NFL Championship Weekend Preview
by Nate Jacobson | University of Missouri
Baltimore @ New England
The two top teams from the AFC meet in the early championship game. Last week, the Patriots scored early and often to put away Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. The Ravens also scored early in their divisional round game and held off the Houston Texans. These two teams have a postseason history with each other. Two years ago, the Ravens upset the Patriots 33-14 in Foxboro.
Key matchup when Ravens have ball: Joe Flacco vs. Patriots’ secondary
For most of the regular season, the Patriots’ weakness has been their inexperienced secondary. This unit gave up big numbers to average quarterbacks such as Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman, and Matt Moore. The flaw in Joe Flacco’s short NFL career has been that he has crumbled in a big playoff game. Flacco must play well against a Patriots defense that will game plan around Ravens’ running back Ray Rice.
Key matchup when Patriots have ball: Patriots’ tight ends vs. Ravens’ linebackers
Last Saturday night, the Broncos had no answer for the Patriots tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Broncos aren’t the only team that has had trouble containing the pair. Gronkowski caught three touchdowns and Hernandez was incorporated in the passing and running game. If there is a defense that could figure out a way to slow down the tight ends, it would be the Ravens. The Baltimore linebackers are especially strong with pass rushing ace Terrell Suggs and veteran Ray Lewis.
Prediction: New England 31, Baltimore 27
The Ravens will keep it close and have the confidence that they could win in New England. However, the Ravens have struggled on the road this season. Gronkowski and Hernandez will gain a lot of attention from the Ravens, which will lead to a big game for Wes Welker.
New York @ San Francisco
Both teams were underdogs in the divisional round but pulled off memorable victories to go to the NFC championship game. New York eliminated Green Bay with a 37-20 victory. San Francisco outdueled New Orleans 36-32 due to gutsy play calling by 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Key matchup when Giants have ball: Giants’ offensive line vs. 49ers’ defensive line
Last week the Giants’ offensive line did an outstanding job protecting Eli Manning. Manning had plenty of time to make big throws to Hakeem Nicks and was able to find Mario Manningham or Victor Cruz when the Giants needed a first down. The 49ers’ defensive line will need to get pressure like they did against the Saints. Rookie Aldon Smith recorded 14 sacks in the regular season and must rise to the occasion.
Key matchup when 49ers have ball: Frank Gore vs. Giants’ front seven
One of the major knocks on the 49ers going into the playoffs was that Alex Smith is their quarterback. Last Saturday, Smith answered his critics and proved he could win a big game. Now the Giants must respect Smith, who benefits from playing at home. Because the Giants have to focus on Smith and tight end Vernon Davis, there is an opportunity for 49ers running back Frank Gore to have a big game. The 49ers will give Gore a healthy number of touches against a group of Giants defensive ends who are very fast and quick.
Prediction: San Francisco 24, New York 23
While this seems very similar to the Giants Super Bowl run in 2007, I believe in the home team on this one. Alex Smith is a legitimate starting quarterback, and never count out a Jim Harbaugh-coached team that will feed off the home crowd at Candlestick Park.Nate Jacobson is a NextGen Journal Sports Correspondent. He is a freshmen at the University of Missouri, majoring in journalism.