AFC/NFC championship observations

Wow.

Two games decided right at the end.  Two goats whose mistakes cost their respective teams a chance to win.   Here’s what I saw in one of the best conference championship weekends in recent memory:

Ravens-Patriots: 

1. The goat – Billy Cundiff’s missed 32 yd FG stopped the Ravens from forcing overtime and obscured the near TD pass moments earlier that would have won the game for the Ravens.  Everyone jokes about kickers until they miss a kick.  If Cundiff couldn’t be trusted for a 50 yarder earlier in the 4th quarter (he’s 1/6 in career FGs over 50 yards) and then misses a gimmie, you have to think Baltimore will look elsewhere next year.

2. Flacco – He took heat all week for his performance against Houston.  Some of it he brought on himself by complaining he never gets any credit when the team wins.  The rest of that was undeserved as he has subpar WRs who couldn’t get open.   Against the Pats, they did get open and Flacco looked strong. 

3. A couple of off-putting items in the Patriots winning performance: (1) Brady’s lack of accuracy in missing a number of wide open receivers; (2) the defence making Joe Flacco and his WRs look like an efficient offence; (3) uncharacteristically taking a knee at the end of the first half with about a minute to go rather than attempting to get into position for a scoring attempt – I can’t remember Belichick ever declining a chance to score.

4. Pats offensive tactics – Baltimore took away much of the passing game by crowding coverage inside the numbers (where the Pats are strong) using extra DBs.  Seeing this, the Patriots took a patient approach running the ball.  This is one of the underestimated abilities of the Patriots – they always take what the other team gives them.  Having a team where egos (players and coaches) don’t dictate offensive tactics is a hidden advantage for the Pats.

5. Ray Lewis – He looked old (and/or hurt) and was slow in coverage a number of times.  He still reads the play exceptionally well, but just doesn’t have 3 down coverage skills like he used to.

6. Coincidence? – Bernard Pollard nearly incapacitated another Patriot when he came close to breaking Gronkowsli’s ankle on Sunday.  He ended Brady’s season a few years ago when he played with the Chiefs and it was his hit on Welker as a member of the Texans that took him out of lineup for the playoffs two years ago. 

Giants/49ers:

1. The goat – With an injury to their primary punt returner, the 49ers were forced to use Kyle Williams in the return game and his two mistakes cost them dearly.  The first mistake was mental – after letting a punt hit the ground, you’ve got to get out of the way of the ball and let it roll dead.  Williams was clearly caught trying to make up his mind to go after the ball or let it roll.  In the process, it glanced off his knee and was recovered by the Giants leading to a TD.  The second mistake, a fumble on a punt return, led to the Giants game winning FG in overtime.  If he doesn’t make the first mistake, the 49ers may have won the game in regulation.  His second mistake, handed them the game on a silver platter.  

2. Ball security and special teams:  I love watching smart football teams play.  What was the strength of the 49ers throughout this season ended up being their downfall in this game.  This year the 49ers won games by not turning the ball over (best in the league), by forcing turnovers (led the league), by winning field position through exceptional special teams and by dominant defensive performances.  On Sunday, they had the defence, but the other aspects let them down and couldn’t mask another pedestrian (and that’s a generous description) offensive performance.

3. 49ers wide receivers – They’ve been non-existent all year, but even for them, they turned in a complete disappearing act against the Giants – one measly catch all game.  They couldn’t get open, and with the Giants able to play single coverage against the WRs, an extra safety was able to be committed to help slow down the running attack and to attempt to take away passes to the TEs.  Many pundits will put the offensive failures on Alex Smith, but in order to make passes, your guys have to get open.

4. 3rd downs – In a game like this, you need to convert a few third downs to keep your offence on the field.  The 49ers only converted one all game.  As a result, the Giants ran 90 offensive plays compared with only 57 for the 49ers.   If it wasn’t for the 49ers defence (and by the way, their tackling in this game was textbook and a real treat to watch), this game wouldn’t have been close.

5. Eli Manning – He was abused in this game – sacked, knocked to the ground, moved off his spot in the pocket, but he kept popping back up.  He made the big passes when they were needed behind an offensive line that didn’t have its best game and with virtually no running game.   Not the prettiest performance he’s ever had, but it was what was needed for the win.

So the Superbowl match-up is set featuring two teams I’m not terribly fond of.  The Patriots, who I dislike due to their fans (…. I don’t mean you, you’re one of the ok ones, honestly) against the Giants who are my Eagles’ nemesis (and who provide immense enjoyment when they’re struggling as they produces two of sport’s best images – “Eli face” and “angry Coughlin face”).    Should be a great one in two weeks time.  Now to remember what people do to fill their Sundays without football….

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