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Only one constant in NFL playoffs: Defense at a premium this time of year

January 19, 2012
By STEVE BROWNLEE - Journal Sports Staff ( , The Mining Journal

Sure, the NFL playoffs have been wacky and hard to predict.

Who would've thought the 8-8 Denver Broncos would win as many games as the last three Super Bowl winners combined: the Saints, Packers and Steelers?

Some combination of those latter three teams made up a lot of the experts' picks at the end of the regular season as best bets to make next month's Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

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But they - plus Denver - are gone.

And what we're left with are four teams predictable in one sense - how they've gotten this far.

All of them have played good defense.

Granted, Baltimore and San Francisco have more talent to start with on that side of the ball. And they've needed it with their unproven quarterbacks and not exactly awe-inspiring offenses.

The Ravens had to slug it out to beat Houston and their third-string rookie quarterback, T.J. Yates, while the 49ers got involved in a track meet in just getting by New Orleans.

But even New England and the New York Giants have played well above what their defenses showed during the regular season.

Remember the Patriots' "D" getting regularly torched and forcing QB Tom Brady to come up with these 400- and 500-yard passing days just to pull out come-from-behind wins?

Or the New York Giants giving up 49 points to New Orleans and 38 points to Green Bay (not that surprising) but allowing 36 points to Seattle at home? And getting swept by Washington?

The Patriots looked great in their 45-10 playoff win over Denver, as have the Giants in beating Atlanta 24-2, and for you Packer fans I won't belabor the point for long, the 37-20 win at Green Bay on Sunday.

With all that's on the line this Sunday, it comes down to which teams can impose their will on the opposition.

So let's the games begin:

Baltimore at New England, 3 p.m. Sunday, CBS - The classic battle of the unstoppable force, the Patriots' offense, meeting the immovable object, the Ravens' defense.

I always think that in games like these, those marquee units will mostly cancel out. It's the overlooked part of their games that will rise up and make the difference - will the often-porous New England defense be able to slow down an uninspiring Baltimore offense?

The plus for the Ravens is they have faced quality defenses in 10 of their last 11 games, including Houston last Sunday. Even a creampuff like Cleveland, who Baltimore played twice in the final five regular-season games, had a top-10 defense all year long.

So I think the Ravens' offense deserves more credit than it's getting.

Looking at the Pats' season, they actually don't yield too many points, only once giving up more than 30 (to Buffalo) while once holding an opponent to just three (Kansas City).

But allowing lots of yards should keep Baltimore's offense competitive, much in the same way the 49ers did against New Orleans and the Giants against the Packers.

In a game that will remind you of the 49ers' and Giants' wins last week, I'll take the Ravens, 30-23.

N.Y. Giants at San Francisco, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox - New York is definitely this year's version of the Packers of a year ago, turning up its game just in time for the postseason.

I seem to remember the Giants getting in the most trouble this season when their offense commits turnovers, and San Fran is No. 1 in the league in fumbles recovered and tied for second in interceptions. Their turnover numbers actually equaled Green Bay's, but they gave up a lot less yards than the Packers.

Being forced to take risks while trying to move the ball, too many New York turnovers should make it a win for the 49ers, 24-16.

Last week - 3-1, 75 percent. Playoff record - 5-3, 63 percent.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.



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