Last week I picked 2-2. I missed both games on Saturday (Denver beating Baltimore and Green Bay pulling off the upset in San Francisco), but I correctly picked the Sunday games. What can I say? It’s the playoffs and every team is here because they are the best in the league. At this point any team can win with just one mistake being the difference between a Super Bowl appearance or an early exit. My picks this week follow that message. I have found that oftentimes, if something looks too good to be true in the NFL playoffs – it normally is. Keep that in mind as you read through my picks for the Conference Championships.
Sunday, 1/20 – 3:00 pm ET
San Francisco 11-4-1 @ Atlanta Falcons 13-3
Prediction: Atlanta Falcons
Bear with me.
I know what you’re thinking. San Francisco is the hot team. Everyone loves QB Colin Kaepernick and what can you say about San Francisco’s elite defense, capable of shutting down any offense in the league? Last season, the 49ers got to this game and lost, but that with with QB Alex Smith under center and even in that case, the 49ers probably should have won considering the two costly fumbles on punt returns by backup returner Kyle Williams. This season the offense is looking explosive with Kaepernick under center and the defense is still the same defense that got the 49ers here a year ago. The 49ers are the clear favorites and for good reason with some projecting a blowout win and honestly… it’s not a stretch to think that could occur.
I’m picking Atlanta.
The Falcons have spent the entire season as a bit of an underdog. They got the first overall seed in the NFC and yet they have been considered underdogs in both of their playoff games despite playing at home in the Georgia Dome. They are 13-3 for a reason after all. Atlanta is a very good team, but when people look at them critically they see a questionable defense (especially compared to the 49ers’ defense) and a great quarterback in Matt Ryan, who has had moments of inconsistency this season. Ryan has been elite at times, but he has yet to reach the level of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers where you can pick their team simply because of their ability. The Falcons, who for years relied heavily on the run, have comparatively abandoned it this season.
There are plenty of questions, obviously, but I still feel good about Atlanta because this is the playoffs. Outside of Wildcard weekend, has the favorite team on paper won each game? No. So why can Atlanta do it? They are at home. All year I have openly shared how valuable I feel home-field can be and this is no different. The Falcons have been starved for a playoff win and a breakthrough during the Matt Ryan Era. Well they finally got it and you know those fans will be very loud. They will make it hard on the 49ers in the dome and that could be the deciding factor. Also consider that Ryan is 34-6 at home in his career. Yeah, the playoffs are different, but it still is something to consider. I just think the Falcons defense will play their minds out, force some mistakes and set their offense up to score some points. Falcon receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White, will have to be huge playmakers this week, but they are more than capable of taking control of the game on the outside.
Sunday, 1/20 – 6:30 pm ET
Baltimore Ravens 10-6 @ New England Patriots 12-4
Prediction: Baltimore Ravens
Ok, bear with me again.
This pick isn’t as “unlikely” as what many consider my Atlanta pick above, but I understand the questioning look you’re inevitably giving your computer. The Patriots are the Patriots. What does this mean? Well… they are always here, deep in the playoffs. They are once again sitting at home awaiting their opponent, while preparing with a focus that has proven to be enough to knock off most any team in the playoffs (excluding the New York Giants based on history). New England has QB Tom Brady, who is fresh off setting the record for most playoff wins by a quarterback in NFL history (17) passing Joe Montana and they have head coach Bill Belichick, who needs to win this game to secure a tie for the second most wins by a head coach in NFL history, tying him with Don Shula and putting him one behind Tom Landry.
New England also sports the top total offense from the regular season and a defense who played well enough to limit the Houston Texans until it was too late in a 41-28 win. The game is also in Foxboro, which has been a huge advantage in previous years, particularly in December and January. Baltimore has their hands full.
Why do I think Baltimore can pull off the upset? They have an offense capable of moving the ball on the Patriots defense, which finished 25th in the NFL in total yards allowed during the regular season. Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin are talented enough (Smith is blazing fast and Boldin is a tank at receiver) to win matchups on the outside while RB Ray Rice is still a star running back if the Ravens utilize him properly as they did last week in Denver (30 carries, 131 rushing yards, 4.4 yard per carry average, one touchdown). I am one of the many people who don’t believe QB Joe Flacco is elite, but you can’t deny his play in the past couple weeks. He has traditionally struggled on the road, but if he plays like he did last week, watch out (18/34, 331 passing yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, 116.2 QB rating). After watching him outperform Brady in this game a year ago, I believe Flacco can and will play well enough to win this game.
Defensively, Baltimore isn’t what they used to be, but they are certainly good enough. According to this NFL.com article, Baltimore is looking to force Brady into a pass-first game. They plan to get pressure and hit him, but that can only work if the Patriots run game (RBs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vareen, Danny Woodhead) is contained. I think Baltimore is more than capable of stopping the run game and forcing Brady to throw. Personally, I would compare that to forcing Kobe Bryant to shoot. If he is “feeling it” then he is destroying you single-handedly, but if he is a little off, then you have won the game. I think Brady ends up being “off” just enough to open the door for Flacco and the Ravens. Also, keep in mind the obvious mental/emotional tie in with MLB Ray Lewis retiring at the season’s end. Lewis is the heart and soul of this team and after last week’s very impressive win in Denver, I feel like that emotional pull by Lewis is carrying this team to a new level from where they were during the regular season.