Playbook: Giants, Patriots win with scheme

When we look back on two great conference championship games, we will often try and boil them down to one or two big plays -– a muffed punt, a dropped touchdown pass or a missed field goal.

In reality, when you look at the tape, the Patriots and Giants walked away conference champions for reasons that spanned the length of the game. And the Ravens and 49ers exited stage right for just as many reasons.

Giants-49ers

This game proved, lest we all forget, that there are three phases of a football game.

For the 49ers, they only converted 1-of-13 attempts on third down. But if you look back to their first win of the season, Week 1 versus the Seahawks, they only converted 1-of-12 first downs in a 33-17 win. In that game, however, San Francisco benefited from two return touchdowns by Ted Ginn.

Ginn wasn’t there to remedy San Fran’s struggles in the passing game this time.

The 49ers’ pass offense was underwhelming on first and second down against the Giants, completing only 44 percent and forcing San Fran into third and longs (averaging more than eight yards to go). In Alex Smith’s defense, his receivers -– outside of Vernon Davis -– weren’t able to separate.

Defensively, Justin Smith and Co. had their moments (12 quarterback hits and six sacks), but the Giants were confident enough in their protection to drop back Eli Manning 64 times. Considering the sheer volume of pass attempts, Manning actually received decent pass protection from an offensive line with its share of weaknesses.

The Giants were quick to recognize the 49ers had a significant mismatch with Smith versus left guard Kevin Boothe; this prompted center David Baas to help to his left on most snaps, leaving Chris Snee on an island with DT Ray McDonald. Running backs were also conscious to check inside first in pass protection.

And the Giants took risks at times, leaving Kareem McKenzie or David Diehl one-on-one, but they provided one or the other with a tight end to their side to chip or widen the defensive end’s rush.

Patriots-Ravens

While the Patriots were able to keep an elite defense on its heels with personnel groupings and an efficient running attack, we were surprised how little Baltimore game-planned to attack Julian Edelman as a defender.

On the 18 plays that Edelman was in on defense, the Ravens only attacked Edelman three times. The first occasion didn’t come until the fourth quarter with 1:44 remaining. In the end, the Ravens were 2-of-3 on targets toward Edelman for 22 yards.

For a majority of the game, Edelman was matched on Anquan Boldin, but Baltimore didn’t scheme to exploit that advantage. And in the run game, the Ravens were not efficient, either. Ray Rice gained only 67 yards on 21 carries.

The Patriots offense, on the other hand, was impressive in how it scored. All five of their scoring drives reached double figures in play-count and accumulated 23 minutes and 17 seconds combined (58 plays). Even if Tom Brady didn’t have his best game, the Patriots game-planned well enough to earn a Super Bowl bid.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (Patriots) and 8:30 p.m. ET (Giants) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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