We have two of the best offenses and quarterbacks in the world (Tom Brady's New England Patriots and Eli Manning's New York Giants), and two teams with highly imposing defenses (the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers). Oh yeah, as you may have heard there are two brothers who are each one win away from creating the ultimate sibling bout in Indianapolis.
In the meantime, we get two conference championships that should be top notch. We have contrasting styles in both games, and a couple of quarterbacks who seem to have to prove their mettle and worth on a weekly basis (Joe Flacco and Alex Smith). If those two come up big -- particularly Smith, who's fresh off a career-best game against New Orleans -- then you have to like the chances of that Harbaugh Bowl rematch coming to fruition.
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Inside slant:The Ravens' season may come down to one man: Terrell Suggs. T-Sizzle really is the potential difference-maker here. If he can rattle Tom Brady and get in the backfield with consistency, this becomes a vastly different scenario. New England's offensive line has suffered some down the stretch with injuries, and Suggs has had his way with the Pats at times in the past (see: Baltimore's playoff smackdown of New England two seasons ago). If Baltimore doesn't force a few turnovers and limit New England to under 10 possessions, the Ravens could get steamrolled in a track meet. Suggs being explosive off the edge, batting balls, hitting Brady and making the star quarterback consistently lift his feet adds bite to Baltimore defense. He is the one true dominant pass rusher on the team, and with Haloti Ngata ailing a bit the last six weeks or so, Suggs off the edge is even more vital. If Brady has time, it could be lights out. Cory Redding and the rest of the Ravens' defensive linemen should enjoy more success this week than they did against Houston a week ago, when they were outmuscled, frankly.
Chris Carr is likely to dress and has had success as a nickel slot guy, so he may see a fair amount of Wes Welker. While corner Lardarius Webb is playing at a Pro Bowl level, his size and skill set might not make him the best match on Welker and all of the quick stuff across the middle from the slot. Baltimore has to bracket Rob Gronkowski, attempting to derail him at the line of scrimmage and putting a safety -- likely Bernard Pollard -- on him as well. Baltimore won't have to put as many numbers at the line of scrimmage and will have to get a pass rush out of sub packages. Rookie corner Jimmy Smith might be the right matchup on Aaron Hernandez.
The Ravens believe they can run the ball on New England ... and most teams do. Baltimore should have used Ricky Williams more last week. Expect to see more power stuff with Williams to complement the outside zone stuff for Ray Rice. New England doesn't have the speed and pass rush that Houston did, which helped the Texans negate the screen game a week ago.
Lee Evans has to be a force on the outside to complement Torrey Smith, because otherwise Baltimore has essentially three tight ends -- Anquan Boldin is essentially a third tight end at this stage in his career. Baltimore's receivers often struggle to gain separation and though the Pats traditionally play a lot of zone, we may see some more man this week. Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich will have to be active in the pass rush. Baltimore's line has a chip on its shoulder after being overpowered by the Texans for big stretches of last week's game.
This will be a referendum on Baltimore coordinator Cam Cameron as well, in terms of dedication to the run game, milking the clock and keeping Brady off the field. Oh, and Ed Reed has a knack for showing up big in games like this. Just ask Brady and Bill Belichick, who marvel at his ability.
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Inside slant:This game may come down to Eli Manning and his trio of receivers. When the Giants go three-wide with Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz, they are tough to defend because they can hit screens, go deep or run effectively with Ahmad Bradshaw, all out of the same formation. If the Niners' best cover guy, Carlos Rogers, gets Cruz, then Nicks could be a handful, especially out of the slot. And if you double both of them, then how many swing passes to Bradshaw do you see? No team has been better against the run than the 49ers, however, particularly in the red zone. Brandon Jacobs is going to have a tough time running over anyone in what many believe is the best linebacking group in the NFL.
And how will the 49ers block the Giants' front four? Teams like Baltimore, who have some push-rush ability, gave the 49ers fits. New York finally has Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul all healthy and on the field together. They can play games, set up stunts and attack inside or out. It's a lot different from a week ago, when the Saints usually had to bring the house and get the secondary involved in the blitz to try to generate a pass rush.
Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell can double tight end Vernon Davis and sit back and play some zone coverage on the back end, knowing he has a shot of getting pressure with a four-man rush. Also, besides Davis, there isn't any other Niner to worry about as a vertical threat. If the Giants can play Cover-2 with a man under on Davis, and get to Smith by rushing limited numbers, that's going to cause problems.
New York's secondary may not be great, but with that pass rush it gets better, and Aaron Ross and Kenny Phillips can make plays on the ball. I'd suspect we see an awful lot of Frank Gore early, and Kendall Hunter as well.
The Giants have to find a way to neutralize Justin Smith, if that's possible. Doubling him will present issues elsewhere, and the interior of their line can be suspect at times. Manning seems to be playing on a different level, regardless, and his athleticism in making improvised plays under duress has been a constant on New York's surge to this point.
A week ago the Saints turned the ball over five times, but Manning has cut way down on his turnovers this season. Heaven knows the heavy-hitting 49ers will be hunting for the ball, however, and if they can deliver the kind of game-changing blows they did last week, that will turn the tables.
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