Finesse Patriots sit atop unexpected final foursome

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And then there were four.

The chuck-it-around-the-park-60-times-a-game clubs are done, save the New England Patriots. There aren't enough superlatives with which to laud the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, which respectively shut down the aerial shows of the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.

Harrison: The Final Four
Thirty-two teams have been whittled down to four. Elliot Harrison breaks down the matchups in each championship game. More ...

Considering that last week was the 30th anniversary of "The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, the Niners' win over the Saints was particularly special. In fact, NFL Network re-aired that game last week. In related news, I chose to re-watch the 1992 NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Cowboys -- also a classic and also played on the soggy floor of The 'Stick.

Seeing two great teams play outdoors, on a real field, actually hitting receivers over the middle while attacking the pocket aggressively, was nothing shy of awesome. The rules changes in the league just don't allow for games like the '81 and '92 championships anymore, which carries a bucket of irony since those Niner squads were always considered finesse teams.

Finesse is what you get when teams throw out of five-receiver spreads every other down. For once this season, that approach failed miserably. Well, except for those Patriots.

So let our special Championship Week rankings reflect the grim truth. And as always, let the dissension commence ...

RANK

1

14-3 PATRIOTS

AFC No. 1 seed. Whoever plays inside 'backer against these guys -- be it Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Chase Blackburn or Dick Butkus -- better get some depth when their team goes two-deep at safety. Every time safeties split the field deep, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez OWN the middle. Need evidence? Check out Gronkowski's third touchdown on Saturday night. New England forces linebackers to cover as much as defensive backs. Nobody can cover Bill Belichick's tight ends to the post, and that's a big reason why the Pats are the team to beat. Tom Brady identifies the guy covered by your team's one DB who should be working at Soup Plantation, and then lets it rip.

RANK

2

14-3 49ERS

NFC No. 2 seed. It's really hard to not root for the Niners. In an era when league legislation won't let defenses do much of anything more physical than Journey in concert, the 49ers thrive. The front seven is as good as any in football. Mike Singletary might be gone, but man-for-man up front, theirs are better than yours, much like Samurai Mike's '85 Bears.

San Francisco's success also goes to show that a team can win in the modern NFL without throwing three-yard outs all day in a spread offense.

RANK

3

11-7 GIANTS

NFC No. 4 seed. Like the 49ers, the Giants have triumphed by resurrecting old school football tactics. Namely, getting pressure from the front four.

Fittingly, the 4-3 defense, and this whole idea of getting pressure from just four down linemen, was created by one of the G-Men's own: Tom Landry. As New York's defensive coordinator from 1954-59, Landry spawned the scheme that much of modern defense is based upon. He -- like Buddy Ryan or any of the other great 4-3 innovators -- would've been extremely impressed with the manner in which the Giants won in Lambeau Sunday.

As far as jumping ahead of the Ravens in the rankings, look no further than Eli Manning's play. Over the last three games, he's gone 68-for-98 for 953 yards, nine touchdowns and one measly pick. That's a 126.8 aggregate passer rating. Wow.

RANK

4

13-4 RAVENS

AFC No. 2 seed. I hope Terrell Suggs pulls up Appetite For Destruction on his iPod and rocks "Welcome to the Jungle" or "Out ta Get Me" before hitting the Gillette carpet Sunday afternoon. Baltimore needs absolute domination from its front seven. Don't let Tom Brady breathe. The way New England's quarterback is playing, mixing coverages isn't going to be enough. That said, the Ravens have the personnel to hold their own defensively. Although the corners can be had, the defense allowed the third-fewest points in the league, and limited the Pats to 23 points in essentially five quarters last year.

Once again, this club's hopes hinge on the expressionless guy with the NASCAR crew chief mustache. Can Joe Flacco improve his accuracy and make defenses pay for trying to bottle up Ray Rice? That's the question.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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