NFC Championship Game - San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) @ Atlanta Falcons (14-3)
The NFC's top two sides successfully negotiated tough divisional round match ups to secure passage to the Championship Game. The 49ers got it tight for three quarters last week against the Green Bay before sealing the game with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Falcons had the exact opposite. They cruised for three quarters and led 27-7 as the fourth quarter started but the Seahawks scored three unanswered touchdowns to lead by one before Matt Bryant nailed a 49 yard field goal to secure the Falcon's first playoff victory since 2004.
San Francisco were very impressive in their win against the Green Bay Packers. Colin Kaepernick had a great game and led the ground game. Between his passing and running he played a part in four touchdowns and 444 yards of offense. He was well supported by Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree who also had very good games. News broke yesterday of Michael Crabtree being questioned by police in relation to a sexual assault after the Green Bay game last weekend. Details are sketchy at this point but it is far from ideal preparation for an NFC title game.
Atlanta players must be riding a roller coaster of emotions after last Sunday's epic win over the Seattle Seahawks. It was one of the most amazing games I have saw in all the year's I have been watching NFL but the biggest question will be how much did it take out of the Falcons? Momentum and confidence are great things in sport and right now, I'm not sure Atlanta have either. The 49ers will be feeling pretty good about themselves. They went up against a top side and outplayed them on the way to a win with a strong finish. Atlanta, on the other hand, were cruising towards victory and then before they even realised it themselves, they were behind and suddenly had to do something or their season was over. I expect their players will be relieved but they will also be asking themselves a lot of questions about what went wrong and it will have taken a lot of the confidence that they were no doubt brimming with after three quarters of action.
The match ups in this game are very interesting as both teams prepared for this game by beating a similar team last week. The Falcons beat the Seahawks who have the strong defense, mobile quarterback and elite running-back that the 49ers have. The one big difference though is that the 49ers should have most of their key players available, unlike the Seahawks who looked a little toothless at the line of scrimmage without Chris Clemons. The 49ers beat the Packers last week and once again, they are remarkably similar to the Falcons. Both teams rely heavily on their passing games and aren't particularly strong on the ground or on defense. If anything, the Packers are probably a little better than the Falcons in most of those areas.
The rest of the statistics are quite interesting. The 49ers are 11th in sacking the quarterback but the Falcons have got good protection for Matt Ryan and ranked 7th best in the NFL in the regular season in sacks allowed. On the other side of the field, the Falcons have really struggled to get pressure on the quarterback and ranked 28th in sacks but the 49ers aren't much better at protecting their quarterbacks and ranked 23rd. Both teams are good at protecting the football and both were in the top four in the NFC in giveaways.
Atlanta finished the regular season with the joint best record at 13-3. Many people said they had a soft schedule, which to be fair they did but it can't be ignored that last week's win sent them to 3-0 for the year against teams who qualified for the playoffs. The 49ers had things a little harder and after last week, are 4-2 against teams who made the postseason. It's also worth considering that the Atlanta Falcons have been very good in the Georgia Dome in recent times. They went 7-1 at home this year but their only defeat came in week 17 when the number one seed was in the bag and the team were looking beyond that game.
Prediction - This game is very tough to call. When I look at these two teams and rank them head to head, I am putting more ticks in the San Francisco column. In my opinion the 49ers are the better team and would win this one if it was at a neutral venue but it's not and I have to decide whether the 49ers are good enough to go into a very hostile Atlanta and pick up the win. The last time Colin Kaepernick played in a hostile atmosphere was against the Seahawks and things didn't really work out for him that day. I can see a similar outcome this time and will go with the Atlanta Falcons to reach their second Superbowl in franchise history.
AFC Championship Game - Baltimore Ravens (12-6) @ New England Patriots (13-4)
Baltimore and New England picked up wins last weekend to set up a repeat of last year's AFC title game. On that occasion the Patriots came out on top so the Ravens will be going all out for revenge. The Ravens did avenge that defeat in the regular season but I've no doubt they would quite happily change that one for a win tonight.
The Ravens are the only team who played in the wildcard weekend who are still alive. They have beaten the Colts and Broncos in successive weeks to get this far. The win over the Colts was expected but the Broncos one was a big surprise and they deserve a lot of credit and respect for going into Mile High and leaving with the victory. Joe Flacco has been excellent in the playoffs so far, throwing for over 600 yards, 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. Ray Rice was also very good against the Broncos after a mixed game against the Colts. Against the Colts, he had 100 yards from scrimmage but never done his team any favours with two lost fumbles. He never let it get to him though and bounced back with 131 yards and a touchdown on the ground in Denver. If the Ravens can get big performances from those two and at least one of their receivers has a big day there's no reason why they can't get points on the board. On defense their job has got a little easier with Rob Gronkowski's injury. In the two games so far, the Ravens defense has been excellent. They have been very good as a unit and have had some good individual displays from Ray Lewis, Corey Graham and Cary Williams. If the Ravens bring everything that they can, then the Patriots will be in for a tough day but the Ravens have struggled with consistency and it might be a big ask for it all to click for them two weeks in a row.
The Patriots got here with a relatively comfortable win over the Houston Texans. Tom Brady came up big once again, throwing for 344 yards and 3 touchdowns. Wes Welker led the receivers with 8 catches for 131 yards. Shane Vereen also had a huge game, picking up 124 yards from scrimmage and 3 touchdowns. Steven Ridley and Aaron Hernandez also done their bit in winning the game for the Patriots. New England look better this season than in previous years. They have a much better running game than they have ever had in the Tom Brady era and they can also do a bit on defense and have one of the best run defenses in the NFL. The Patriots will rightly start this game as favourites but when these two get together, the games are always tight.
When I look at the match ups in this one, it looks very one sided. The only place the Ravens are better than the Patriots is on pass defense but even at that both sides are ranked in the bottom half of the league. The Ravens were 17th and the Patriots were 29th. In every other statistic the teams were either level or the Patriots ranked higher. New England ranked 4th in passing, 7th in rushing and 9th in run defense. The Ravens were 15th in passing, 11th in rushing and 20th in run defense. Having said that, the Ravens have looked much better in the playoffs and ultimately the only statistic that matters is the one with the scoreline.
One of the key's in New England's success has been their ability to protect the football and their quarterback. They allowed just 27 sacks on Tom Brady which ranked 4th in the league. When a guy with Brady's talent gets time in the pocket, he's going to cause damage. The Ravens haven't been as good at protecting Joe Flacco and they ranked 20th in the NFL in sack's allowed. Both defenses sacked the opposing quarterback 37 times which was joint 15th in the league.
Prediction - All signs point to New England. I have a bit of a soft spot for Ray Lewis though and would have no objections to seeing him dance his way onto the field in two weeks time in the Superbowl but I have to go with my head and not my heart. The best quarterback I have saw in my time watching the NFL is Tom Brady and he's the one guy I will always believe in. Patriots win.