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Championship Judgements: Giants, Pats get it done on 'D' when it counts

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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1. No team went to a Super Bowl with a defense ranked lower than 25th. Now you have the league's 27th-ranked unit (the Giants) and its 31st-ranked defense (New England), but, just a hunch, defense makes the difference in Indianapolis. It did when these two met in Super Bowl XLII, with the Giants sacking Tom Brady five times and holding the league's highest-scoring offense to 14 points.

2. Like it or not, Eli Manning has narrowed the gap between him and his brother. He's not Peyton ... not yet, he's not. But I tell you what: I might trust Eli in a big game as much ... if not more ... than his big brother. The reason: Eli is 7-3 in the playoffs, including a league-best five consecutive road victories; his brother is 9-10 in the postseason. I know, Peyton has been to two Super Bowls. But Eli joins him there in two weeks. Like I said, the gap has narrowed.

3. Rob Lowe was wrong. There will be a Manning playing in Indianapolis this year.

4. I'm not sure who should feel worse, Jim or John Harbaugh.

5. When you wonder what separated San Francisco and the Giants ... other than Kyle Williams' hands ... you might start with this: Eli Manning completed 16 passes to his wide receivers; Alex Smith completed one. It was a 3-yarder to Michael Crabtree, and, no, that's not how you get to a Super Bowl.

6. People are starting to ask if Tom Coughlin belongs in the Hall of Fame with another Super Bowl victory. Please. Six weeks ago, they wanted him fired. Patience, people, patience.

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7. Tell me Ahmad Bradshaw doesn't make a difference with the Giants. Big Blue is 11-4 with Bradshaw in the lineup; 1-3 without.

8. Nothing hurt San Francisco more than Ted Ginn Jr.'s sore knee. It kept him out of Sunday's game, making Kyle Williams the 49ers' punt returner ... and I think you know how that turned out.

9. I see where New England is an early 3½-point favorite in Super Bowl XLVI, and I'm not sure why. The Giants won their past two vs. the Patriots. In fact, the last team to beat New England, period, was the Giants. OK, so they ranked 27th in overall defense during the season. Big deal. In the playoffs, they've been outstanding, stopping San Francisco on 12 of 13 third downs and not allowing the 49ers more than three plays on their last four offensive series. Plus, they can do what they did to Brady the last time these two met in a Super Bowl -- pressure him with their front four.

10. You have to admit: Brady was right. When he looked into the camera and said, "I sucked today," he spoke the truth. He did. I've seldom seen him miss more passes or look more ordinary. I guess that goes with the opponent. In Brady's past three starts vs. Baltimore, he has three touchdown passes and seven interceptions.

11. In case you're wondering, here's why Baltimore didn't try a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter when it trailed by three: Cundiff was only 1 for 6 on kicks this season from 50 yards and beyond. "We just felt like, from a percentage standpoint, we probably had a better chance of getting the first down," John Harbaugh said. "That's a long field goal there, under those conditions on a cold day like this. So we liked our chances to convert on fourth down."

12. The more the Giants' Antrel Rolle talks, the more I'm starting to listen. He's the guy who, near the end of the regular season, guaranteed the playoffs. He's also the guy who last week said "we can't be beat." Next time I play the lottery, I want Rolle as my lifeline.

13. Good news for New England: No more Bernard Pollard sightings. Pollard ended Brady's season in the first game of 2008. He hurt tight end Rob Gronkowski with a tackle Sunday that injured his left ankle and sent him from the game. And he made a terrific tip of a Brady pass to the end zone that became a Jimmy Smith interception. Have a nice offseason, Bernard. I know one team that won't miss you.

14. Baltimore's Ray Rice said Flacco "showed that he's a top-five quarterback in this league," but I'd like to know how he gets to that figure. You have Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, and that takes care of five right there. All have Super Bowl rings. All were Super Bowl MVPs. And I haven't even gotten around to Eli -- another Super Bowl MVP. So tell me where Flacco fits in. Someone? Anyone?

15. You're going to hear a lot of talk the next two weeks about whether Bill Belichick is the greatest coach ever, but one coach you won't hear much about is Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs. Too bad. He did what Belichick has not: Won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, and that, folks, is an achievement.

Five things I like

1. Steve Weatherford's hold on Lawrence Tynes' winning kick. The ball was snapped low, with Weatherford having to dig it out and prop it up just before Tynes struck the ball. It was a perfect hold of an imperfect snap, and let's hear it for Weatherford. Until Sunday, he was 0-3 in conference championship games.

2. Anyone that plays the AFC East in the regular season to reach the Super Bowl. Since 2006, every division that takes on the AFC East winds up as the NFC representative. You can look it up. In 2006, it was Chicago. In 2007, it was the Giants. In 2008 it was Arizona. In 2009 it was New Orleans. In 2010 it was Green Bay. Now this. I believe, I believe.

3. Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff appearing at a postgame news conference. Some guys run and hide (Marion Barber, anyone?) after committing game-changing mistakes, but not Cundiff. In fact, he stood before a battery of reporters and offered no excuses for his mistake. As he said, he should've made the kick. But this is what I liked most: "It's one of those things that will strengthen me in the end. Throughout my career, I've had challenging situations and I'm still standing here today. So it's something that will be tough for a little while. But I've got two kids. There are some lessons I need to teach them. First and foremost is to stand up and face the music and move on." Nice, Billy. Very nice.

4. Pollard's tip of a Brady bomb. It produced a Jimmy Smith interception, and it wasn't merely a terrific play -- it was a remarkable one. Plus, it followed a Brandon Spikes interception of Flacco. "You talk about sudden change," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That is about as good at sudden change as you can get. You aren't going to see better-playing football."

5. Tom Brady in crunch time. So he didn't have the best playoff game of his career. In fact, it was one of his worst. Still, when the Patriots had to have a score, whom did they call? Yep, that was Brady with the 1-yard sneak that won the game. "If he sees something like that, he just goes for it," tackle Matt Light said. "It was a heck of a play."

Five things I don't

1. San Francisco on third down. The 49ers were 1 for 13, one reason why Alex Smith absolved Kyle Williams of blame. The offense had to be better, he said, and he's right.

2. The hit 49ers safety Dashon Goldson put on teammate Tarell Brown. It wasn't a collision as much as it was a head-on obliteration, with Brown reaching for an Eli Manning pass at the same time as Goldson. It looked every bit as bad as it was, with Brown down for several minutes before he was helped to the sidelines.

3. Baltimore's failure to score in the fourth quarter. One drive ended with an interception at the New England 31. Another ended on downs at the New England 33. And the last ended with Cundiff's miss after Baltimore reached the 14. Brutal.

4. A Baltimore presence in Indianapolis. I admit it: I was looking forward to Baltimore fans parading through the streets of the city that stole their Colts in 1984.

5. Idiots making death threats vs. Kyle Williams. Are you serious? It's a game, people. It's only a game, and, as Baltimore's Joe Flacco pointed out, someone has to win and someone has to lose. Simple as that. Get a grip and leave the poor guy alone.

Five guys who have some 'splaining to do

1. Kyle Williams. Two muffs equal 10 points and one loss. Williams returned punts because Ginn wasn't active, and, in the end, it cost San Francisco its first Super Bowl berth in 17 years. The second mistake was fatal, but it was the first one I just didn't get. Williams wasn't going to pick up the bouncing ball, so why get anywhere near it? Nothing good was going to happen. And nothing did. "Kyle Williams really had no business being as close to that ball as he was," Fox's Troy Aikman said. I couldn't agree more.

2. Anyone on the Giants' field-goal team. They took a delay-of-game penalty before Tynes' game-winning kick, and, yeah, I know, it didn't matter. But it might have. On the sidelines, Eli Manning saw what was happening and tried to warn coach Tom Coughlin, but he didn't budge. Lucky for him that Tynes didn't pull a Billy Cundiff ... with the emphasis on pull.

3. Referee Ed Hochuli. It was his crew that blew the whistle on Ahmad Bradshaw's catch-and-run late in the fourth quarter, overruling what could've been ... should've been ... a critical fumble recovery by San Francisco. Bradshaw wasn't down, and it would've been a fumble had officials not blown dead his forward progress. But they did, which meant the play could not be reviewed.

4. Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. With the Ravens discovering a rushing attack in the fourth quarter, he calls a first-down pass at the New England 46 ... and it's intercepted. The Ravens were hammering the Pats with their backs, and they were effective. So why throw? I don't know. What I do know is that Brandon Spikes stopped the drive with an interception, and the Ravens missed an opportunity. "It was a helluva play," Flacco said. It was not a helluva call.

5. Lee Evans' drop of a game-deciding pass. The ball was there. Unfortunately, so was New England defensive back Sterling Moore. So, after Evans cradles a perfectly thrown pass, Moore reaches in to dislodge it ... and the rest you know. My point is: Evans never should have relaxed. He should have put the ball away, and we wouldn't be having this conversation. "When you get opportunities to make plays," Evans said, "you've got to make them." 10-4.

Just asking ...

  Will it be Deja Blue all over again?

  With Joe Philbin in Miami, can Matt Flynn be far behind?

  Is Chad Ochocinco active for Super Bowl XLVI?

  Where do we see Cam Cameron next?

  What's the over/under on the number of times we see replays of David Tyree's Super Bowl XLII catch before Super Bowl XLVI actually kicks off?

Five numbers that make a difference

  0 -- 9-7 teams that won a Super Bowl.

  5 -- Eli Manning road playoff wins.

  6 -- New England Super Bowls under Robert Kraft.

  7 -- Tom Brady fourth-quarter comeback wins in the playoffs.

  10 -- Consecutive New England victories.

  17-6 -- Belichick's playoff record, tying him with Joe Gibbs for third most in league history.

  19 -- Number of hits 49ers put on Eli Manning.

Playoff wrapup

MVP

Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants quarterback. He had eight touchdown passes, one interception and three wins -- two of them on the road. No victory was more satisfying than Sunday's defeat of San Francisco, with Manning shaking off six sacks and numerous hits while failing to commit a turnover against the team that led the league in that department.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Vernon Davis, tight end, San Francisco. He was the 49ers offense, scoring four of the team's five passing touchdowns in two games. Better yet, he caught 10 passes for 292 yards. Nice.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Vince Wilfork, defensive tackle, New England. Nobody ran on these guys until the second half of the Baltimore game ... and even then the Ravens' longest gain wasn't by a running back -- it was a 14-yard scramble by quarterback Joe Flacco. Wilfork plugged the middle vs. Denver, and he did it again Sunday. In two games, he had 2.5 quarterback sacks, four tackles for losses and three quarterback hits. In short, he was a load.

COACH

Tom Coughlin, Giants. Very simple. He wins when he must. He has won his past five games, including three in the playoffs, and just produced his seventh road playoff victory, tying Tom Landry for the most in NFL history. Team co-owner and CEO John Mara said he would talk about another extension for Coughlin "sometime after the season" and didn't envision him walking away. "I think he's having too much fun," he said.

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