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Thursday, January 19, 2012
Competing styles put to the test

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

In the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, the theme of the quarterback-driven league carried through, but the need for a more complete team won out.

The Saints were too one-dimensional with their passing offense, had too many turnovers and lost. The Broncos and Tim Tebow couldn't match up with Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Packers' inability to play consistent defense caught up with them. The Texans played great defense but didn't get enough out of an offense run by a rookie quarterback on the road.

Sunday's championship round will test the theories even more. Until the mid-2000s, teams could win championships with defense and good running attacks. Then quarterbacks and rule changes helped the passing offenses take control. The Ravens, Giants and 49ers have more balanced offenses. The Patriots, meanwhile, are completely unconventional, using a two-tight end offense that sometimes doesn't put a running back on the field.

The Ravens and 49ers also show the value of defenses. They rank second and third, respectively. The Giants' defense improved late in the season, but they ranked 27th during the regular season. The Patriots will be the most interesting test.

They ranked 31st in defense for yards allowed, but those numbers are deceiving. No team has allowed more than 360 yards per game and made it to the Super Bowl. The Patriots gave up 411.1 yards a game during the regular season. Statistically, the Packers gave up the most passing yards in NFL history (4,796). The Patriots had the second-worst number, 4,703.

Of course, these are changing times. The Saints and Colts played a Super Bowl in 2009 with statistically bad defenses. Which styles will prevail? We'll see Sunday.

Here are the 10 things to look at during the championship round of the playoffs.

1. Home field still no lock for success: Even though home teams won seven of the first eight playoff games, there is no guarantee the home teams will prevail Sunday. If the 49ers and Patriots do win, it will mark the most home wins in NFL playoff history in a non-strike year. This was a lockout year but no regular-season games were skipped. The Patriots are 6-0 against the Ravens in the regular season, but the Ravens, like the Giants prior to last week in Lambeau, have tasted playoff victory in Foxboro. The Ravens won a 2009 wild-card game in New England. The Giants are also road warriors. Tom Coughlin could tie Tom Landry, the former Cowboys coach, for the most road playoff wins in NFL history if he beats the 49ers. Coughlin knows you need to be able to run the ball successfully to win on the road, a lesson the Saints didn't learn last week. Both road quarterbacks, Joe Flacco of the Ravens and Eli Manning of the Giants, have won four road games. Anything can happen.

2. Weird stats: The Giants finished the regular season with a 9-7 record. They are trying to be the first Super Bowl winner in NFL history that had fewer than 10 regular-season wins. The Patriots went 13-3, but they did it against a .449 schedule, second easiest in the league. In fact, they won 13 games without beating a team with a winning record. Dick Vermeil used to say teams can go to the Super Bowl with .500 records against winning teams, as long as you don't play a lot of them. In the middle of the season, the Pats lost to the Steelers and Giants. Only three other teams in NFL history didn't beat a team with a winning record and advanced to a title game. They were the 1999 Rams, coached by Vermeil, the 1999 Jaguars and the 1974 Steelers.

3. Impact of officiating: So far, officials have been letting the athletes play. Only seven holding calls have occurred in eight playoff games and only 7.25 penalties a game are being marched off. Al Riveron draws this AFC Championship Game, and he also has a good chance of letting the Patriots and the Ravens play. Riveron averaged the fewest flags during the regular season, only 12.2 a game. However, his crew wasn't shy on holding penalties, calling 2.2 a game, slightly above the 2.09 league average in 2011. His games averaged 42.2 points weekly, about two points a game below the league average. From Riveron, expect a clean game. Ed Hochuli draws the Giants-49ers. Though he was second among referees on holding calls with 2.8 a game, he ranked third for fewest penalties called. The Giants might get the bad end of the holding calls -- they have five of the seven holding penalties so far, and Hochuli isn't going to ignore them.

Manning
The 49ers are hoping to force Eli Manning into dangerous throws.
4. Something big has to happen: The 49ers lead the NFL with 17 interceptions on passes thrown longer than 15 yards. Eli Manning was the league's best at completing passes longer than 15 yards, and those stakes got better with the emergence of wide receiver Victor Cruz. Cruz had an incredible year for a slot receiver, catching 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. Because teams have been forced to double Cruz lately, Hakeem Nicks has been singled up and he's caught 13 passes for 280 yards in two playoff games. The 49ers will have to find a way to contain them both. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning completed 70 passes that sailed at least 15 yards. He's a master of the play-action, and the play-action has been better recently because the running attack has returned. In two playoff games, he's completed 11 of 15 passes of 15 yards or more and has netted 274 yards. Because Manning will try dangerous throws, though, the 49ers will be ready to grab some interceptions.

5. Missing element: Big plays help win championship games. The one missing element from these playoffs has been kickoff returns, thanks to the rule change moving kickoffs to the 35. Kickers are doing better in the playoffs on kickoffs than they were during the regular season. An incredible 61.4 percent of kickoffs have gone for touchbacks in the eight playoff games, and drives are starting on the average at the 21.5-yard line. Returns are only 21.7 yards on average, which means too many drives start at the 21, 20 or inside the 20. If games are high scoring, that becomes a big factor for the team trying to match the last score. The rule change may have been good for cutting down on kickoff returns, but what needs to be reviewed is whether the touchbacks should be spotted at the 20. The 25 might be a better option.

6. Matching up against the Patriots' tight ends: Tom Brady owns the middle of the field. He has Wes Welker, the king of the slot. He has two Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. When the Ravens beat the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs, Welker was hurt and neither tight end was on the Patriots' roster. Since then, Bill Belichick has turned the offense into one that destroys teams in the middle of the field. The Ravens will have to rely on the experience of Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, the team's safeties, to locate the two tight ends and find ways of stopping them. You figure the Ravens might commit 6-foot-2, 210-pound cornerback Jimmy Smith into man-to-man coverage against one of the tight ends. Reed will stay back in the secondary to watch the eyes of Tom Brady and help out with double-teams. That puts Pollard on the front line of pass defense. Pollard was beaten for 55 completions and five touchdowns in the 75 passes thrown against him during the regular season.

7. Can Alex Smith be a Super Bowl quarterback? Were it not for the lockout, who knows where Alex Smith would have played? In his first six seasons with the 49ers, he was 19-31 as a starter, completed only 57.1 percent of his passes and averaged only 6.2 yards an attempt. Knowing there was a lockout, first-year coach Jim Harbaugh decided to re-sign him but at the relatively low number of $4 million for one season. Now, Smith is one win away from the Super Bowl and he's a free agent. He's not going anywhere -- the 49ers are sure to re-sign him and keep him as next year's starter. He has excelled at home this season, where his quarterback is 99.8 and he's completing 62.1 percent of his passes to go along with 12 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He had three touchdown passes and a touchdown run during last week's 36-32 win over the Saints. Of the four quarterbacks remaining in the championship round, Smith gets the least respect, but he has a decent chance of going to Indianapolis.

Joe Flacco
Despite his playoff wins, Joe Flacco has been hearing it from his critics -- again.
8. More flak for Flacco: Joe Flacco has won five playoff games in his first four seasons and is topped only by Tom Brady for those successes. But he's had an off season, completing less than 60 percent of his passes. Things got so bad this week that teammate Ed Reed criticized him for feeling the pressure in last week's playoff victory over the Houston Texans. Ray Lewis, the team's leader, pulled Flacco aside last week and gave him the speech he gave Trent Dilfer before the Ravens won their first Super Bowl. Flacco, despite five victories in the playoffs, has performed worse in the playoffs than during the regular season. He has completed only 53.1 percent of his passes in the playoffs and averaged 153.3 yards a game. He has seven interceptions and only six touchdown passes in eight playoff games. Flacco almost has to win a Super Bowl to gain respect.

9. A giant problem for the Giants' offensive line: Tom Coughlin has been trying to patch the Giants' offensive line all season. Things improved in the running game when David Diehl moved back to left tackle from left guard. But the hidden key matchup of the NFC title game is how the 49ers' defensive line does against the Giants' offensive line. The 49ers' Justin Smith has been one of the best defensive players this season. At times, he's been unblockable. Because their line is so good and so physical, the 49ers will cause problems for quarterback Eli Manning. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers had 31 sacks and forced 20 interceptions when they rushed four or fewer players.

10. Key matchup: Terrell Suggs of the Ravens will be going against Pats left tackle Matt Light, 33, who's in the later stages of his career. Suggs is the favorite to win defensive player of the year honors after a season in which he had 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles. He plays extra hard when he faces Tom Brady. Light had a good season blocking, allowing only three sacks in 15 games, but Bill Belichick might be tempted to help him out with an extra blocker when he's facing Suggs. The Ravens know getting to Brady and making him uncomfortable in the pocket gives them a chance to win.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.