ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The National Football League playoffs are down to four teams, and after the weekend, they will be down to two. On Sunday, the New England Patriots hosts the Baltimore Ravens, and the San Francisco 49ers host the New York Giants. The winners advance to the Super Bowl on February 5th.
Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis now joins us as he does most Fridays. How you doing, Stefan?
STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: All season long, we've heard about how this season confirmed the total transformation of the NFL into a league dictated by offense. Suddenly, that is not looking like it's the correct conclusion.
FATSIS: Yeah. We're supposed to still be talking about the explosive pass-happy Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, but they were eliminated last weekend, so now three of the final four are defined by defense. The website FootballOutsiders rates the 49ers and Ravens the third and fourth best defenses in the NFL for this season so far and, over the last month, it says that the Giants have had the best defense.
And they all do different things well. The 49ers are great against the running game and their punter, Andy Lee, is like a defender. He had one of the best seasons in NFL history, averaging 50.9 yards per punt.
The Giants sacked quarterbacks for big losses. The Ravens are very stout, especially against the pass in the so-called red zone. That's when the other team gets within 20 yards of scoring.
SIEGEL: And that should be awfully important on Sunday because Baltimore is playing the one team you haven't mentioned, the New England Patriots.
FATSIS: And I didn't mention them because the Patriots don't have a very good defense. They rely on their star quarterback, Tom Brady. The defense is one of the worst in the league. Brady threw for more than 5,000 yards in the regular season. He threw six touchdown passes against what was supposed to be a strong Denver Broncos defense last Sunday. He's in his sixth American Conference Championship game in 12 seasons in the league. He's got the most diverse corps of receivers in football, especially his two big tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots haven't lost a game since November 6th and, love them or hate them, they've got Bill Belichick, the mastermind coach looking for his fourth Super Bowl title.
SIEGEL: Now, football wouldn't be football without a little trash talk and we've had some of that leading up to this weekend, notably between the Giants and the 49ers.
FATSIS: And when you have good defenses, they take pride in the fact that they're aggressive and hard-hitting and one Giants defensive lineman said that this game would be a bloodbath. The New York Post, of course, took that and put it on the back page with red ink dripping from the letters.
And then the Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said all kinds of silly things, the most silly of which was, I wish like hell they'd hit me in the head, a helmet-to-helmet hit. I want one of those. Given the attention to concussions and helmet-to-helmet hits and the latest in a string of lawsuits filed by retired players over concussions and brain disease came down this week against the league, so this was probably not a choice of words that NFL executives were thrilled with.
SIEGEL: Now, some sillier pro football news involves the future of Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning. Tell us what happened there this week.
FATSIS: Manning, of course, missed the season with a neck injury. The Colts owe him $28 million in bonuses, so the question is whether they're going to pay it, let Manning leave, trade him, do something else. Then, on Wednesday, we had this breaking news on Twitter: Hearing my fav, number 18, Peyton Manning, will not return to NFL. Wow. The source of that tweet was the actor Rob Lowe.
So his tweet sent reporters scrambling. Manning's father and his agent said that Manning's retirement was news to them and Irsay finally responded with a tweet of his own: My sources tell me Rob will star in an epic remake of "Deep Throat" with aging porn stars and four-fingered circus clowns.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.
FATSIS: Let it not be said that NFL owners don't have a sense of humor, at least Jim Irsay.
SIEGEL: And go Giants. Stefan Fatsis talks with us most Fridays about sports and you can hear more of him on Slate magazine's sport podcast, "Hang Up and Listen." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.