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Conference championship game scouts
Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
KEYS TO THE GAME: When Baltimore rolled the Patriots, 33-14, in the 2009 postseason, it was a sizzling Ray Rice performance that carried the day. Rice had 22 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns, including an 83-yard score, and the Ravens attempted only 10 passes. Baltimore must break its puzzling habit of going away from Rice in road games this season; he's averaging only 14.5 carries with 10 or fewer carries four times. That can't happen on this stage. Rice accounted for 38 percent of the team's offensive output in 2011 and he's easily the Ravens' premier playmaker. The Patriots aren't a threat to sack QB Joe Flacco five times as the Texans did last week. Their front seven is not as active or athletic and there are holes throughout the secondary, exposed by far lesser quarterbacks than Flacco in recent weeks. Flacco went 7-0 against teams in the 2011 playoffs by avoiding mistakes – two interceptions in those games – but he was nervy behind a flustered offensive line last week and has just six touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight career playoff games. Flacco has the height and arm strength to get the ball out even in a muddled pocket. WR Anquan Boldin, the team's best route-runner, works the middle of the field fearlessly. The Patriots are likely to let Flacco have the seven- to 10-yard intermediate throws to instead challenge speed threats Torrey Smith and Lee Evans. New England allowed 10 300-yard games and was 31st in the NFL in passing defense during the regular season, but the numbers are slightly overstated in that they patiently wait for miscues and clamp down in the red zone. They'll attack Flacco's looseness with the ball – he has 10 total fumbles, including one last week – and attempt to change the game with takeaways.
The Patriots are well-equipped to use empty sets early and often as elixir for the Ravens' supercharged pass rush. Tom Brady has the skilled tight ends who can align at wide receiver, flex into the slot or motion into the backfield to slow the 3-4 scheme. Brady had six touchdown passes last week and wasn't sacked. The Ravens brought pressure through the inside gaps in the ‘09 win, and have been successful tripping up Brady's timing with receivers. Brady's 55.9 completion percentage against the Ravens in five career games is his lowest against any NFL team. He can take advantage of SS Bernard Pollard's aggressiveness against TE Rob Gronkowski and slide WR Wes Welker, who had 122 catches in the regular season, around the formation to find the best matchup. FS Ed Reed, typically an equalizer in coverage because of his range, closing speed and sure hands, might be limited by a sore ankle. Brady had a 40-yard completion in 10 of the last 13 games, including last week, and will pepper throws to the sideline to gauge Reed's health. But if Reed is right, the Ravens have a chance to rattle Brady's cage as they did in ‘09, when he was picked three times and sacked three times, had a 49.1 passer rating and a long completion of 24 yards The Patriots are a sum of parts running game. In the divisional round win over Denver, TE Aaron Hernandez had a team-high 61 yards on five carries, including a 43-yard run. Baltimore gave up 92.6 rushing yards per game in 2011, holding eight of its opponents to less than 95 rushing yards.
The Patriots punted as many as five times in only two of their 17 games. By contrast, the Ravens punted nine times last week, the ninth time this season they had five or more punts. New England's Zoltan Mesko had a 46.5-yard average to match Sam Koch of the Ravens. Baltimore's return game – Tom Zbikowski on kickoffs, Lardarius Webb on punts – isn't a major threat since losing David Reed (29.7 yards per kickoff return) to a season-ending knee injury Dec. 24. The Patriots aren't a major threat to break a long return. Julian Edelman had a 72-yard runback for score but otherwise averaged 8.3 yards on 27 punt returns. Baltimore was 31st in kickoff return average at 29.2 yards per return, but the Ravens did come up with a fumble recovery on a punt return last week. After an All-Pro worthy season in 2010, Ravens PK Billy Cundiff made just over 75 percent of his field goals and was hampered late in the season by a calf injury. Stephen Gostkowski was 10-of-13 on field goals of 40-plus yards and 28-of-33 overall for New England.
FAST FACTS: Rice led the NFL with 452 yards on third down this season. ... The Ravens were third in the NFL in receiving yards by opposing tight ends. ... Tom Brady has completed 20 of 24 passes to TE Rob Gronkowski thrown into the end zone.
The Patriots arguably pieced together their best defensive effort of the season against the Broncos in the divisional playoffs.
But Pro Bowl lineman Vince Wilfork is cautiously optimistic heading into Sunday's conference title game that more good things are coming from a defense that has been plenty bad in stretches this season.
He also knows the Patriots haven't solved all their problems, not to mention the fact the Baltimore Ravens present a new set of challenges.
"I think last week won't have anything to do with this week to be honest with you," Wilfork said. "Our goal is to get better. We have to play better. We have to make more plays because each game you play it gets tougher and tougher, especially when you're dealing with a ball club we're going to face in the Ravens.
"They're a stingy team," he continued. "Defensively, they're probably one of the best teams. Offensively, they have probably one of the best running backs in the game – wide receivers, (Anquan) Boldin and everyone. It's definitely a challenge for us, but I think this defense is capable."
The confidence level should be at an all-time high. The Patriots can take solace in knowing they managed a 13-3 regular-season record despite finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. Now they're one win away from the Super Bowl.
"I have faith that we're going to get to work and we're going to put everything we have in it," Wilfork said. "Right now, it's a one game season. The only thing we're focused on is the AFC Championship – this game against the Ravens. The team that prepares well, that's the team that is going to win this ball game."
Wilfork is arguably the key to the entire game plan. The Patriots need to shut down Ray Rice, who destroyed them two years ago in Foxboro in the wild-card playoffs, and Wilfork's ability to team with fellow lineman Kyle Love and hold down the fort, so to speak, will determine whether or not the Patriots can get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years.
"When you have a running back like that, you can do anything with him," Wilfork said. "I think the Ravens do a good job of using him. That's first on our list; we have to slow him down if we want to be successful as a defense."
The Baltimore Ravens can't be blamed for walking out of the defensive meeting rooms with bleary eyes or dreaming at night of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez after watching film of the New England Patriots' tight ends. But the scrutiny is well-deserved.
Gronkowski set a new standard for tight ends when he compiled a NFL-record 1,327 yards, surpassing the previous mark of 1,290 established by the San Diego Chargers' Kellen Winslow in 1980. Gronkowski set another league mark when he hauled in 17 touchdown catches, shattering the record of 13 shared by the Chargers' Antonio Gates (2004) and the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis (2009).
Hernandez may not have the records like his teammate does, but he enjoyed his own share of success, finishing the regular season with 910 yards and seven touchdowns. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 169 receptions – the most by a pair of tight ends in the same season in NFL history.
Those results – as well as Gronkowski's 10-catch, 145-yard, three-touchdown display in New England's 45-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos in last weekend's AFC Divisional playoff round – have caught the attention of Baltimore's defensive players.
"There's probably not a better duo in the league," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Hernandez, they use him everywhere. They use him as a running back. He runs a lot of vertical routes, runs a lot of underneath routes. And then Gronkowski, he's just a big, physical body who can run. You think he's 6-6, 265 (pounds) or whatever he is, but you watch him on film and he's running away from people. So it's a huge challenge for us. But you've just got to match up and play."
At 6-3 and 260 pounds, Johnson has the strength to match up with Gronkowski and the 6-1, 245-pound Hernandez. The defense could also elect to shadow them with either inside linebackers Jameel McClain (6-1, 245 pounds) or Brendon Ayanbadejo (6-1, 225 pounds).
If Baltimore prefers to match those tight ends stride-for-stride, strong safety Bernard Pollard may be the best candidate.
But the 6-1, 224-pound Pollard said the defense's best strategy may lie in being physical with the duo.
"If you look at them, sometimes they run downfield by themselves. We can't have that happen," Pollard said. "We have to have guys on them at all times. We've got to run around, we've got to hit, we've got to tackle. I'm a strong believer that if you hit, tackle, and hit people hard, people don't like that. A lot of people don't like that. Not to say that they're soft or anything else. I'm just saying that a lot of offensive people don't like being hit."
The Ravens have an enviable track record of success against opposing tight ends in 2011. The defense surrendered the second-fewest yards to tight ends (665).
New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
KEYS TO THE GAME: The 27-20 loss at San Francisco on Nov. 13 should boost the confidence of Big Blue. Without RB Ahmad Bradshaw and limited by an offensive line pieced together because of injuries, the Giants drove to the 49ers' 10 in the final minute with 2nd-and-2 and a chance to tie but couldn't get the job done. Since that game, the line has jelled, WR Victor Cruz has put a case of the drops in his distant rearview mirror and Eli Manning has climbed near the precipice of joining a rare tier of signal-callers. The Giants can take plenty of lessons from last week's film of the Saints' gameplan. New Orleans found big plays in the middle of the field – and multiple big hits from the 49ers' hard-hitting, risk-taking safeties. Manning won't back away from working the ball between the hash marks with San Francisco's wide-split safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, but his trump card is Bradshaw. Bradshaw is the team's best blocking back, and he surprises with his power to gain yards after contact. If Bradshaw and big back Brandon Jacobs can get going, Manning should thrive in play-action. He was 7-of-9 for 155 yards with two touchdowns working off play-action at Green Bay. Cruz is a flash in the open field and his burst off the line strains teams that bump receivers at the line without over-the-top help. The 49ers regularly walk a safety into the box in their eight-man front but tracking Cruz and Hakeem Nicks might force a change in approach. For all the attention the 49ers have received for dominant third-down defense, the Giants are just as impressive on first down offensively, averaging almost eight yards per play in the postseason on first down. When they do face long-yardage downs, Manning gets rid of the ball if there's nothing there, and the offensive line has allowed just 16 sacks in the last 13 games.
The best way for the 49ers to put the brakes on the Giants' waves of pass rushers is to slam Frank Gore into the line and escort him through to the second level. The Giants are wary of long trap plays – pulling the backside guard to lead Gore or Kendall Hunter – but won't tone down their Gore-centric defensive plan used in November. On a sore knee, he rushed six times for zero yards against mostly eight- and nine-man defensive fronts, including consistent use of a five-man defensive line. The 49ers feature TE Vernon Davis and don't have the playmakers outside to stretch the secondary vertically. The Giants were effective last week cluttering middle of the field to push Packers' receivers to the sideline, funneling passes outside the numbers. The longest completion by Aaron Rodgers was 21 yards. QB Alex Smith has absorbed the confidence instilled in him by the new coaching staff. His athletic skills were evident on the 24-yard touchdown run last week. Smith can lock onto Davis, but trusts him to come up with the ball using his muscle against cornerbacks and speed against linebackers. As matchups go, Davis is a ton. He's as fast as any player the Giants can find to cover him with raw strength to boot. The 49ers' offensive line, a crew of bulldozers built for power from left tackle to right tackle, can be limited in a high-tempo game. If the Giants jump to an early lead, LT Joe Staley would be overmatched by DEs Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora in the 49ers' four-minute offense.
FAST FACTS: The Giants are 4-1 on the road in the postseason under Tom Coughlin. ... The 49ers have 22 interceptions by defensive backs this season.
When it comes to the NFC Championship Game, the Giants are no stranger to playing in adverse weather conditions.
In January 2008, New York defeated Green Bay at Lambeau Field despite record-setting frigid temperatures to earn the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII. This weekend, the Giants will head to San Francisco to face the 49ers at Candlestick Park in an atmosphere in which the weather is forecast to be rainy and windy, the winner of course advancing to Super Bowl XLVI.
"It's not going to affect us much," said safety Antrel Rolle of the forecasted conditions. "We've played in muddy games, rainy games, snow – it doesn't matter what it is. We've all been a part of those games so I don't think the weather is going to have much of an effect on the game at all."
Many of the Giants said that if the field is treacherous, they'll switch to longer cleats in order to ensure better traction, something they'll test out prior to kickoff when they go out for pregame warmups.
However as far as altering their technique or approach to their individual assignments, the Giants say that if anything, the inclement weather can be a bonus because of the emphasis they'll need to take with ensuring they do all the little things that are pertinent to their position.
"I think it's just paying attention to details in your route," said wideout Hakeem Nicks on what the receivers would have to focus on in rainy conditions. "You've got to be more detailed in your route coming in and out of your cut, and look the ball all the way in because the ball could be a little wet. It's just a matter of having your nose over your toes in your route (and) not leaning back in your route. I think it's just a matter of concentration."
Nicks said that in the battle between a receiver and a defensive back that's played out in the rain, the advantage goes to the receiver because the former knows where the route is going. "DBs are just guessing or playing their coverage. So I always feel like it's to the receivers' advantage because we know what we're going to do during our routes."
Rolle, however, disagreed. "I don't feel that there are any advantages when you're playing the game of football. We're both going to be playing on the same field. (Wide receivers) know what they're doing when the field is dry. I think it's the same scenario, to be honest with you."
Regardless of the players' position, many of the Giants agree that if the 49ers home turf, which is grass, becomes wet and muddy, that footing is going to be a concern.
"If it rains, it will definitely be a challenge for us, but it's nothing that we haven't faced before," said defensive end Justin Tuck. "Whatever challenges come our way we'll have to just take them head on."
Coach Jim Harbaugh wants two things in preparing for the New York Giants this Sunday at Candlestick Park in the NFC Championship Game. He wants it to rain on his team in practice, and he seemingly wants his team to be loose.
Harbaugh extended his Thursday news conference by asking a question of his own.
"Isn't anybody going to ask me about the weather?" he queried.
When questions were asked, he said, "I noticed when I was standing on my balcony today at about 6:20, 6:30 (a.m.), looked out and saw a very red sky," Harbaugh said. "That means, ‘red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning.' So, I anticipate that we'll have some precipitation today, some weather, and that will be a great thing for us."
By mid-practice Thursday, light rain was falling. The forecast for Sunday is for a 40 percent chance of rain. The 49ers have played all 17 of their games this season in fine weather.
Players seemed unfazed by the possibility of rain, particularly if it's light.
"You are going to call the same type of game you are going to call regardless (of weather). So, I really don't think too much is going to factor in," defensive lineman Justin Smith said.
While Harbaugh didn't mention how loose his team is, if they are following the example of their head coach, they are plenty relaxed. Harbaugh seemed more interested in talking about who the best baseball player of all time is, rather than his football team.
Harbaugh believes it's Willie Mays, and the coach was so interested in the discussion, he continued it in the lunch room. According to team president and CEO Jed York, Harbaugh pigeon-holed wide receiver Kyle Williams to talk baseball. Williams is the son of White Sox general manager Kenny Williams.