NFL Championship Sunday: Five things to watch

As we get closer to the AFC and NFC Championship games, let’s talk personnel, matchups, plus some Xs and Os. Here are five things I am looking for on Championship Sunday in the NFL.

1. Tom Brady vs. Ed Reed: Focus on Reed’s ability to get a jump on the ball from the middle of the field. The Ravens’ FS still has the best range in the NFL as a Cover 1 (man-free) safety, can work off his landmark in Cover 2 and will sit on routes that break inside of the numbers. If Brady wants to work the (fade) route to Deion Branch, throw the seam to Gronkowski or target Welker on the intermediate dig route (square-in), he will have to move Reed from his initial alignment. This is a must for Brady if he wants to throw the ball up the hash marks and prevent turnovers. Study Reed on Sunday, because as a veteran he can read route schemes based on the offense’s pre-snap alignment. This is good football to watch.

Hakeem Nicks ICONHow does the 49ers' secondary matchup to Nicks and the rest of the Giants' WRs?

2. Giants’ WRs: I like watching the 49ers’ secondary because they hit, attack the ball and play with a physical style. But how do they matchup vs. Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham? San Fran will play Cover 4 (quarters), some 2-deep and use both zone and man pressure in their game plan. I expect QB Eli Manning to test the top of his defense down the field and his receivers have shown the ability to make plays in the open field. Sounds simple, but the San Francisco secondary has to tackle, take solid angles from the middle of the field and limit Manning’s production on third downs and in the red zone. That means playing through the 3-step game (slant, hitch, fade), driving on Cruz in the intermediate route tree (dig, curl, etc.) and limiting Nicks after the catch. This is a tough matchup for Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and the rest of that secondary on Sunday.

3. Joe Flacco on the Championship stage: The production has to be there, but the Ravens’ QB also needs some help from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and his WRs. Anytime I write about the Ravens I mention Ray Rice, because I do think the game plan should funnel through the RB position when you have a top tier talent. However, don’t forget about the vertical game with rookie Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin inside of the numbers. Both WRs have to win their matchups, create some room and go make some plays for their QB. As for Cameron? Put Flacco in a position to succeed, set him up on third downs and use the play action game. There is no question Flacco has to play great football on Sunday to beat Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough. Plus, he should be expected to make the throws in crucial game situations. That’s on the QB. But he needs his entire offense to get it done.

4. Vernon Davis vs. Antrel Rolle: The Giants will play Cover 2 and that could get Davis matched up vs. the Mike Backer down the middle of the field. But after the Niners’ TE went to work on the Saints safeties last week this is the matchup I want to check out. Rolle has CB skills, can pay from an off-man position and has the speed to get down the field. The Niners will remove Davis from the core of the formation as a backside X receiver (split end), in the slot and out of a stack look. Last week, Davis was able to beat man coverage, get vertically up the field and then create separation working back to the opposite numbers on crossing routes. Let’s see if Rolle can win early in the route stem and limit the production of Davis when the Giants play Cover 1 and Cover 0 (blitz-man).

5. Raven’s pressure: I can talk about coverages, matchups, etc. when trying to break down the Patriots’ offense and their multiple personnel groupings. However, every scheme is effective when you can hit the QB, force him to check out at the line of scrimmage and target his hot reads consistently. That allows you to shorten your cushion (distance between DB and WR) in the secondary, play with a flat-foot read (no backpedal) and drive downhill on the ball. The Ravens will use their overload pressure schemes and I am sure we will see some new install on Sunday. Bottom line here: Terrell Suggs and this defensive front have to get home when pressure is called in the huddle. You can’t allow Brady time to work Gronkowski and Hernandez or spread the ball around the field in New England’s route combinations. He’s too good for that.

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