I can’t wait for these two games. I think both are going to be compelling, close and hard-fought. And that, of course, means we’re in for a pair of blowouts. Here’s what not to expect.
Baltimore (+7.5) at New England
I’ve had my doubts for a very long time about the notion that defense wins championships (or defense wins in the post-season, or defense wins football games — however you want to put it). Sometimes it does. And sometimes it doesn’t. On the other hand, I believe firmly that football games are won and lost in the trenches. It’s true more often than not in the regular season and it’s true more and more often the deeper you get in the post-season. Because you reach a point when every team that’s still playing brings a lot of talent to the field. You can spend your life trying to figure out which receivers are going to beat which DBs more of the time. You can measure quarterback against quarterback. You can talk about what happens when running backs break into the open field. And there’s some value in all of it. But if you just want to get down to the difference between likely winners and likely losers, the place you want to look is line play. And line play is what’s going to make the difference in this game. If the Baltimore defensive front can break through the New England offensive line and harass Tom Brady, it’ll go a long way to evening out the gap between the most and least productive offenses left in the post-season. If it can’t, which is to say if New England’s excellent O line performs to its usual high level, there’s not a lot the Ravens will be able to do to keep Brady and his receivers from picking up yards and putting up points. Baltimore can’t survive a shootout. Likewise, the New England defensive front is going to have to find a way to stuff the run and prevent the Ravens from putting the game on Ray Rice’s shoulders. Because if the Ravens can use Rice to chew up yards and clock, their defense won’t need to work nearly as hard to contain Brady. So with that, it should be easy to figure out where this game is going, right? Yeah, not so much. It’s strength against strength. The Pats do a great job of protecting their QB; the Ravens to a great job of getting to opposing quarterbacks. The Patriots defense, which has come on since late in the season, tends to give up yards in the passing game, but has been effective against the run; the Ravens’ ground game is the strength of their offense. Something’s gotta give. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what that’s gonna be. So I’ll fall back on this: If every player on all four lines plays to the best of his abilities — which is what you have to assume given the stakes and the fact that both teams have made it this far — the Patriots have a slight advantage. Because New England’s offense moves the ball with precision and scores fast, and because the Patriots have displayed more versatility, both of which position them better to capitalize on the plays that go according to plan, and compensate for those that don’t. The Patriots also are at home, which isn’t that much of an advantage given the level of the competition, but it’s something. So I’ll take New England straight up, but I’m not giving seven and a half. I’ll call it Patriots by a field goal.
NY Giants (+2) at San Francisco
I rarely guarantee anything, but I can guarantee you the 49ers are winning this game. How can I be so sure? Easy: Because I’m picking the Giants. And the Giants always do exactly the opposite of what I predict. So there you go. Thing is, I could easily have picked it the other way. I mean, hey, the the Niners are a formidable team. The 14.3 points per game San Francisco’s defense allowed during the regular season was the second best average in the league (trailing only Pittsburgh’s 14.2). And, sure, they gave up 32 last weekend, but that was to the most productive offense in the NFL, a unit that put up 34.2 a game in the regular season. Plus, the Giants are playing their second straight long-distance road game, and winning on the road against good teams two weeks in a row has never been an easy thing to manage. But the Giants have something that the Niners lack, and that the New Orleans Saints lacked: balance. New Jersey doesn’t give you the level of offensive production New Orleans does, but they’ve managed 30.5 points a game thus far in the post-season. And they posted 37 last weekend in Green Bay. They have three talented wide receivers and a quarterback who’s smart enough not to throw the ball away and patient enough to hang on and find the open man. And while the Giants D was average at best through most of the regular season, it came on as it got healthy late in the campaign. The New Jersey defense has allowed just 20 points in the playoffs, all of them to a Green Bay offense that put up 35 a game in the regular season (the only two points given up to Atlanta in its wild card round trouncing in East Rutherford came on a safety, and there’s no holding a defense accountable for that). I can’t see the Giants scoring 32 against the Niners, but neither can I see them giving up 36. More like 20 and 13, I think. So I’ll take New Jersey and give the two. And that means San Francisco’s winning it for sure.