The New Orleans Saints turned the ball over more than the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs, and they lost. The Green Pay Packers turned the ball over more than the New York Giants, and they lost. The Houston Texans turned it over more than the Baltimore Ravens, and they lost.
The New England Patriots turned it over more than the Denver Broncos, but not until the Patriots were already up 35. And that game’s +1 turnover differential ranked lowest among all four games.
The lesson is simple: Dont. Turn. The ball. Over.
Four teams remain in the postseason. They’ll all play in this Sunday’s conference championships for a trip to Super Bowl XLVI in two weeks.
Here are my picks for who’ll be playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
AFC Championship: Ravens vs. Patriots
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. at New England
This game will come down to the Patriots’ offensive line. Baltimore led the AFC with 48.0 sacks during the regular season, but New England’s suddenly healthy offensive line allowed zero sacks against the Broncos last Saturday.
If the Ravens get to Tom Brady, as they did in their 2009-10 wild card match-up, they’ll throw off the Patriots’ lethal timing routes. That could lead to sacks, fumbles, interceptions, anything. But if the Patriots contain Raven pass-rushers like linebacker Terrell Suggs, Brady will pick the defense apart.
The Patriots have three receivers all capable of destroying opposing secondaries: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. Baltimore can only double-team all of them effectively by dropping eight into coverage, and that would a) cripple their pass-rush, and b) leave them vulnerable to the run.
The Ravens don’t score a lot of points. Joe Flacco isn’t that good, but the Ravens won’t be able to win with just Ray Rice. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offensive line has been porous at times this season, and the return of Brandon Spikes seems to have reinvigorated the Patriot pass-rush, which in turn takes some pressure off their awful secondary.
I’m going to set the magic number at three. If the Ravens can’t produce a turnover differential greater than three, Brady and his receivers will score too many points for the Ravens to overcome. If they get that margin over three, they should hold the Patriots to a score in the 20s, at which point the Ravens’ defense should get it done. But I don’t see that happening. Pick: Patriots.
NFC Championship: Giants vs. 49ers
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. at San Francisco
Just like the Ravens-Patriots game, Giants-49ers comes down to a great offense with a suspect secondary against a great defense with a suspect offense. San Francisco’s Alex Smith looked shaky throughout his divisional game until the final minutes, when NFL Awesome Tight End #3 (Vernon Davis) made him look very, very good.
The Giants, meanwhile, have a legit offense that can score 30+ points with ease. And they proved against the Packers that they can get to the quarterback, they can disrupt passing patterns, they can force turnovers. The only question is, will they?
The 49ers won their regular-season game against the Giants – a victory that required two interceptions, two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a defensive stop at the San Francisco 10 to lock down. But that was the regular season, this is the playoffs, and if experience matters, the Giants have more.
Eli Manning has a golden opportunity in these playoffs. If he can win this game, he can add a second Super Bowl appearance to his legacy – the same number as his older brother Peyton. If he can win a second Super Bowl, he’ll surpass his brother – possibly forever, depending on Peyton’s recovery from neck surgery and the Colts’ draft choices in April. The chance to finally crawl out from under Peyton’s shadow has to mean something to Eli, if for no other reason that to finally shut up all the analysts who do nothing but compare them.
Smith, meanwhile, is playing with house money. The 49ers hadn’t won 13 games since 1997. They hadn’t made the playoffs, won the NFL West or even had a winning season since 2002. And their fans had no reason for optimism before Jim Harbaugh magically fixed everything.
All that’s changed now. The 49ers are good, and they’ll likely stay that way for a long time, given the NFC West’s utter turdiness. If they don’t get back to the Super Bowl this year, they undoubtedly will soon.
When desperation meets indolence, I always pick desperation. Pick: Giants.