NFL Playoff Picks: Bold Predictions for AFC and NFC Championship Games

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 16, 2012

NFL Playoff Picks: Bold Predictions for AFC and NFC Championship Games

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    The NFL's conference championship games are on Sunday, with the four best teams in the league putting together what they believe are the perfect game plans to get them to the Super Bowl. Ultimately, only two teams will succeed in their efforts, but it's not going to be easy for them to do so.

    Unpredictability has been the hallmark of this year's playoffs, and it's not hard to imagine surprising things happening in the two games scheduled for Sunday.

    With that in mind, here are my bold predictions for the AFC and NFC championship games.

Ravens at Patriots: Baltimore QB Joe Flacco Will Have a Huge Day

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    Though Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed just over 50 percent of his passes in his team's win over the Houston Texans, and only had four completions in the first quarter of the game, two of them were touchdowns.

    That makes his 176 passing yards more bearable for Ravens fans hoping for an inspired performance from the inconsistent passer.

    However, Flacco will look far better this Sunday in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots.

    The Patriots have had a terrible pass defense this year, and though they appeared to be quite tough against the Denver Broncos on Saturday night, they will return to their underwhelming form on Sunday.

    That's good news for Flacco, who isn't generally considered reliable when the game hinges on him playing well.

    The Ravens have relied more on their run game and defense than on Flacco's arm and pocket awareness, and while that's gotten them quite far this year, Flacco will need to step up on Sunday if the team has any hope of outscoring the Patriots.

    While Baltimore has their work cut out for them when it comes to putting up the kinds of points to beat New England, look for Flacco to only advance those efforts and throw for over 300 yards on Sunday.

Giants at 49ers: New York QB Eli Manning Won't Get Picked off

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    The San Francisco 49ers defense led the league in forced turnovers in the regular season with 23 interceptions and 20 forced fumbles, and they picked off New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees twice and forced three more fumbles in their divisional round win that sent them to the NFC championship game.

    However, they won't have as much luck intercepting New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning on Sunday.

    Manning threw a single interception in his team's win over the Green Bay Packers and had no turnovers when the Giants defeated the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card round.

    Though Manning threw two picks when the Giants met the Niners in Week 10, they won't be making those kinds of mistakes with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line this week.

    Manning has been prone to inconsistent play in his eight seasons in the league, but he also knows how to make smart decisions, and he knows how to deal with a defense as strong as San Francisco's.

    With a practically flawless performance on Sunday, Manning will lead the Giants to their second Super Bowl with him under center.

Ravens at Patriots: New England WR Wes Welker Will Be His Team's Top Receiver

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    In the New England Patriots' divisional win over the Denver Broncos, wide receiver Wes Welker only played a supporting role, targeted seven times with six receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown.

    Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has keyed in more on tight end Rob Gronkowski as the season headed into its waning weeks, and that hasn't slowed in the playoffs, with Gronkowski catching 10 passes for 145 yards and three scores in the 45-10 rout of Denver.

    Gronkowski presents a mismatch that opposing defenses haven't been very successful in defeating, but the Baltimore Ravens defense is extremely strong and should have less trouble than most in shutting down the sure-handed and strong tight end.

    That means that Brady will have to turn to slot receiver Welker to carry the bulk of the receiving load.

    Welker's been as reliable as ever this season, catching 122 passes for 1,569 yards and three scores. He should have well over 100 receiving yards against the Ravens on Sunday, and a pair of scores.

Giants at 49ers: San Francisco RB Kendall Hunter Will Have a Breakout Day

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    The San Francisco 49ers are a run-heavy team, relying on running back Frank Gore to provide the bulk of the team's offensive yards.

    San Francisco will continue to focus on the running game in their NFC championship matchup against the New York Giants, but it will be Kendall Hunter, and not Gore, who has the biggest day.

    In the Niners' divisional-round win over the New Orleans Saints, Gore carried the ball 13 times for 89 yards while Hunter had just six carries for 23.

    While Gore is the stronger of the two, Hunter's speed will be a major asset on Sunday.

    The Giants defense didn't allow a lot of rushing yards in their win over the Green Bay Packers, with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers the top runner of the night with seven carries for 66 yards.

    However, both Packers running backs James Starks and Ryan Grant had more than 30 rushing yards apiece, and it would behoove the 49ers to take more of a two-pronged approach when it comes to their running game this week.

    Look for Hunter to break off a number of 10- and 15-yard runs that result in him being more involved in San Francisco's overall offensive approach as the game progresses.

    While Gore will be useful—and successful—I predict Hunter will end the day with more than 70 yards rushing to Gore's 40 or 50.