In the National Football League playoffs, an impressive two of Tablet Magazine’s three teams from the beginning of the season (the third, you’ll recall, was the Chicago Bears) are still standing. Moreover—at least in this blogger’s opinion—our teams, the New England Patriots and New York Giants, are the favorites to win Sunday and go to the Super Bowl.
Last Saturday night, the Pats won their first playoff game in four years, playing like a team that was really pissed-off at having not won a playoff game in four years. The offense, which despite its explosiveness has at times struggled to produce on early drives, came out firing against the Denver Broncos’ not-that-bad defense, so that the score was 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and 35-7 at the half. Tom Brady? Six touchdown passes, tying the playoff record. Rob Gronkowski, continuing maybe the best season a tight end has ever had? Three touchdown catches, including this insane grab for the first score. It got to the point where it was late in the fourth quarter and Coach Bill Belichick, that old football historian, had Brady quick-kick on third down in order to create good field position for the team and not risk something bad happening (sack, interception, injury) on third down … and Brady downed it inside the 10 like a pro punter. This was the night the amazing Tim Tebow run came to an end. And how: he had only nine completions against the Pats’ porous secondary. More, he got so banged up that word is he would not have been able to compete this weekend. So this may be the end of the road for Tebow-time generally.
The Pats get to play at home against the Baltimore Ravens. In many ways, the Ravens are a good match-up: a really strong defense, and an offense that can get going against bad defenses—like the Pats’. New England will take away explosive running back Ray Rice, daring QB Joe Flacco to connect deep with Torrey Smith and convert third downs to Anquan Boldin. The game may well come down to that—and to Brady’s ability to best the D. The Ravens have played up to the good teams this year (they beat the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers and the 10-6 Houston Texan, and the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers and 9-7 Cincinnati Bengals twice each) and down to bad ones (losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks). Including the playoffs, they went 9-0 at home and 4-4 on the road. Sunday’s game will be in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Edge: Patriots.
Unlike the Pats, the Giants’ presence in the conference championship is unexpected, since they barely snuck into the playoffs at 9-7 (for Chrissake, they lost to the Redskins twice! by the way, the Redskins are 7-2 against NFC finalists over the past four seasons), then dominated the Atlanta Falcons and then, last Sunday, beat the 15-1 defending champion Green Bay Packers, at Lambeau Field, in a game that wasn’t even close. Everyone saw their formula coming from a mile away: a great passing game, with Eli Manning connecting with stand-out wide receivers Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham (tight end Kevin Boss needs to step things up); enough of a power running game to be able to convert in short-yardage situations; a superlative four-man pass rush that allows the Giants to drop seven back on most passing downs. The one surprise is that those seven, the Giants’ defensive secondary, has played at an average level, as opposed to the horribleness that characterized it for most of the regular season.
The Giants play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick. The team of Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, and Steve Young has to be the sentimental favorite, especially after Vernon Davis started crying after scoring the game-winning touchdown over the New Orleans Saints in last Saturday’s thriller. If they play the way they played then, they will beat the Giants, and if they play that way in the Super Bowl, they will win that, too. But QB Alex Smith slingin’ 36 points—and the bone-crunching defense giving up 32—is not typical. This is a team that throughout the year relied on stopping the run and kicking field goals. But the Giants barely have a run to stop, and their passing game will require more than field goals from the Niners’ offense. It’s telling that betting lines have the Niners favored by two or two-and-a-half points despite the three-point bump typically granted to home teams: the Giants, right now, have the better squad.
So we may have two of Tablet’s teams going up against each other in the Super Bowl? Much as they did four years ago in one of the most memorable games ever played? The hype will be overpowering, unbearable, vaguely sinister. Prepare yourself.
Earlier: Do I Believe in Tim Tebow?