Every football team has to have its own identity, but the New York Giants look eerily similar right now to the team that won the Super Bowl in 2007. Thinking back to four seasons ago, the Giants endured a regular season full of ups and downs, until they were able to gel at the right moment, late in the year following a close loss at home to the undefeated New England Patriots. The Giants peaked at the right time, and would, of course, later go on to beat Tom Brady and the Pats in Super Bowl XLII.
Watching the Giants dismantle Green Bay on Sunday night reminded me a lot of that same 2007 team, because it appears that the G-Men have once again peaked at the right time. The Giants are riding a four-game win (blowout) streak since defeating the Jets on December 24th, and they have tapped into the same formula that won them the Lombardi Trophy in 2007.
We all know the old adage that "defence wins championships", and the Giants are now the best defence remaining in the playoffs. Better than San Francisco. Better than Ray Lewis and the Ravens. The Giants have allowed a grand total of 22 points in two playoff games. The defence shut out Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, and they looked dominant versus Aaron Rodgers Sunday, sacking him four times and forcing four turnovers (3 fumbles).
The Giants have a simple strategy at the moment: get up early, and get after you with defence. The Giants once again possess the best pass rush in the NFL, thanks to Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul all being on the field together. The Giants have the ability to only rush four players, and play with seven defenders in coverage, making life very difficult for opposing QB's.
Offensively, the Giants are back to running the football efficiently, particularly at critical situations in games. The Giants were the worst rushing team during the regular season, but in the post-season, they've been able to run effectively when they've had the lead, which is a testament to the physicality of the Giants O-line and their ability to wear the opposing defense down.
All season long the Giants have been a big-play passing team, relying on play-action to hit home runs to Hakeem Nicks, while utilizing Victor Cruz in the slot. Mario Manningham is making plays late in games this post-season, and Eli Manning is playing his most consistent football of the season since September.
Simply put, the Giants believe that they are going to win the Super Bowl. Justin Tuck said after the Packers game that: "It seems like right now is our time". Head coach Tom Coughlin called his team "a dangerous team". He's right.
Watching the Giants defeat Green Bay at Lambeau Field looked a lot like 2007 (although it wasn't nearly as cold). This year's Giants look very similar to the team of 2007. This year's squad has had to overcome various obstacles in order to position themselves where they are at, much like the team from 2007. Tom Coughlin wants this team to have its own identity, and create its own legacy in the annals of New York Giants football history. The Giants have been here before, and Coughlin wants this year's team, with its own identity, to achieve the same result as they did in 2007. So far, so good.
Watching the epic 49ers vs. Saints Divisional Playoff game Saturday, I couldn't help but feel great for my former teammate Alex Smith. Alex has endured a tumultuous eight-year career thus far after being selected at the #1 overall pick back in 2005. In eight seasons, Alex has had seven different offensive coordinators, has missed time due to injury, and has been benched. It appeared as though he was destined to fail as the 49ers franchise QB.
Alex Smith finally had his shining moment this past weekend, when he out-dueled Drew Brees at Candlestick Park, and led the 49ers into the NFC championship game. You can't say enough about the way Smith has played this season, and head coach Jim Harbaugh deserves a lot of the credit. Harbaugh has taken a very conservative approach on offence, relying on a powerful running game, and high percentage throws, instead asking Smith to operate and manage games. The result has led Alex to having his most efficient season as a pro.
On Saturday, running the football and great defence wasn't enough to win, and instead Smith had to make plays. And he did just that. After getting off to a great start with a 49-yard TD pass to Vernon Davis, the 49ers offence seemingly went into standby mode. Drew Brees and the explosive Saints passing attack would score twice late in the game, forcing Smith to answer in two minute-type situations.
Smith delivered, and did it in multiple ways. His 28-yard TD run on a designed QB sweep late in the fourth quarter probably shocked the Saints. But his surgical precision on the final drive of the game wasn't shocking to me at all. Having played with Alex, I've seen his calm demeanor and his ability to focus at crucial points in games. His game-winning TD pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left showed tremendous anticipation and accuracy, and as a result, the 49ers are hosting the New York Giants for the right to play in the Super Bowl.
Quarterbacks are defined by wins, and their ability to lead teams. Alex Smith led the 49ers past the Saints, a team many people felt could win it all. It wasn't easy outdueling the potential NFL MVP in Drew Brees; in fact Smith's heroics led to the 49ers becoming the first team in NFL history to score two lead-changing TD's with under three minutes left to win a playoff game. Not bad. It's been a great ride for the 49ers and first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. It's been an even better one for Alex Smith, and it may not be over yet.
I noticed one common theme from this past weekend's playoff games: tremendous play from the tight end position. Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez all made a huge difference for their respective teams, and I think their performances help demonstrate why we've seen so many passing records fall this season. The NFL has become a passing league, due in large part to rule changes making life easier for QB's and WR's, while limiting the defence's ability to keep opposing offences out of the end zone. One would assume that more passing means more wide receivers in formations; however, the re-emergence of the tight end has really helped inflate QB statistics this season.
It used to be that the starting tight end was a reliable pass catcher on short to intermediate routes, while providing a presence on the edge of the line of scrimmage in run blocking. Today, tight ends are becoming the featured receiver in several offences, and I think it's easy to see why.
As a QB, you're shortest throw on most routes is to the tight end, because he lines up closest to the QB on most snaps. Basic math then would suggest that the easiest completions for a QB are to his tight end. Tight ends also provide the best odds for a QB to complete passes, when you consider that they are more often than not covered by bigger, slower linebackers, or smaller and less physical safeties.
Players are constantly getting bigger, stronger and faster in the NFL, and that is never more evident than at the tight end position. More and more tight ends are being drafted out of college who not only stand at least 6'5 and weigh 250 lbs, but they also run sub 4.6 40-yard dashes, creating a matchup nightmare for any opposing defence. To make matters worse, more teams are finding tight ends with basketball backgrounds (see Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham) that have tremendous hand-eye coordination, and can jump, making it even tougher for defences to defend.
Tight ends today are being lined up all over the field to find and create a mismatch. I remember playing in New York, when our offensive coordinator Sean Payton lined up Jeremy Shockey as wide receiver in hopes of drawing man-to-man coverage. That was a win for us every time. Aaron Hernandez was used as a running back on Saturday night, and generated the Patriots longest run of the season! Playing with Vernon Davis in San Francisco, I can recall watching practice tape, and seeing Vernon beat all of our wide receivers downfield when we would throw the ball deep. It was crazy to watch!
Football is a cyclical game, where trends come and go, and then repeat themselves. I have a hard time imagining the "new age" tight end ever going away because of their impact on the game this season. Three of the four teams remaining in the Super Bowl hunt have a true difference maker at tight end. Go figure.
Offence vs. Defence
The AFC Championship game between New England and Baltimore should be a very interesting one, matching Tom Brady and the Pats' explosive offence, versus Ray Lewis and the Ravens' dynamic defence. Tom Brady has struggled in his last two appearances versus the Ravens, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Pats' controlled passing game can execute and sustain drives versus the pass rush and playmaking ability of the Ravens.
The Patriots have struggled to run the football effectively this season, prompting offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to find creative ways to use other players in the backfield, like tight end Aaron Hernandez, in order to have balance. I think it will be imperative that Brady is successful throwing the football on first down because you cannot be predictable against the Ravens pass rush. If Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are able to pin their ears back and rush the passer, it will be a very long day for Brady and company.
I have to imagine that in order for the Pats to score, they will have to generate explosive plays in the passing game to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, as well as wide receiver Deion Branch, since it is very hard to score consistently on the Ravens if you are forced to drive the football with 10, 12, or 14 play drives.
The inability of the Pats to stop opposing offences has been well documented this season, and while the Ravens are not an offensive juggernaut, they do match up very favorably with the Pats. Ray Rice and the zone stretch blocking schemes of Baltimore have given the Pats D headaches in the past, while Joe Flacco is hungry to prove that he is indeed an elite QB in the NFL. One knock on Flacco has been his sub-par performances in the post-season, even though he is the only QB in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in his first four years as a starter.
The Patriots are on fire, having won nine straight games, and are looking to reach the Super Bowl for the fifth time in the last 11 seasons! Can Ravens head coach John Harbaugh spoil the Pats post-season parade like they did in 2010? Will John square off against his brother Jim in the first ever Super Bowl coached between brothers? Or will we see a rematch of the Super Bowls following the 2000 or 2007 season? Who knows, this season has truly been one for the ages, both on and off the field. One more weekend before we find out our Super Bowl match up!