Laura Diakun

laura diakun

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Success in the red zone against New England could lead to many more pictures just like this one.

This Giants’ Super Bowl run is eerily similar to their 2007 championship season. Both times, New York pulled off an upset at Lambeau Field, and both times they won the NFC Championship game in overtime. The Giants offense will need to produce at a high level if the team hopes to defeat the Patriots once again.

Here are three keys for a New York victory.

1. Run the ball

The Giants offense showed it can overcome an inconsistent ground game (a league-worst 89 rush yards per game), but the team could be that much more dangerous if Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs get going. New York ran for a season-high 172 yards against Atlanta on wild card weekend, but has just 180 yards rushing since.

They could turn things around against this inconsistent New England rush D. The Patriots gave up 144 yards to the Broncos in the divisional round with Denver playing catchup for most of the game, but then they tightened up a week later against the Ravens (Ray Rice had just 78 yards).

Which Pats rush defense will show up in the Super Bowl? The Giants should commit to the run and find out.

2. Break down the Pats’ red-zone D

Despite giving up the second-most yards in the league, the Patriots allowed an average of just 21 points per game throughout the regular season. A lot of that is due to New England’s strong play in the red zone (tops in the AFC with six red-zone takeaways), and that stinginess has carried over into the postseason.

Heading into Super Bowl Sunday, opponents made seven trips inside the Patriots’ 20 and walked away with just two touchdowns. That translates to a 28 percent success rate for the Broncos and Ravens, but the Giants have a much better offense than both of those teams. New York has scored touchdowns on 41 percent of its red-zone possessions, but that number could be even higher without the team’s big play ability (the Giants scored four touchdowns of 27 yards or more, including two over 65 yards).

It’s imperative that the Giants offense leaves the red zone with seven points if they wants to keep pace with the high-flying Pats.

3. The big three has to come up big

New York will need Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham to be as involved in the offense as possible. The trio has come up big in the postseason, scoring seven touchdowns while averaging over 231 yards per game. You’ve got to like their chances of putting up similar numbers against a Patriots secondary that ranked last in the AFC.

Nicks was a force in the first two playoff games (280 yards, four touchdowns) before Cruz took center stage against the Niners (142 yards). In that NFC Championship game, New York’s big three finished with 214 yards while San Francisco completed just one pass to a receiver all game (for three yards).

The Giants will have their own issues stopping New England’s three-headed monster since Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have combined for 461 yards and five touchdowns during the playoffs, but the team that wins this receivers battle will probably be this year’s champion.

For the fifth time in 11 years, the Patriots are making an appearance in the Super Bowl, and they’re facing off against a familiar foe. We know the offense can score points, but will the defense be able to keep Eli Manning and the Giants in check? Here are three keys for a New England victory.

1. Keep the Giants off the field

Manning proved he belongs in the elite quarterback discussion after engineering five fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, including one against the Patriots back in Week 9. The last thing New England wants is to allow the New York offense to stay on the field.

Stopping the Giants on third down this postseason has been a challenge, as they’re clicking at 44 percent, and the Patriots have had issues ending opposing teams’ drives during the playoffs (just a 45 percent success rate). That came against the Broncos and Ravens, two far less complicated offenses than what New England will see on Sunday. The Patriots’ porous D hasn’t faced a dangerous a passing team like New York this postseason, and the more time Manning and his receivers are stuck on the bench, the better.

2. Knock Eli down

The Niners did a fantastic job getting to Manning in the NFC Championship game, sacking him six times overall. The Giants offensive line had its hands full against a tough, physical San Fran front seven, and New England will try to present the same challenge on Super Bowl Sunday.

The Patriots recorded 40 sacks during the regular season, averaging 2.5 per game. Their pass rush has been far more efficient during the playoffs with eight sacks, five of the mobile Tim Tebow, and three of the not-so-mobile Joe Flacco, which is almost 1.5 more per game than their regular-season average. The Patriots D needs to stay aggressive and knock Manning around to get him off his game.

3. The Brady of old needs to shows up

Tom Brady had a very un-Tom Brady like performance against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, throwing for 239 yards and two interceptions. It was the first time in 36 games that the Patriots QB failed to throw a touchdown.

On Sunday Brady will need to play more like he did during the regular season when he averaged almost 318 passing yards per game, and less like he did against Baltimore. But that won’t be easy.

Even though the Giants ranked 29th against the pass, their secondary has tightened up as the playoffs have progressed. New York has allowed just shy of 220 passing yards per game during the playoffs, 35 yards less than they did during the regular season. The Giants’ secondary is finally healthy, and the front seven will try to make Brady as uncomfortable as possible.

It’s up to the QB, who has the talent and the weapons, to take advantage of mismatches and stretch the field.

The Niners can win if…

Under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have become a physical, unrelenting and efficient team that doesn’t make major mistakes. Last week, San Francisco used its offense to beat New Orleans, and it will need a similar performance on Sunday if the squad hopes to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Three keys…

1. Alex Smith has to deliver an encore performance

Not many people thought Smith would win in a head-to-head battle with Drew Brees, but that’s exactly what happened last weekend. Smith played his best game of the year, finishing with 299 yards and four total touchdowns (he only had seven games with more than 200 passing yards in the regular season). He was able to exploit the Saints’ blitzing scheme, but Smith will face a totally different defense against the Giants on Sunday.

You have to applaud Smith’s performance, but one game doesn’t make him the second coming of Dan Marino. The reality is the Niners had the worst passing game in the NFC during the regular season (just 183 yards per game) and relied on Frank Gore, who finished sixth in the league with 1,211 rushing yards, to move the chains. Even though the numbers weren’t flashy, Smith did his job, establishing career highs in passer rating and completion percentage, and hardly turning the ball over (his 1.1 interception rate was the best in the NFL).

San Francisco will need to get Gore going to alleviate some of the pressure on Smith. The Giants boast a lethal pass rush (48 sacks on the season) but can be beat through the air (29th ranked pass defense allowing 255 yards per game). Smith showed he can put up the numbers once, but he’s got to prove that he can do it again.

2. Converting in the red zone

The red-zone offense was a major Achilles heel for the Niners all year long, and unfortunately it hasn’t improved much during the postseason. In 54 trips to the red zone during the regular season, San Francisco scored touchdowns just 22 times — that’s an NFC-worst 40 percent conversion rate. In fact, that number got worse as the season progressed, with San Fran scoring just nine touchdowns in their final 29 possessions (33.3%).

The Niners were marginally better last weekend against the Saints (going 2-4), but they still settled for too many field goals (David Akers had three, including one from 25 yards out). San Francisco was lucky that didn’t come back to haunt them. This team is very good at protecting the football, finishing the year with league lows in interceptions and lost fumbles. But that won’t matter if you keep settling for three points instead of the full seven. The Giants have a good offense, so the Niners will have to convert touchdowns if they want to keep up.

3. Stay stingy on D

The strength of this Niners team is its defense, which finished the regular season ranked fourth in the NFL and tops against the run (a paltry 77.2 yards per game). San Francisco gave up the fewest points in the NFC (14.3) and the unit was even better at home, allowing just 10.9 points over the regular season.

The Niners faced a tough test last week, but for all intents and purposes they did quite well at defending one of the best offenses in the league, holding New Orleans to 472 yards (including just 37 rushing yards). But more importantly, they created five turnovers.

This San Fran D forces other teams to make uncharacteristic mistakes, something it will have to do again against New York on Sunday. The Giants offense has been clicking lately, but so was the Saints offense until it ran into the Niners. The D needs to stay aggressive and physical, keeping  Manning and the receivers guessing, and giving Smith a chance to win this game.

The Giants can win if…

The hottest team in the playoffs remained red hot this past week, knocking off the 15-1 Packers on their home turf. New York was able to take advantage of a mediocre Green Bay defense, but the team knows this week’s matchup will be much more challenging. Three things they’ll have to do…

1. Get to Alex Smith

The Giants D is finally healthy and wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. Aaron Rodgers was held to just 264 yards last week (low for his standards) as New York took away Green Bay’s big-play ability, something that defined the defending champs all season. The Giants forced four turnovers (three fumbles and an interception) and sacked Rodgers four times in the game. They made life difficult for one of this year’s top MVP candidates and they’ll have to do the same this week with Smith, who is coming off a career game (299 yards and four total touchdowns).

New York can force turnovers (tied for sixth with 20 interceptions) and get to the quarterback (third in sacks with 48). While Smith had a fantastic performance last week against the Saints, he’s no Rodgers. The Giants will use their front seven to make sure Smith never gets into a rhythm on Sunday.

2. Win the line of scrimmage battle

While the Giants boast a strong D-line, the Niners aren’t lacking in that department either. It is imperative for New York to give Eli Manning as much time as possible to be Eli Manning, the quarterback who threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns last week. Manning has elevated his game to a new level this season (15 fourth-quarter TDs, for example) and he can do damage against this Niners D that gave up almost 231 passing yards per game.

San Francisco is a great run-stopping team (best in the NFL with only 77.2 rush yards per game) but New York is used to playing without a strong ground game this season, with their league-worst 89.2 yards per game. That means Sunday’s line of scrimmage battle will be less about getting the running game going, and more about protecting Manning from that ferocious pass rush after the Niners finished with 42 sacks this season. The Giants have a ton of weapons on offense (Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, etc.) and Manning just needs time to find his receivers. The more time he has in the pocket, the more effective New York’s offense will operate.

3. Avoid the turnovers

This applies to every remaining playoff team, but even more so for the Giants based on their opponent, as San Francisco finished tops in the league in takeaways (38) and just forced New Orleans into five turnovers this past weekend. The Giants have been one of the best teams this postseason in terms of hanging onto the football. In their last four games, New York has turned the ball over just twice (both Manning interceptions).

Turnovers did in the likes of the Texans, Saints, and Packers on Divisional Weekend (Drew Brees threw his first postseason interception in five years, and Rodgers lost his first fumble of the season), and the Giants want to avoid joining that group.

The Patriots can win if…

After a relatively easy win over the Broncos last weekend, the Patriots cruised into the AFC Championship Game, where they will face a familiar foe. New England is 6-1 all-time against Baltimore, but that one loss came in the 2009 postseason. If the Pats want to advance to their first Super Bowl in four years, they’ll need their explosive offense to produce against a suffocating defense. Here are three keys…

1. Brady has to be Brady

Are the Ravens the team that will slow Tom Brady down? They’ll have their hands full. The Patriots QB is coming off a record-setting performance against the Broncos last week. Brady picked up right where he left off in the regular season, tying the NFL playoff mark by throwing six touchdowns (five came in the first half), and finishing with 363 passing yards. And he did it all without breaking a sweat.

New England’s offense put up staggering numbers this year — it was second in the league in passing yards (317.8) and total yards per game (428) while scoring an AFC-best 32 points per contest. With the likes of Wes Welker (the league leader in catches), Rob Gronkowski (who set a tight end record by scoring 17 touchdowns) and Aaron Hernandez at his disposal, Brady passed the 5,000-yard plateau (finishing the season with 5,235).

The Ravens gave up just over 196 passing yards per game (fourth best in the league), so the yards won’t come easy for Brady on Sunday. But if the aerial attack can break through, that will put more pressure on not only the Baltimore defense, but also its offense.

2. Try and run

The Ravens were one of the most effective teams against the run during the regular season (an AFC-best 92.6 yards per game) but they hit a bump last week against the Texans. Arian Foster became the first player to run for more than 100 yards in a postseason game against Baltimore (he had 132), making that rush D look rather ordinary. Was that output just an anomaly or the start of a troubling trend for the Ravens?

In a pass-heavy offense, the run wasn’t much of a priority for New England this season, with the unit finishing 20th in the NFL an averaging just over 110 yards per game. Running the ball isn’t the Patriots’ strength, but if their offense can become a bit more balanced this week, that will give them an advantage. Don’t get me wrong — BenJarvus Green-Ellis is no Foster, but his best game of the season came against a similarly stingy rush defense. Back in Week 5, the Law Firm ran for a season-high 136 yards against a Jets team that gave up just 3.9 yards per carry (in comparison, the Ravens allowed 3.5). That was his only game where he finished with more than 100 yards.

New England may not look to run the ball first on Sunday, but they do have the players (Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley) to at least test Baltimore’s rush defense.

3. A repeat performance from the defense

A lot has been made this season of New England’s 31st-ranked defense, which gave up just over 411 yards per game. But the Patriots D that was on display this past weekend didn’t resemble the regular-season squad at all. New England held Tim Tebow to 136 yards passing (252 yards total), sacked him five times and allowed just 10 points. The D was aggressive, made tackles and more importantly, didn’t give up the home-run play.

And that’s been the Pats’ game plan for most of the season — whatever defensive shortcomings they’ve had have been masked by their explosive offense. The unit gives up a lot of yards but allowed only 21 points per game (15th in the entire league). The Ravens have a good ground game with Ray Rice, but Joe Flacco isn’t reliable.

New England doesn’t need to shut down Baltimore’s offense to win, but it can’t give up too many big plays either.

The Ravens can win if…

By not committing a single penalty or turnover in their divisional game against the Texans, the Ravens showed that experience, discipline and defense can get you far in the playoffs. But if Baltimore hopes to hang with top-seeded New England in Sunday’s AFC championship showdown, the team’s offense will have to improve. Three things they have to do to win:

1. Run the ball

Even though it was a tightly contested game, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron inexplicably decided to abandon the run against the Texans. Ray Rice, by far Baltimore’s best weapon on offense, had only 60 yards rushing (and 80 all-purpose yards) on the afternoon. If the Ravens are going to keep pace with the high-flying Patriots, they will need to find more of a balance on offense.

Baltimore’s O had a dismal day against Houston — the team had almost as many punts (nine) as first downs (11), finished with 227 total yards and scored just three points over the game’s final 46 minutes, with Joe Flacco struggling mightily. But if the Ravens can establish the run on Sunday, that would alleviate some of the pressure off a quarterback that doesn’t always look comfortable in the pocket (Flacco had career lows in completion percentage and yards per attempt this season).

The Patriots have had issues stopping the run (they allowed 117 rushing yards per game during the regular season) and most recently gave up 144 yards to the Broncos (the numbers could have been much higher if Denver wasn’t playing catch-up for most of the game). Rice (who finished the season first in yards from scrimmage and second in rushing) has the talent and the matchup to do some serious damage, and if he can get going that will help everyone on the Ravens offense.

2. Stay aggressive on defense

The defense defines this Ravens football team and it was in fine form this past weekend against the Texans. The unit picked off rookie quarterback T.J. Yates three times (and forced four turnovers overall), giving up just 13 points. Houston was able to move the ball (315 total yards) but just couldn’t score the knock-out punch.

Baltimore will need to get big games out of its key defensive players (Ray Lewis led the team in tackles against Houston, Ed Reed recorded his eighth postseason interception) and make things as uncomfortable for Tom Brady as possible. Opponents averaged just 16.6 points per game against the Ravens in the regular season so things won’t come easy for that Patriots offense.

This defence is very opportunistic — it can get to the quarterback (third in the league with 48 sacks) and force players into making mistakes (15 interceptions and 21 forced fumbles). Brady likes to exploit the middle of the field and he could run into all kinds of problems with this experienced and physical defense (especially in the secondary). The Ravens have the personnel to throw the 5,000-yard passer off of his game.

3. Slow down those tight ends

The duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has been giving defensive coordinators fits this season. The two combined for 2,237 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns (Gronk had 17 TDs, the most ever for a tight end) and put up 200 yards and four scores last week against Denver.

You can try to stop one, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop both.

However, the Ravens have been effective at shutting down starting tight ends this season, allowing just 517 yards to the position during the regular season. In fact, Indy’s Jacob Tamme was the only tight end to score a touchdown on the Baltimore D, while the team held Houston’s Owen Daniels to just 26 yards this past week. If the Ravens hope to slow down the Patriots’ aerial attack, containing these talented and physical tight ends is a good place to start.

Apart from a brief stumble in Week 15, the Packers have been unstoppable, compiling a league-best 15-1 record. But the Giants are quickly becoming the team no one wants to play this postseason. If New York is to hand Green Bay its first loss at Lambeau in well over a year, the team will need its quarterback to come up big, the running game to keep moving, and the defense to disrupt Aaron Rodgers and Co.

At the very least, if this NFC divisional matchup is anything like their Week 13 meeting, fans are in for a real treat. Here’s what the Giants have to do to have a chance to slay Goliath:

1. Eli must be elite

The Pro Bowl quarterback is having a season to remember. He finished fourth in the league in yards, had eight games of 300 passing yards or more, threw 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns, and engineered five comeback victories. Manning didn’t miss a beat last week against the Falcons, throwing for 277 yards and three touchdowns, and more importantly no interceptions. The Giants QB has the stuff, the weapons (Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham) and the opportunity to hang with Rodgers and the Pack.

Green Bay was historically atrocious on defense this past season. The team was dead last in passing yards allowed (299.8) and total yards allowed per game (411.6). No team with the worst regular-season defense has ever advanced to a Super Bowl.  Manning has already put up big numbers on the Packers once this season (347 yards and three touchdowns in Week 13) and there is no reason to think he can’t do it again. If New York can match Green Bay point-for-point on Sunday, the Giants will gain a major moral victory.

2. Don’t give up on the run

The Giants’ running game ranked dead last during the regular season (averaging just over 89 yards per game) and the tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combined for just two 100-yard performances. It’s amazing that the Giants offense performed as well as it did this season (24.6 points scored per game) all things considered.

But last week against Atlanta, New York’s beleaguered rushing attack came to life, finishing with a season-high 172 yards. Even more impressive was the that running game averaged 5.5 yards per carry, two entire yards north of their regular-season average. But can they keep it up? The Packers were much better defending the run during the regular season (almost 112 yards allowed per game), but if weather is an issue in Green Bay, the ground game will become that much more important. A balanced offense makes the Giants that much more dangerous.

3. Get to Aaron Rodgers

With both offenses potentially cancelling each other out, this game could come down to which D plays better.

Rodgers is a matchup nightmare — from his outstanding accuracy to his scrambling ability to his love of stretching the field with the long pass. He has so many gifted receivers at his disposal (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley to name a few), that it makes it almost impossible to account for everyone. The Packers led the league in points per game (35) and finished third in the NFL in passing yards per contest. Rodgers only had one game (that Week 15 hiccup against the Chiefs) where he didn’t throw two or more touchdowns.

But this Giants defense, with the way it’s playing right now, presents a whole different challenge for the Packers. This past weekend, New York’s D was suffocating, allowing just 247 total yards against Atlanta (including two key stops on fourth and one). The real strength of this Giants defense is its athletic and physical front seven — the unit finished third in the league in sacks and put up 11 over the final two weeks of the regular season. If New York can win the battle at the line of scrimmage and make things uncomfortable for Rodgers, the Giants just might pull off another upset at Lambeau.