AFC - Ravens @ Patriots (-9)
- Where are the advantages for Baltimore? Off the top of my head, they have the better running back (Ray Rice), maybe the better secondary, and the better kick returner in Jacoby Jones. Did you notice that it isn't easy to find advantages? New England's offense is leaps-and-bounds better with three pass catchers (Welker, Lloyd, Hernandez) that I'd rather have than anyone on Baltimore and that's without Gronk in the lineup. The Pats offensive line is better than Baltimore's, and while the front sevens may be semi-comparable, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are certainly not RAY LEWIS AND TERRELL SUGGS (capital letters) anymore. If you look at DVOA rankings (Football Outsiders' metric to cover NFL "units"), New England has the huge advantage offensively (1st to 13th), a virtual push defensively (12th to 10th), and a virtual tie in special teams (3rd to 5th) because New England's coverage units are tremendous. Advantage, Pats.
- The coaching match-up is really interested. John Harbaugh has one of the best records and playoff records of any young coach ever... but he's facing Bill Belichick. Sorry, Ravens fans. You usually have the big edge here, but not on Sunday.
- Joe Flacco. We've now seen the "good" Flacco emerge as the Ravens put up 38 points in Denver against an elite defense. He's the unquestioned X-factor because he can either be abjectly terrible, or, if he plays like he did on Sunday, he could carry them to a win. The Ravens O-line is playing at a high level now with their new look (Oher at RT, McKinnie at LT), but this one's on Flacco offensively. Oh, and it would be a great idea to not avoid your top-3 running back.
- Tom Brady is on the New England Patriots. I'm fully aware that I'm in the tank for guy to the point where my objectivity is even in question. I grasp that. With that said, there's no scenario where I could ever pick Joe Flacco (!) on the road in a must-win against Tom Brady. That's insane, and I don't care what anyone else says.
- The Pick - New England 34, Baltimore 23
NFC - 49ers @ Falcons (+4 or +4.5)
- Yep. We're here. For the first time in their history, the Atlanta Falcons will host the NFC Championship game. And of course, San Francisco is the biggest road favorite in the history of this round in the NFL playoffs. Seems about right.
- Falcons offense vs. 49ers defense - Matt Ryan is one of the 10 best quarterbacks in football. The list of guys I'd rather have for a game today (all things equal) than Matt Ryan is as follows: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger (healthy), and maybe Russell Wilson. That is the entire list, and yes, I'm aware that RGIII, Luck, Cam, Romo, and Eli aren't on it. Sue me. That said, this 49ers defense is stout. They were 3rd in total yards allowed, 4th in passing yards allowed, 4th in rushing yards, and 2nd in points allowed per game. That is scary good, and while they haven't looked "dominant" in absence of a healthy Justin Smith, it's still probably an advantage for San Francisco. The big key to Atlanta's offense against Seattle was balance, and it may take another big-time effort from Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers here. Keep an eye on Aldon Smith, San Fran's all-pro pass rusher, who's been bottled up for about a month now. If he gets loose, it's trouble.
- Falcons defense vs. 49ers offense - This is the real X-factor me. Which Colin Kaepernick are we getting? The guy who went crazy against Green Bay with nearly 200 rushing yards and four touchdowns, or the guy who didn't complete 60% of his passes ONCE during the final month of the season, and hadn't ran for more than 53 yards since December 2nd. Mike Nolan will be up to the challenge, but the personnel for Atlanta simply isn't as good as SF's. The Niners O-Line may be the best in football, and Frank Gore will be rested and ready to rock. If Atlanta can keep Kaepernick's legs under wraps, this may be a "push", but that's the biggest hope.
- Special Teams - Neither unit is particularly stout. San Francisco is 18th in DVOA on special teams, and Atlanta is 20th. Neither team is particularly explosive in kick returns, but the edge for San Fran will come in the punting game. Ted Ginn is above-average in the return game, and San Francisco punter Andy Lee led the league in net punting. On the bright side for Atlanta, Matt Bryant made 33 of 38 kicks on the season to just 29 of 42 from David Akers. Akers has been around forever, but he's been a weak link this year, and Bryant gets the edge there.
- Other than Kaepernick being the obvious X-factor, I think this game is fairly even. San Francisco is the better team on paper, but you can't ignore the fact that a) Atlanta is at home where Matt Ryan and Mike Smith have an insane winning percentage, and b) Colin Kaepernick has nine career starts. NINE! If he hadn't put together an admittedly incredible 60 minutes against Green Bay, the entire world would be touting him as "unproven" and he'd receive no credit. What's different now after one game?
- With all of that said, there's not a statistical argument to pick Atlanta, even at home, and while I think they have a legitimate chance (40-45%?) to win this game, I have to take San Francisco as an analyst.
- The Pick - San Francisco 27, Atlanta 24
Enjoy the slate, and Go Falcons.