Tom Danyluk has some thoughts on last weekend's divisional round and picks the winners in this weekend's conference championship games.
What I saw in Texans at Ravens
After it ended, John Harbaugh's club made the Sign of the Cross and confessed it had done just enough things to squeeze by … like messing with an overmatched rookie passer like T.J. Yates, like stealing a fistful of early points when the Texans got sloppy with the ball.
And afterward OLB Terrell Suggs gave the Thomas Aquinas angle on his team's fallibility when he said, "There's a right way to do things, there's a wrong way to do things, and then there's the Ravens say to do things." Meaning, we're only human, people.
Arian Foster got his mileage tearing right at the Ravens, a straight-ahead push, not with the swooping cutbacks and misdirection that had fouled up Cincinnati's defense the week before. Baltimore doesn't fall for the cutback, however; they're too instinctive and experienced, too stay-at-home for that sort of stuff. So, Houston jammed it right at 'em and the Ravens only stopped it occasionally.
Postgame, well, you wanted to ask Texans coach Gary Kubiak why he didn't introduce his other big runner, Ben Tate, into the action, just to hit the Ravens with some different looks or to give Foster (27 carries) some oxygen. On the one play that Tate did get involved, Yates sailed a pass way over his head.
But hell, Tate wouldn't have mattered, right? It wasn't a Tate-Foster issue, who got the carries and the workload. It was a Yates needing-to-hit-some-throws issue. The Ravens dared him. They dialed back the pressure and played coverage, to see if Yates could stay loose and locate the open throwing lanes. He couldn't. He's only human, ya know.
What I saw in Broncos at Patriots
It was a Les Miles quotation, but it could as easily have come out of the mouth of John Fox, whose no-risk game plan was a murder accomplice in Foxborough — "I think if you watch our calls that we did throw the football down the field; we didn't necessarily get the football down the field."
The Denver coaches pretty much handed Tim Tebow the LSU playbook, the same one that got Jordan Jefferson torn to pieces by Alabama in the BCS game. Attack the middle, then move the quarterback to the perimeter to get the option going. Downfield throwing, nah, who needs it? Thus, the LSU wreckage looked a lot like the Denver Bronco wreckage.
If the Broncos are going to lock Tebow in as the starter, then they had better get him some bigger guys as targets, ones who can move and box out and claim some territory over the middle. Yes, Gronkowskis. Power forwards, huge guys Tebow can see, because it seems the kid has a helluva time locating his current options, at least ones he thinks he has the gun to reach.
Did it really matter for this game? No, it did not. Even if Tebow managed to get 24 … or 28 or 30 on the board, the Pats would have simply moved their score into the 50s. People-wise, the Broncos' defense couldn't match up.
"Everybody makes big plays on this team," Pats TE Aaron Hernandez said. "That's why our offense is so dangerous. We got so many weapons they don't know who to cover."
"It reached a point," Fox said, "where we didn't have enough people to match up on their multiple wideout stuff, so it limited us." Enough good people, he meant.
They were already thin at safety. And the linebackers … well, nobody in white could stick with Gronkowski or Hernandez or Welker in blue. The Broncos' zones were meaningless. And forget about the pass-rush angle because Brady was unloading the ball so fast a pass rush only would have created a parade of late-hit flags.
It's a pity Norv Turner can't ever trick his club into playing a complete season. San Diego, despite its Sunday-to-Sunday weirdness, would have given the Pats a better fight out of the AFC West.
What lies ahead in the AFC championship game
I think you'll see a different Ravens team this Sunday, one that gets off the ball with a little more interest and urgency, that's itchy and talky and bouncing around between plays. They stood on flat feet against the Texans last week.
The home-away angle? Yeah, I'd say it means something here. Baltimore has been nothing special on the road, a meek 4-4. The last big passer they faced in another building was Philip Rivers, who scored on nearly every possession he had that evening. A 34-14 butt-kicking at San Diego in Week 15. Meanwhile, Brady and the Patriots have gone 8-1 in Foxborough, including the recent maiming we just witnessed.
The Ravens' defense had better clamp down early … knock those big tight ends around and get some shots on Brady and dump that road-runner Welker on his can. Because if it gets to be a two- or three-score deficit, well, we've seen four years of Joe Flacco to understand he can't operate from behind. He presses. He'll hold the ball too long and get dumped. Or fumble it. And besides, there isn't enough high-grade weaponry around him this year for the kind of catch-up football needed to catch New England.
But I think this Ravens "D" will clamp down. This is a defense that can still get serious and I think it will happen. You'll see Pats receivers getting up slowly. The Patriots have been coasting for too many weeks, and I expect Baltimore's aggressiveness to extend this game all the way into the fourth quarter.
That's where Brady will win it, but it won't be the la-de-da wipeout a lot of America is expecting to see. Patriots 30, Ravens 23
What I saw in Saints at 49ers
Had it been 17-0 Saints in the first quarter, I might have proclaimed the 49ers and their joyous little season as dead. But New Orleans was the team in the hole, and with three full quarters of football still remaining I never thought Brees and that offense were anywhere near kaput.
The 49ers had clamped down on mighty mite Darren Sproles and his dump-off plays — speed chasing speed — but Brees was finally able to locate his wide men, Devry Henderson and Marcus Colston and Jimmy Grahamkowski on the deeper items and pulled it to 17-14 by half. (Yes, it's Graham … the New Orleans Gronk.)
The third quarter was spastic, where neither team could muster any flow to its offense, and the only points (a 49er FG) came after a Sproles fumble, his second and the Saints' fifth turnover of the day.
Then the Niners switched back to their ground game, and on a 2nd-and-6 they sent in two defensive starters, Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga, for extra thrust, extra power blocking. And Fox's Tony Siragusa made a helluva sharp observation about snap counts when you see those situations.
"You know, as a defensive lineman, when you see a defensive tackle or end on the other side playing offense, you know they're going to go on one," he said, "because as soon as he hears that snap count he is firing off. You're never going to get that hard count … or that hut-two or three. They're going to go on one every single time."
Which the Niners did — on one. And the Saints slammed it. Atta boy, Goose! Tres bien!!
Then, of course, the drama of the final volley, four touchdowns scored in the last 4:02 of game clock. You could almost hear the orchestra … Tchaikovsky, the dizzying 1812 Overture … singing along in accompaniment as the cannons fired to life.
There's an old Sports Illustrated headline — "The Game No One Should Have Lost." It was the story of the Chargers-Dolphins playoff game from 1981. Shula and Fouts and Coryell. One of the all-timers.
Saints-Niners had that feel to it. The 2012 Overture.
What I saw in Giants at Packers
The rare capsizing of a 15-1 team in its opening playoff game. Watching Green Bay go to pieces brought back memories of another historic playoff collapse, San Francisco in 1987, when Bill Walsh captained the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 offense and the Vikings came in and blasted him out of his own ballpark.
"Without question, the toughest loss I ever experienced," Walsh once told me. "Everything seemed to go wrong for us that day. No matter what we tried, we couldn't get back on track … I even pulled Joe Montana for Steve Young."
Nope, the Packers couldn't get back on track, either. All those drops, the turnovers, even the Hail Mary act at the end of the first half — Manning to Nicks — and still it was just a 20-13 game heading into the fourth, Packers ball in Giants territory.
Then Aaron Rodgers missed TE Jermichael Finley on the shallow crossing route. Nobody near him, just a … miss.
Packers go for it on fourth down, the first embers of desperation. Sack, Rodgers crumbles in a heap on a blitz from Michael Boley, and from there it just spilled away from the home team.
You sift through the Packers' postgame quotes, just out of curiosity, trying to find the "Everything seemed to go wrong …" explanation to match Walsh's. And there it was, Charles Woodson, the cornerback, with his version of 'you've had a bad day.'
"Everything happened to us today," Woodson said. "Anything that you've seen through the regular season happened to us today — missed tackles, assignments, not getting to the quarterback." He left out his offense's drops, the turnovers.
I had an old teacher that used to say, "Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you." He stole it from Preacher Roe, his little way of explaining the breaks in life. Country wisdom.
On Sunday, the bear, not the Giants, got the Packers.
What lies ahead in the NFC championship game
Some writers have tried to sell this as a huge historical reenactment, but the only nod to the big SF-NY rivalry years (1981-93) are the costumes. In fact, the roles have switched. New York counts on the pass and the sacking/pressure of its front four and the occasional blitz. The 49ers' return has been cooked from the basics — killer defense and inside bursts of Frank Gore. And fine tackling, Lord, don't forget that. Parcells looks to the west and smiles.
The definition of a hot team is one that's getting the right matchups and avoiding screw-ups, and the Giants are humming. A 7-7 team finally finds its gear. Eli Manning is in another one of his zones, where his options seem very clear, and it has been more than enough to lift them to a pair of honest playoff wins.
I think the Niners' defense will ultimately settle this one. Right now, that group is running wild. My, the hitters they've accumulated. Watching them drill people and prying balls loose and making their own breaks … like a jacked-up college team. Go back to the tape of the '84 Orange Bowl, Miami swarming all over Nebraska, guys you never heard of drilling into first-team All-Americans. That kind of energy.
Accu-weather is calling for a thick, soaking field Sunday, which could put heavier legs on Eli's big targets — Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. The Giants' run game of Jacobs and Bradshaw isn't enough to make up the difference. I see San Francisco leaping ahead quickly, like it did against the Saints, then once again holding on at the end. 49ers 20, Giants 16
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.