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Divisional Judgements: This just in -- defense still wins championships

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

1. If, as some people contend, defenses don't win championships anymore, will someone please explain why defenses launched all four weekend winners into championship games. I know, you're going to tell me that San Francisco didn't stop New Orleans because its defense allowed 472 yards and 32 points. Except the 49ers did -- shutting down the Saints on 11 of 16 series and holding off the Saints in a critical third quarter when Alex Smith & Co. did nothing. The 49ers are the NFC's top-ranked defense. The Ravens are the league's third-best. The 49ers tied Pittsburgh for fewest touchdowns allowed (23). The Ravens were third. I think you get the idea. And the Giants? All they've done is allow six touchdowns in their past four games, including one in the playoffs. All I know is that two of the league's top three offenses just ended their seasons. Yeah, sure, defenses don't win championships anymore.

2. Next time an unbeaten team beats the New York Giants 38-35 in December, beware. It won't win the rematch. Jason Pierre-Paul guarantees it.

3. I talked about reassessing San Francisco's Alex Smith after Saturday's heroics. Well, maybe it's time we re-evaluate Eli Manning, too. People scoffed when it was suggested Manning was an "elite quarterback," whatever that means. But look what the guy's done. He won a Super Bowl by making big plays in that game and in the playoff games leading up to it. He's in his second conference championship game in five years. And he's 5-0 in his last five road playoff games (including Super Bowl XLII), with 9 touchdowns, two interceptions and defeats of two opponents (New England and Green Bay) that were a combined 33-1.

4. In his past five victories, Manning has 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions. But here's the most significant number: Six. He has been sacked only six times in those victories, including twice in the playoffs. Someone on the Giants' offensive line needs to stand up and take a bow.

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5. The early line on the AFC Championship Game has the Patriots favored by 7, and for all the right reasons. They destroyed their divisional playoff opponent, while the Ravens barely held off theirs. The Patriots are nearly bulletproof at home, while the Ravens are 4-4 on the road. The Patriots have Tom Brady; the Ravens have Joe Flacco. Plus, the Ravens got torched by Philip Rivers and San Diego on the road. So what, you wonder, happens when Brady gets a hold of them? But here's something to consider, people: With this weekend's defeat of Denver, New England kept its 2011 record perfect. It still hasn't beaten an opponent with a winning record. Just saying.

6. If Baltimore puts as little pressure on Brady as it did T.J. Yates, the Ravens are cooked. They didn't sack Yates and barely touched the guy, and that's not how you beat Brady. Rewind Baltimore's victory over New England in the 2009 playoffs -- Brady's first home playoff loss -- and you'll find pressure, with Brady sacked three times and intercepted three times. Of course, there's a disclaimer. He played with broken ribs that afternoon.

7. With that victory, the Giants not only broke a seven-game winning streak of this year's home playoff teams; they kept an NFL record intact. Since the league went to its 12-team format in 1990 it never had all eight home teams win ... and it would've had the Giants not pulled the upset.

8. Admit it, deep down inside, you're rooting for a Harbaugh-Harbaugh Super Bowl, too.

9. I believe in Joe Flacco. I mean it. I believe. He's the guy who last week told reporters, "I'm sure if we win I'll have nothing to do with why we won, according to you guys" ... and he was right. He did have nothing to do with it.

10. This is what I liked most about Baltimore's victory: No turnovers and no penalties.

11. Look for Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard to get extra special attention this week. He's the guy who ended Brady's 2008 season when he hit him low in the season opener, tearing Brady's knee ligaments and, eventually, forcing a rule change to protect quarterbacks. Pollard was with Kansas City then, but I guarantee you nobody -- especially Brady -- has forgotten.

12. The more Alex Smith wins, the more money he puts in his pocket. Smith is a free agent after this season and stands to make a lot of dough -- with the 49ers first in the door.

13. For all those who kept saying it was Denver's defense that was responsible for the Broncos' success, keep this in mind: The Broncos allowed six touchdowns on New England's first nine possessions, including two TDs in the last two minutes of the first half. Before you start crushing Tim Tebow, I'd start with a defense that was torched by touchdown drives that never lasted longer than 3:35.

14. I absolutely, positively have no idea how Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin showed up for work Sunday. After what he went through last week, I wouldn't blame the guy if he disappeared for weeks. Talk about courage.

15. Imagine how angry New Orleans must feel now. All the Saints had to do was beat San Francisco, and they would’ve hosted the NFC Championship Game in the Superdome ... where nobody beats the Saints.


1. The NFL considering full-time officials. Hallelujah. It should. I don't know that I've seen more blown calls, more inconsistent officiating and more bad spots than this season. Hey, based on that New York Giants-Green Bay game alone, I'm in favor of it. I'd like to know what the league's head of officiating Carl Johnson thinks, but the NFL has him locked down in witness protection.

2. San Francisco's special teams. I haven't seen anyone better. Their punter is a Pro Bowler. Their kicker is a Pro Bowler. And their coverage units are superb -- forcing two turnovers that led to six points. "They've got some of the best special teams groups in the league," said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

3. Long-snapper Lonnie Paxton leaving the Broncos to be with his wife. Talk about a guy who has his priorities in order. His wife was having complications with the birth of twins; his team was playing a playoff game in New England. The choice was not easy, but Paxton made the right call ... and good for him.

4. San Francisco's tackling. The 49ers don't miss tackles, and they hit hard. There's a reason they didn't allow a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games, tied for the league-lead in takeaways and ranked first in the NFC in total defense. These guys are tough to solve, almost never out of position and always quick to the ball.

5. The Giants' pass rush. With the return of defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the pressure on opposing quarterbacks is back. Over the Giants' last four games – all victories – the Giants have 17 sacks, including four of Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.


1. Not sitting Tom Brady in a runaway victory. I know, that's Bill Belichick's style, but that doesn't mean you have to like it. I mean, what if Brady had been hurt? Then, I guarantee people would be asking why in the world he was in the game.

2. Baltimore's Ed Reed getting helped off the field. Reed is one of the team leaders and one of its most dependable performers -- especially in the playoffs. The Ravens must have him if they're going to beat New England.

3. Houston's Gary Kubiak not challenging Anquan Boldin's first-quarter catch. It sure looked as if Boldin had one foot in and one out, but Kubiak didn't throw a flag. Too bad. Had he won, he might've saved himself the field goal Baltimore gained at the end of the drive.

4. The Packers' defense at the end of the first half. Bad enough that nobody budged on the Hail Mary that became a Hakeem Nicks touchdown. But how about the play that made it possible? That was the previous one, with running back Ahmad Bradshaw running 23 yards through the Green Bay defense on third-and-1. The Giants made it clear moments earlier that they would run, with Bradshaw taking a handoff just after the Packers called timeout. So Green Bay had to know the Giants were ready to assume the fetal position. Yet it still allowed Bradshaw to run for a critical first down and put the Giants in position for a game-changing score.

5. Green Bay's drops. There were at least a half-dozen, including a Greg Jennings flub in the end zone that would have punctuated a third-quarter drive with a touchdown instead of a field goal. So what happened? These are some of the game's top and most reliable receivers, yet they showed up looking as if ... well, as if they had two weeks off.


1. Referee Bill Leavy. He and his crew blew the call on a Greg Jennings fumble. In so doing, they cost the Giants a takeaway and, worse, an eventual Green Bay touchdown. Former NFL supervisor of officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst for Fox, conceded that it's "a judgment call," but also said he thought Leavy made the wrong decision by not overruling it. I couldn't agree more. But why stop there? Leavy later called a "blow to the head" of quarterback Aaron Rodgers when there wasn't one. The Packers scored a touchdown there, too. So, when do those full-officials start again?

2. New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Simple question: Why blitz when the 49ers had 67 yards to go with 40 seconds left? I understand that's Williams' style -- hence, the "Dr. Heat" nickname -- but why take a chance when you don't have to? "That is not our style," said free safety Malcolm Jenkins. "We don't play prevent, have never played it and nothing is new. Nothing has changed. So we live by the blitz, and we die by the blitz." And they died, with Vernon Davis beating Jenkins for a 47-yard catch that set up the game-winning touchdown. "As soon as I saw ]the coverage]," said quarterback Alex Smith, "I knew Vernon was the guy." To Williams' credit, the Saints' defense played well until its last two series, but it's those last two series – one an 80-yard drive; the other an 85-yarder -- that people in New Orleans will remember. If Williams leaves New Orleans, this was a tough way to bow out.

3. Houston punt returner Jacoby Jones. Inquiring minds want to know: Why try to field that 71-yard punt when cornerback Cary Williams is staring you in the face? Not smart. The Houston Chronicle's John McClain called Jones' muff "one of the dumbest in Houston's sports history," and it's hard to disagree.

4. Houston quarterback T.J. Yates. The rookie looked poised, played confidently but threw three costly interceptions. The worst was his second when, on first-and-10 at the Baltimore 38, he took an unnecessary risk by throwing for the end zone with just under two minutes left. Andre Johnson was the intended receiver, but he was double covered. There was no need to gamble there, but Yates did ... and lost, with Ed Reed making a game-saving interception.

5. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy. He had the league's best team, and he was home for the playoffs -- with Green Bay 19-1 in its last 20 starts at Lambeau. But he lost, and it wasn't close. I don't know if it was the two-week layoff. I don't know if it was just bad luck. But Green Bay looked lackluster all afternoon -- outplayed, outcoached and outclassed by the Giants --- so much so that fans were booing by halftime. McCarthy was 6-0 vs. playoff teams this season and had a 16-7 record vs. opponents when he met them a second time in the same year. Until Sunday, that is. I don't know what happened, and my guess is that McCarthy doesn't, either.


Is that the end of Discount Double Checks?

Can someone tell me again why acquiring Chad Ochocinco was such a good idea for New England?

How far would Houston have gone with Matt Schaub?

How soon before the NFL issues a statement saying Bill Leavy's crew blew that non-fumble call?

Which defense do you trust more -- the Giants or 49ers?


0-3 -- Sean Payton's playoff record on road

0-6 -- Houston's record vs. Baltimore

2-4 -- Green Bay in its last six home playoff games

4 -- New Orleans turnovers in one half

5 -- Houston sacks of Joe Flacco

5-4 -- Drew Brees' playoff record

8 -- Ed Reed interceptions in 10 career playoff games

9-2 -- Tom Brady's playoff record at home


OFFENSE -- Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. Nothing this guy does surprises me. Six touchdowns? No problem. Another 300 yards? Easy. That's why they call him Tom Terrific. The guy is one win from his fifth Super Bowl, and it's time to start wondering where he ranks in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks. He's in my top five and beginning to crowd Joe Montana at No. 3. All I know is he's 15-5 in the playoffs, with three Super Bowl wins, and, yeah, that's a big deal.

DEFENSE -- Anyone with the New York Giants. The Packers this season averaged 40.1 points per game at home, with five games of 42 or more. Yet they get stuffed, with the Giants shutting down the league's third-ranked offense, sacking quarterback Aaron Rodgers four times, intercepting him once, recovering three fumbles and allowing only one play longer than 20 yards. It was 21. This, folks, is why I kept saying the Giants were the most dangerous threat to Green Bay.

COACH -- Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants. For the second time in five years, he goes into Green Bay and beats a favored Packers team in the playoffs. Coughlin has the Giants peaking at just the right time, with the club winning five of its past six -- including playoff defeats of Atlanta and Green Bay. There's a tendency to minimize the Giants' chances in San Francisco, where the 49ers won 10 of their past 11, but this just in: Big Blue won its past four road playoff games -- five if you include Super Bowl XLII. Yeah, I know, it lost to San Francisco earlier this season. But it lost to Green Bay, too. And look how that turned out.


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