This week in: American Football – One step from the Superbowl

I did try to get new NFL expert, Rob Lowe, to guest write this week’s column – sadly he was too busy being City Manager in Pawnee – and he only had time to let the world know that Peyton Manning has played literally his last game for the Colts.  Next week: Peter King uses his Monday Morning Quarterback column on Sports Illustrated to discuss his views on the character of Sam Seaborn in The West Wing.

The Packers fumbled away their season

Last weekend’s divisional round brought upsets in the NFC: the two favoured teams, with elite quarterbacks duking it out to be this season’s MVP, were eliminated from the playoffs by teams led by former number 1 draft picks under center, who have been much maligned through the years.  The Giant’s Eli Manning won over supporters in 2007/8 when he led his team to a surprise Superbowl win over the Patriots, but, after he threw 20 interceptions last season, there were still many who questioned his status as one of their game’s best quarterbacks.  In the last couple of weeks, Manning has disproven his critics once again and, for the second time in his career, went into Lambeau Field for a January playoff game and emerged victorious.  He had help though – Green Bay Plaxico’d themselves (shot themselves in the foot/leg) on offense by: fumbling three times; dropping 5 catches, and allowing Aaron Rodgers to be sacked four times.  However, their real undoing was on defense – giving up 37 points and the hail mary touchdown, at the very end of the first half, knocked the wind out of their sails completely.  A 15-1 regular season for the Packers is now for nothing, as they join a succession of Superbowl champions who have struggled to make an impact in the following year’s playoffs:

Superbowl XLV winners: Green Bay Packers.  Next season – eliminated in first playoff game by New York Giants

Superbowl XLIV winners: New Orleans Saints. Next season – eliminated in first playoff game at Seattle Seahawks

Superbowl XLIII winners: Pittsburgh Steelers. Next season – finished 9-7, missed playoffs

Superbowl XLII winners: New York Giants.  Next season – eliminated in first playoff game by Philadelphia Eagles

Superbowl XL1 winners: Indianapolis Colts. Next season – eliminated in first playoff game by San Diego Chargers

Superbowl XL winners: Pittsburgh Steelers. Next season – finish 8-8, missed playoffs

The last reigning champs to win a playoff game were the Patriots in 2006 – as they beat the Jaguars in the Wild Card round before losing to the Broncos in Denver – and they were coming off back-to-back Superbowl wins.

Not for the first time in history, the New York Giants are heading to San Francisco – though this time, they’re not defecting West with the Brooklyn Dodgers – as the 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints last weekend.  Alex Smith, who has struggled with injury and lackluster form since being the number 1 pick in the 2005 draft, repaid the faith that new coach Jim Harbaugh showed him in the offseason by convincing him to spend another year in San Francisco.  Smith led his team on consecutive 80 and 85 yard touchdown drives in the final four minutes to come from behind – twice – to win the game.  New Orleans only managed 37 rushing yards as the 49ers defense shut them down, meaning Drew Brees had to throw 62 times – gaining 462 yards and 4 touchdowns, but also two interceptions which, combined with three fumbles lost, cost the Saints a chance to host the NFC Championship game this weekend.

In contrast, there were no upsets in the AFC, as the Ravens and Patriots won the right to face each other at Gillette Stadium this weekend.  New England defeated the Tebow-led Broncos 45-10; while Baltimore beat a stubborn Houston team, 20-13.  While the Patriots’ QB, Tom Brady, threw 6 touchdown passes and looks like he is back to his 2007 vintage best, Joe Flacco looked shaky for the Ravens and struggled to put the game away.  During a radio interview this week, Baltimore safety, Ed Reed, said he thought that the quarterback was rattled by the Texans, after they sacked him 5 times during the game.  With even his own team questioning his toughness, Flacco will have a point to prove this weekend in the arena he led his team to a 33-14 win back in 2009 in his second season in the league.

With four potential matchups left for the Superbowl, there is already a storyline written for it:

49ers vs Ravens – A rematch from Thanksgiving, this would be another Harbaugh Bowl, as brothers Jim and John coach these two teams.  John (Baltimore) came out on top last time, but a battle to win-it-all would raise the stakes exponentially.

49ers vs Patriots – New England QB, Tom Brady, would be playing against the team he grew up rooting for, with the opportunity to tie his boyhood hero, and 49ers legend, Joe Montana on 4 Superbowl rings.

Giants vs Patriots – New York vs Boston needs no added spice, but a rematch of Superbowl XLII, when the Giants stopped the Patriots from having a perfect season, would make this an extra special game.

Giants vs Ravens  – A repeat of Superbowl XXXV, in which Baltimore prevailed 35-7.  If the Giants do make it to the final game, then Eli Manning will be playing in his big brother’s home stadium in Indianapolis, having an opportunity to overtake him with two Superbowl victories.

Predictions

Last week, 2-2; Playoffs 5-3

Sunday 3pm: Ravens @ Patriots

The conventional wisdom here is that New England will stroll through this game and into the Superbowl, as they beat the Broncos with ease last week, while Baltimore struggled to knock out Houston.  However, the Patriots have not beaten a team with a winning record all season, so it is hard to gauge exactly how legitimate this team is.  Their offense is the best of all four teams that remain, but their defense was the 2nd worst in the NFL.  If Ray Rice can rush for 100+ yards, he should open up the passing game for Joe Flacco to exploit, as well as helping the Ravens control the clock and reduce the amount of time that Tom Brady gets to cause them damage.  I think this will be a close game and, if Baltimore’s defense can stop too many big plays from the Patriots, I can see them pulling off a shock victory.  Prediction: Ravens +7.5 over Patriots

Sunday 6:30pm: Giants @ 49ers

Just like in the early game, all the experts seem convinced about how this one is going – that the Giants are invoking the spirit of their 2007 run, which culminated in them winning Superbowl 42, and they will with the NFC again this year.  New York’s pass rush, combined with the deep threat of Manning throwing to Victor Cruz, has them as the common pick to brush aside the 49ers and head to the Championship game.  However, during the regular season, the Giants were only 29th in defending the pass and 19th against the rush; they lost in San Francisco in week 10; and the 49ers looked really good in their game against the Saints last week.  Rain is also due in the area this weekend – a wet field will favour a rushing game over passing – and the 49ers had the best run defense in the league this year.  Prediction: 49ers -2.5 over Giants

 

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