games by a grand total of 17 points against teams that went 9-7, 13-3, and 13-3, and that came on the heels of an ugly road win in Buffalo and the inspiring home loss to New England to finish the season. The idea of the Giants being hot going into that postseason is entirely revisionist. Every member of the Fox pregame show predicted they would lose to Tampa Bay.

This year’s team won its final two games of the season—against talented but flawed teams yearning for the postseason themselves—by 15 and 17 points. They then beat a 10-6 team by 22 and a 15-1 team on the road by 17 (and probably deserved to be more). That’s a pretty nice stretch of football.

But: The Jets and Cowboys each went 8-8, and they weren’t as good as we all thought they were. The Falcons were within eight, driving in Giants territory midway through the third quarter. And the Packers played really poorly last Sunday.

Let’s forget about anomalous losses to the Redskins and things like that and look at numbers. This team was outscored in the regular season. How can a team go from being outscored in the regular season to looking this dominant in the postseason? If you want to go Bill Barnwell and compare them to last year’s Packers, you’ll have to overlook that 2010 GB had a +148 scoring differential, which was second-best in all of football. The ’07 Giants were +22. Hell, the ’08 Cardinals were +1. How does this happen??? You’re throwing a lot of stuff at me there. So we need to break this down into a list, I think.

1. Nobody’s going all Bill Barnwell on you!

2. They’re healthy. You cannot overstate how much a healthy Osi Umenyiora alters this defense. Just look at that forced fumble he had last week, which was the difference between a 20-17 game in the third quarter and the Giants salting it away. Having Umenyiora amps up that pass rush tremendously and compensates for the occasional lapses in the secondary. Furthermore, the return of Michael Boley gives the Giants their most athletic linebacker and someone who can hang in coverage. He’s also the signal-caller defensively, and New York has made far fewer assignment mistakes since he’s been back.

On offense, having a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw means as much to the passing game as it does to the running game, since Bradshaw is a lot better than Brandon Jacobs both at checkdown passes and at picking up blitzers. Watching Ahmad Bradshaw picking up blitzers is one of my 15 favorite things about this team.

The other 14? We’re still getting through my first list here.

3. The offensive line has come together. Everyone is touting the return of the running game, and yes, Jacobs is running with more conviction than we’ve seen from him since the ’08 season. But a lot of that is the O-line opening up more holes than it had been. The difference is even more apparent in the passing game. If you watch the film of the Giants’ win in Dallas in Week 14, you’ll notice how little time Manning had all night. What made his performance so remarkable was how well he played in spite of a lack of protection—how he knew when to throw it away and how he avoided a sack all night despite constant hurries. Well now, he’s not getting hurried, and if you give Eli Manning time, he’s going to pick you apart.

4. Eli Manning is picking apart teams. It’s been a topic of discussion all season—at least in these parts—but Manning is really having a tremendous year—almost certainly the best in franchise history. And he’s playing better now than he has all year, limiting his mistakes and converting third downs with vicious efficiency.

What was the point you wanted to make about the ’02 team? At the end of that 2002 season, and in particular after the Giants went to Indianapolis in Week 16 and won 44-27, I realized that I was watching the best offense in franchise history. And that offense doesn’t even compare to this offense.

That team scored 20 points per game. Are you cuckoobananas? Nice, Manny Santos. They averaged over 30 in the last six, if you count the Wild Card debacle in SF. That offense rounded into form, which is why so many fans—or maybe just me—were pretty confident that after beating the 49ers, we’d go to Tampa Bay and dispose of the Bucs.

Do you want to talk about that so-called debacle? You know, I was able to write a bit about the ’99 Mets losing to the Braves on that Kenny Rogers walk some time back. But I don’t think I’m ready yet to discuss that game. It’s been nine years and it still pisses me off more than any other sporting event.

Is that just because they missed the call at the end? Not just, but largely. It’s also that that was third down, and if Matt Allen throws the ball away right away, they’d have had another shot.

Fun postseason rivalry between these two, eh? Oh yeah. As Dan Graziano pointed out, this will be the eighth meeting between the two teams in the postseason, tied for the most all-time. San Francisco has won four of them, including the last two.

Which was the best? While I’m obviously tempted to say the 49-3 thrashing in ’86, everyone knows the ’90 NFC Championship was the best. One of the great games of the 1990s really. So good, in fact, that I watched it this week on YouTube.

SOPA!!!! I don’t really know if that applies.

What’d you learn? Aside from how much I miss Pat Summerall and that pads used to be comically large? The interesting thing, to me, about that game in relation to this week’s game, is how much the identity of these two franchises has flipped. Now it’s the Niners that are the defensive stalwarts who run the ball, don’t turn it over, and control time of possession, and it’s the Giants who throw the ball over the field to their big-play receivers and rely on a pass rush defensively. It’s very strange as a Giants fan to root for an offense this good, and I imagine it’s very strange for a Niners fan to root for a team built on defense.

Where does Leonard Marshall’s hit on Joe Montana rank all-time?

I know I’m biased here, but I think it’s the standard by which all QB hits are judged. LT on Theismann is disgusting and unorthodox. Hits like that don’t usually happen. But Marshall’s was as good a blindside hit as you’ll ever see, and it’s an example of an amazing hustle play by a defensive lineman. The hit was so devastating that the camera stayed with Montana instead of focusing on who recovered the fumble.

You know what’s crazy? Joe Montana missed most of the next TWO years from that hit! You know what the sideline report was on him after that hit?

“The report we get on Montana is the doctors want him to stay right where he is because the report from the 49er bench is that everything hurts.”

You ready to talk at all about this year’s 49ers? Let’s go. I think my pick last week was pretty spot-on, no? The Niners created turnovers, didn’t give it away, and won the special teams battle. And oh yeah, Alex Smith led two game-winning drives.

I didn’t see that part of your prediction: It was edited it out. Blast these space restrictions. SOPA!!!!

What did A. Smith show you? That he can win a game against a bad secondary. And the Giants secondary isn’t a whole heck of a lot better, although I hope Perry Fewell has a better plan against Vernon Davis than Gregg Williams did.

Smith also showed me that he’s not as smart as everyone says he is, because any really smart football guy would have known to slide inbounds on that sweep play and just settle for the game-winning field goal.

You’re a Niners fan. What scares you about the Giants? That Eli Manning is playing better than anyone in the tournament, as they say, and this team is supremely confident and has found its stride.

Better than six-touchdown Brady? I’m sorry. When did he play a playoff team?

Ha. Hilarious but specious. We all know Denver’s D is still better than Green Bay’s: Touché.

You’re a Giants fan. What’s got you pulling the covers over your head about the Niners? Besides visions of Matt Allen rolling out? That this is a disciplined defensive team that won’t make the mistakes we’ve preyed on for weeks and which won’t allow the big plays our receivers have been making of late.

And Andy Lee and David Akers. They legitimately scare me.

Will Lawrence Tynes miss a key field goal? Lawrence has been a little shaky of late. I don’t feel 100 percent confident with him on any kick.

What kind of game do you expect? Let’s grant it’ll be close; that’s pretty reasonable, right? So is it high-scoring or low-scoring? Medium-scoring? It’s kind of funny to me that this game’s over/under is lower than an AFC title game featuring the Ravens, but I suppose people have a lot of respect for Tom Brady. I don’t expect to see the Giants offense move the ball up and down the field the way it did last week. It’s going to be about third-down conversions, and whether Eli can continue to excel in those spots, because the Giants will face their share of them. I don’t really think the Giants will do too much on the ground, especially early in the game. They haven’t run successfully early in a game like all season.

And I think the Niners can score on the Giants. Like last week, it’ll be a matter of converting in the red zone for San Francisco. If they score touchdowns, they’ll probably win. If they don’t, it’s a different story.

So what happens? I honestly don’t know. I’ve gone back and forth on this game all week, trying to temper my expectations like I did in ’07. But in the end, I simply have more faith in Eli than in San Francisco’s defense and special teams. Giants 23-20.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on January 22, 2012 at 1:31 PM

    I heard Tim Raines got gronked while he had lupus.

    Reply

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