NFL Playoffs previews and predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
AFC Championship Game
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
How the Ravens can win:
None other than Ray Lewis himself has put the weight of the world on the right shoulder of quarterback Joe Flacco. “You’re the General, lead us to victory,” Lewis told Flacco. “Smokin’ Joe” will need to deliver another knockout blow on the road against the AFC’s reigning heavyweight champion Patriots.
Flacco will have plenty of help, however, as home-run threat Torrey Smith and physical target Anquan Boldin line up out wide, while multi-threat running back Ray Rice and rookie runner Bernard Pierce handle the workload on the ground behind a solid O-line.
Although the offense will need to keep up on the scoreboard, the Ravens’ defense will be charged with containing Tom Brady and Co. The usual suspects of Lewis, safety Ed Reed, tackle Haloti Ngata and edge rusher Terrell Suggs will need to bring the heat in New England. In the end, it may come down to rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who will need to avoid the fate of Billy Cundiff, the goat of last year’s 23–20 AFC title game defeat in Foxborough.
How the Patriots can win:
Brady has more playoff wins than any other quarterback in history — with a 17–6 postseason record, including an 11–2 mark at home. Coach Bill Belichick will put the ball in Brady’s hands and let him work the magic that has already earned the duo five trips to the Super Bowl and three Vince Lombardi Trophies during their time in New England.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is injured, but these Patriots are still loaded with playmakers like slot receiver Wes Welker and versatile tight end Aaron Hernandez. The power and speed backfield combo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen has become nearly unstoppable as the season has worn on.
Defensively, 320-plus-pounder Vince Wilfork continues to anchor the unit, while playmakers like linebacker Jerod Mayo, hybrid end Chandler Jones and cornerback Aqib Talib fly around the field.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Zoltan Mesko and a return game led by Welker and Devin McCourty round out a solid squad.
What will happen:New England by 5
Patriots march to Super Bowl XLVII; Ravens fly home for winter.
NFC Championship Game
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET, FOX
How the 49ers can win:
If dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s second career playoff start is anything like his first, then San Francisco should cruise to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Kaepernick posted 263 passing yards, 181 rushing yards and four total TDs against Green Bay in just his eighth career NFL start.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s club is far from a one-man team. Veteran running back Frank Gore, wideout Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis have all had their own breakout playoff performances. And the Niners’ O-line is arguably the best in the business.
Defensively, San Francisco’s lineup reads like the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster, with All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, and end Justin Smith leading the charge.
Special teams was the Achilles’ heal of San Fran’s NFC title game effort last season and could be again this year, with kicker David Akers showing signs of physical and mental fatigue down the stretch.
How the Falcons can win:
Matt Ryan finally ripped the playoff monkey off his back, winning his first career postseason game in his fourth attempt. But he’s far from satisfied. It will be up to “Matty Ice” to keep his cool against an aggressive 49ers defense that will bring exotic blitz packages from their 3-4 scheme.
Ryan’s fleet of pass-catchers is easily the best remaining in the playoffs, as receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are joined by future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. In the backfield, Michael Turner has split more time with Jacquizz Rodgers of late, giving the Falcons a variety of offensive looks.
Atlanta’s defense will need to do to Gore what it did to Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (16 carries, 46 yards) while not allowing Kaepernick to do what Russell Wilson (385 pass yards, 60 rush yards, 3 TDs) was able to do both through the air and on the ground.
Kicker Matt Bryant already has one playoff game-winner, giving coach Mike Smith confidence in what should be a close contest.
What will happen:San Francisco by 3
49ers strike Super Bowl gold; Falcons’ wings clipped at home.
Last week: 3-1 // Season: 178-86