Giants at 49ers, Ravens at Patriots
That road warrior mentality the New York Giants have embraced is paving their path nicely.
They will need it for one more game when they head to San Francisco next Sunday to play for the NFC championship.
Since making the playoffs as a wild card in 2007, Tom Coughlin's team has emphasized the need to be comfortable on the road. The Giants felt downright at home at Lambeau Field in the postseason for the second straight time, humbling the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers 37-20 Sunday.
Four years ago, they eliminated the Packers 23-20 in overtime on the Lambeau tundra.
"I think we're a dangerous team," Coughlin said. "I like where we are and how we're playing."
Why not? Eli Manning threw for three touchdowns for the second consecutive week, Hakeem Nicks caught two of his scoring throws — one a 37-yard desperation pass at the end of the first half — and the Giants (11-7) forced four turnovers from the usually precise Packers and had four sacks.
So it's on to San Francisco, where they lost 27-20 in November. But the Giants also lost to the Packers (15-2) during the regular season.
The 49ers (14-3) won a classic on Saturday, rallying to beat New Orleans 36-32 with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds remaining.
The AFC title game will match the Baltimore Ravens (13-4) and Patriots (14-3) in New England. Two years ago, Baltimore romped at Foxboro 33-14 in the wild-card round.
Baltimore finished off a 9-0 home record with a 20-13 victory Sunday over first-time playoff qualifier Houston.
Ed Reed's interception late in the fourth quarter sealed it, and the Ravens didn't commit a penalty or have a turnover. Lardarius Webb had two picks and Joe Flacco threw for two TDs.
"We have won in New England," Flacco said. "They are one of the teams, like us, that's tough to beat at home. We know how tough it is to go into a place like that, a place like here, and win a football game. So we're going to have to make sure we prepare well all week and bring our 'A' game up there."
New England routed Denver 45-10, silencing Tebowmania as Tom Brady tied an NFL mark with six touchdown passes and set another with five in the first half.
In their last meeting, 49ers All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith batted down Manning's pass in the closing seconds to preserve a win. That started New York on a downward spiral of four consecutive losses.
But the Giants have found a pass rush and a running game, Manning has maintained his sizzling pace in his best season, and they have gotten healthy. They've won five of six, including two playoff games.
"We went down there earlier this year and we didn't get it done, we fell short," receiver Mario Manningham said. "But I think we're going to go back and watch what we did wrong and just come back and do the right things."
San Francisco has done nearly everything right in a turnaround season under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. They are extremely efficient with perhaps the best tackling defense in the league led by four All-Pros — linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, cornerback Carlos Rogers and Smith — and ball-hawking skills that allowed them to lead the NFL with 38 takeaways.
Same thing on offense, with a league-low 10 turnovers.
"It's a lot better than traveling to Wisconsin. More importantly, we're playing a team we've already faced," Rogers said. "It's not as hard as preparing for another team we haven't faced yet."
The difference in pedigree for the quarterbacks is so large, though, that it could swing the edge to the Giants.
"Guys understand the way to win football games against good teams," Manning said. "Our defense is playing great with pressure and turnovers. Our offense for the most part is protecting the ball and playing smart football. When we have a chance to make a big play we are making them."
There's also a seeming mismatch at quarterback in this game. Brady's sensational season, with the second-most yards passing in NFL history behind only what Drew Brees managed in 2011, was somewhat overshadowed by Brees and Aaron Rodgers — even by Tebow. But he sure took center stage against overmatched Denver.
"We know we have a big test next week," Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Tom is playing excellent up there, and what they did to the Broncos ... I think they sent a message to whoever was coming up there. So, we've got our hands full and we've got to go up and get ready to play in the AFC championship."
New England rarely has faced a defense as strong as Baltimore's this season, however. Indeed, the Patriots lost to the best defense it opposed, Pittsburgh's.
If the Ravens can keep the game tight behind Lewis, Reed, Terrell Suggs and the staunch D, they'll hope their QB, Joe Flacco, can come up with enough big plays to get them to their first Super Bowl since January 2001. The Patriots have been vulnerable in pass defense, but their prolific offense has offset most problems.
"I always say there is a right way to do things, there is a wrong way to do things and there is just the Ravens' way of doing things," Suggs said. "It wasn't pretty but we're not really a pretty team. We got the W and now it's on to the AFC championship."