Pro football’s final four: a new champ

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And then there were four.

Whereas college basketball has its March Madness culminating in its Final Four weekend that ultimately determines the best team in that sport, the NFL has January Jubilation – its own version of a Final Four that this weekend will determine the two participants in our new national pastime’s ultimate event, the Super Bowl.

The NFC Championship game involves a rematch of a mid-season game in which San Francisco hosted and defeated the New York Giants 27-20. In the AFC, New England will host Baltimore, the team that put an end to the Patriots’ eight-game home postseason winning streak in 2009.

The results could set up a most interesting Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis. Should the Giants and Patriots prevail it would set up a rematch of the historic Super Bowl XLII in which the Giants ended New England’s quest for 19-0 perfection with their last minute 17-14 victory.

It would also be a rematch of a game earlier this season in which the Giants went up to New England and ended the Pats’ 20 game regular season winning streak, 24-20, in what has been New England’s most recent loss.

Should the 49ers and Ravens win their Conference Championships it would set up another rematch of a regular season game in which, on Thanksgiving night, the Ravens defeated the visiting 49ers 16-6. Oh, and it would also be brother vs. brother to decide the NFL Champion as San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh would get a chance to avenge that loss to his brother John.

Shades of the Alabama vs. LSU rematch, anyone?

Here’s a look at both games to be played on Sunday.

Ravens +7½ at Patriots (50): Baltimore relies on an outstanding and aggressive defense to compliment its rather ordinary, pedestrian and low risk offense for its success. New England strength is its high powered, second ranked offense, led by QB Tom Brady and a variety of receivers and running backs to do more damage to opposing defenses than that which is inflicted on its own defense, ranked number 32 – dead last – during this past regular season.

But, New England’s defensive stats are somewhat deceiving. Despite those ugly yardage stats, the Pats were better than average in allowing less than the league average in points. During the regular season the Ravens allowed just 16.6 points per game. New England allowed 21.4 per game. But in terms of points scored per game the Pats enjoyed a huge 32.1 vs. 23.6 edge.

It was two seasons ago, on this field, that Baltimore shocked New England with a rather easy 33-14 win, keyed by a huge effort from RB Ray Rice, perhaps the most unheralded elite player in the NFL. QB Joe Flacco continues to draw criticism for being no more than, at best, an average quarterback who has been slow to progress from his rookie season. Yet Flacco has now led the Ravens to five wins in eight playoff games, four of which have been on the road.

Both he and coach John Harbaugh have made the layoffs in each of their first four seasons. Their formula is simple. Rely on a low risk, run and short pass oriented offense and a field position game to keep the game within reach and allow for the team’s strength, the defense, to make the big play.

The perception is that the Patriots are a powerhouse. But the reality is that they are a consistently very good team, but far from dominant. And their defense this season has been quite yielding despite allowing fewer points than the league average. Baltimore’s defense ranked second in allowing just 4.61 yards per play. New England allowed 6.19 yards per play, a gap of more than 1½ yards.

The Ravens have the better ability to run the football and shorten the game while tiring out that New England defense. There is no reason why the Ravens can’t be in this game all the way. The line is high due largely to New England’s reputation, their dominating win last Sunday over a very flawed Denver and the seemingly poor performance of Baltimore’s offense in their 20-13 win over Houston last Sunday in which the Ravens amassed just 227 yards of total offense.

But that was against a Texans’ defense that somewhat mirrors the Ravens’ defense, ranking second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed this season. Two seasons ago, when the Ravens won on this field in the playoffs, the line had New England favored by just 3½ points. And that was a Patriots team with a better defense and a huge edge, at that time, in playoff experience.

Now the defense is considerably weaker, the edge in playoff experience is minimal and the Ravens have had much more recent success. Yet the point spread is doubled from just two seasons ago. The Ravens have often been accused of playing to the level of their competition, an accusation that was borne out in regular season losses at Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle and in sluggish wins over the likes of Arizona and Cleveland.

But they’ve played well in the postseason. While the Pats do enough things well to win and there are not many quarterbacks the equal of Tom Brady in critical drives, the Ravens have enough positives to suggest this line is too high and that Baltimore will be in this game right to the final minutes. RAVENS.

Giants +2½ at 49ers (43½): As they’ve done several times in recent seasons the Giants pulled yet another surprising playoffs upset with their 37-20 win last week in Green Bay. The G-men were totally in control on both sides of the football in knocking the defending Super Bowl Packers from their favorites’ perch.

More and more the Giants are looking both like the team they were in 2007 when they ultimately won Super Bowl XLII over then 18-0 New England as they are looking like the Packers of last season when Green Bay rode the Wild Card role into the Super Bowl. San Francisco achieved a surprise of its own last week when they ousted New Orleans, the team considered pretty much the equal of Green Bay and a team that had won, and covered, 8 straight games heading into their clash with the 49ers.

The Giants enjoy a huge edge in experience with a nucleus of players still on the roster, and playing key roles, from that Super Bowl win over the Patriots, including coach Tom Coughlin and QB Eli Manning. They’ve also been able to win on the road, winning three road games en route to that Super Bowl win. And this past week they won at Green Bay on a field on which the Packers were unbeaten during the regular season and were 15-1 overall.

The win over the Packers and the home win a week earlier over Atlanta were the Giants’ first victories since the Super Bowl triumph as New York was one and done in the playoffs the following season and missed the postseason each of the past two seasons. To be fair, in 2010 the Giants were a playoff caliber team with a 10-6 record, losing out to the Packers on tiebreakers for a Wild Card berth.

The 49ers are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season. Their 13-3 record this season was also the 49ers’ first winning season since 2002. Clearly the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as coach has made a huge difference as the 2011 roster was nearly the same as the roster that went 6-10 in 2010, save for kicker David Akers whose 44 field goals set an NFL record.

That also speaks to the relative weakness of the San Francisco offense although QB Alex Smith has made great strides under the guidance and tutelage of Harbaugh. But it’s been defense and special teams that have carried the Niners to the brink of the Super Bowl. San Francisco has been very consistent all season.

Their roughest stretch was when they lost two of three games, both on the road, in November. They have been 8-1 at home including seven straight wins. The Giants started the season 3-1 and 6-2, highlighted by a mid season win at New England that ended the Pats’ 20 game regular season home winning streak. But following the win the Giants lost four in a row and 5 of 6 before rallying from 12 points down with five minutes to go on a Sunday night in December in Dallas for a remarkable 37-34 win.

After flopping the next week at home against Washington the Giants have now won four straight games to get into position to make it back to the Super Bowl. Overall the Giants have covered 6 of their last seven games while the 49ers, who started the season 9-0-1 ATS, have lost four of their last seven ATS. In looking at the full body of work of both teams this season a solid case can be made for the 49ers being favored in this game.

Not only did they defeat the Giants 27-20 on this field in mid season, but the Niners also fared better against both the common opponents each team faced and against the league’s elite teams in general. The Giants and 49ers have each played 10 games against common opponents. The Giants were just 5-5 SU and ATS against those teams, being outscored by an average of 2.1 ppg.

The 49ers were 8-2 SU and 6-3-1 ATS against those same teams, outscoring the opposition by an average of 7.5 points per game. Against teams that, including playoffs, have records more than two games above .500, the Giants 3-3 SU, 4-2 ATS. San Francisco is 4-1 both SU and ATS against similar teams and have outscored those teams by a FG more than have the Giants.

A closer look at the stats shows that the Giants actually performed better than the 49ers in those games, other than in the final score. But although the 49ers deserve to be favored the Giants have enough both in terms of current form and playoff experience to suggest that a win here would not be an upset. Consider that in defeating the Saints last week on their home field, the 49ers were +4 in turnovers yet twice had to overcome late fourth quarter deficits to pull out the win over the high powered Saints.

This line might hit 3 before money comes in on the underdog Giants. The 49ers have been a nice story this season and their future is bright. But their ride should come to an end this coming Sunday. GIANTS.

 

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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