AFC Championship: New England 28, Baltimore 20
The Ray Lewis Farewell Tour has been fun and all, but it has to come to an end eventually, right? The Ravens’ defense is as healthy as it’s been all season, and they are riding on a ton of momentum after last week’s comeback victory over Denver, but let’s face it; Tom Brady is going to put points on the board. Do the Pats drop a 40-spot against one of the better defenses in the league? Probably not. But there’s no way the Patriots can’t put up at least four scores if they can run the football successfully. New England cannot afford to become a one-dimensional offense, which seems to happen all too often to this team in the postseason. If they abandon the run game, they could be in trouble, because the formula to beat the Patriots has always been to drop seven or eight defenders back and make Brady throw into tight windows. The Giants have executed this perfectly in the last two Super Bowls, and the Ravens are one of the few teams in the league that can pressure Brady with just four pass-rushers. Long story short, turnovers and a lack of a running game are the only things that can stop New England’s offense at this point.
On the other end, the Patriots do in fact have what it takes defensively to stop Joe Flacco and the Ravens. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but New England’s defense is the best that Baltimore has seen so far in the playoffs. In fact, Denver’s secondary practically allowed Baltimore to hang around late in the game last weekend. Although the Pats have their weaknesses in the secondary, they cannot and will not let Flacco beat them deep. New England will most likely double-team Torrey Smith all game and refuse to let the Ravens get big plays down the field. The Pats are just too smart to let Flacco beat them with the deep ball, which he has been very successful at doing this season. If Rice goes off for 150 yards rushing, that could be another story, but I don’t see him being as effective as he has been in the past against this team. Even if Rice breaks 100 yards, I really don’t see Baltimore slinging it down the field against this much-improved secondary like they did last week against Denver, especially when you consider that it could be very wet, or at least very windy on Sunday. Force Flacco to throw to Anquan Boldin, the tight ends, and Rice; but as long as he doesn’t break the game open with his trademark 60-yard heaves down the field, the Pats should be all set on the defensive end.
Players to watch: Stevan Ridley (New England) & Jacoby Jones (Baltimore)
It remains to be seen if Ridley will be the focal point of the running game on Sunday. Given his fumbling issues, and Shane Vereen’s sudden emergence, Ridley might not even get the 15 carries he received last week against Houston. But if there is ever game for Ridley to reassert himself, this is it, especially against a big, physical front-seven like Baltimore’s. Don’t forget that he ran for over 1,200 yards this year. Vereen may have the hot hand, but I expect Ridley to get a steady dose of carries given that he has the ability to just wear down Baltimore’s defense.
As for Jacoby Jones, the logic here is simple: he is really, really fast. If the Pats’ get caught up in watching Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, Jones could be that guy who beats them deep for a 75-yard bomb, just like he did in the final 30 seconds a week ago. Not to mention that Jones is a game-changing kick returner; he has the ability to run one back in a split second, and the Pats haven’t been all strong on special teams these last few weeks.
NFC Championship: San Francisco 38, Atlanta 27
San Francisco has been through the gauntlet this season. They’ve outlasted the likes of Green Bay (twice), New England, Seattle, and even Chicago back when they were considered a playoff threat. Atlanta, on the other hand, faced just two playoff teams during the regular season, with the last coming in Week 5 (Washington), and was also lucky to make it out alive against the Seahawks last weekend, while the Niners dominated the Packers in almost every facet of the game. San Francisco, although they’ve struggled at time against physical teams, has eaten finesse teams alive. What is Atlanta? A very good team, but also very much a finesse team that needs to sling the ball down the field to be successful. Matt Ryan is going to have his hands full with the San Francisco front seven, and when he faces pressure, he coughs up the football. Not to mention the 49ers are one of the few teams in the league with good enough cornerbacks to matchup with Roddy White and Julio Jones. It’ll be closer than the score indicates, but I don’t see how the Niners can’t manage to overpower this Atlanta team on both sides of the ball. Especially if Colin Kaepernick has the type of game he did last weekend.
Players to watch: Michael Crabtree (San Francisco) & Jacquizz Rodgers (Atlanta)
Word on the street is that Crabtree is currently being questioned for sexual assault. I don’t feel like going into details (read about here if you’d like), but regardless of the outcome this is huge for the Niners. Does more unfold to this story? Does this at all prove to be a distraction on Sunday for Crabtree? Does he even play on Sunday? It could get worse for the 49ers in the coming hours, but it still looks like he’ll suit up against the Falcons. There’s no question San Fran needs their leading receiver out there; behind him, it’s a clusterfuck of guys that includes last year’s postseason goat (Kyle Williams), Ted Ginn, A.J. Jenkins, and, of course, 35-year old Randy Moss. Without Crabtree, or even with an ineffective Crabtree, Kaepernick and could struggle to find that same rhythm he and Crabtree have had with anyone else.
As for Rodgers, he has become an interesting asset for Atlanta in the backfield this season. Michael Turner has had a nice career with the Falcons, and he is without a doubt one of the best running backs in the NFL at grinding out yardage between the tackles. That being said, at this stage in his career he is not nearly a threat to break open a big play. Enter Rodgers, who has emerged as a reliable third-down back catching passes out of the backfield, and has also shown the ability to provide burst and playmaking ability running the football. If the Niners managed to limit both White and Jones on the outside, look for Matty Ice to look towards Rodgers quite frequently in both the running game and the passing game.