NFL Playoff Predictions: Predicting the AFC and NFC Championship Winners

Mick CiallelaContributor IIIJanuary 18, 2012

NFL Playoff Predictions: Predicting the AFC and NFC Championship Winners

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    Well, folks, we’ve reached championship Sunday in the 2012 NFL Playoffs. There were plenty of fireworks and surprises last weekend and this Sunday figures to be no different as the final four teams compete to play in Super Bowl XLVI on February 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

    The beauty of the NFL is that you never know what will happen week to week, much less season to season. There isn’t a single team in this year’s final four that was in last year’s final four.

    The first game on Sunday will determine the AFC Championship. Tom Brady leads the top-seeded New England Patriots to their sixth AFC Championship game in the past 11 seasons as they host the Baltimore Ravens. This game will air at 3:00 p.m. ET on CBS.

    The NFC Championship will take place at 6:30 p.m. ET on FOX and will feature the San Francisco 49ers playing host to Eli Manning and the New York Giants. This is a rematch of their Week 10 outing which saw San Francisco defeat New York 27-20.

    There are so many intriguing possibilities with regard to potential Super Bowl matchups. Will we see a rematch of Super Bowl XXXV (Ravens-Giants) or Super Bowl XLII (Patriots-Giants)? Will we see brothers as opposing head coaches (Ravens-49ers)? Will we see Tom Brady face the team he rooted for growing up (Patriots-49ers)?

    It’s time to delve into the X’s and O’s to see which teams have the advantage and will reach the Super Bowl!

Baltimore Ravens (13-4, No. 2 in AFC) at New England Patriots (14-3, No. 1 in AFC)

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    The opening game Sunday will see Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens traveling to Foxboro to take on Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. This will be a battle between the top two teams in the AFC. The Ravens earned a berth in the AFC title game by defeating the Houston Texans 20-13 last week, while the Patriots coasted to an easy 45-10 victory over Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.

    The Ravens may have been victorious last weekend, but it sure wasn’t because of their offense. They managed just 227 yards of total offense and a minuscule 3.6 yards per play, but benefited in large part due to four Houston turnovers. Safety Ed Reed went so far as to say that quarterback Joe Flacco looked rattled against the Texans.

    The Ravens definitely played things close to the vest, as they sought to let the defense handle the heavy lifting against the Texans, knowing that they could force Houston’s rookie signal-caller T.J. Yates into some mistakes.

    Baltimore will continue to prominently feature running back Ray Rice. Last week Rice generated 80 total yards, well below his season average. But he could be in for a bigger day against New England. In their prior playoff meeting, Rice went 83 yards on the game’s opening play, setting the tone for a Ravens victory in New England. If Baltimore wants to make it to the Super Bowl, they will give the ball to Rice early and often.

    However, they are not necessarily a one-dimensional team. Baltimore certainly has the personnel to loosen the reins a little bit offensively. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin looks healthy and went for 73 yards and a touchdown against Houston last week. He will likely be Flacco’s primary target in the passing game.

    Torrey Smith and Lee Evans figure to get the occasional deep look against New England’s porous secondary. I’d expect Baltimore to take shots down the field early in order to keep the defense honest and open up running lanes for Rice.

    It’s hard to put too much stock in New England’s defensive prowess based on last week’s game, as Denver is limited somewhat in terms of what they can do on offense. The Patriots game-planned for the run against Tebow and Company. They were effective against the run, holding Denver to just 3.6 yards per carry on 40 attempts without allowing any gains of 20 yards or more.

    The pass defense was impressive, holding the Broncos to 136 passing yards and just nine completions. Most impressive to me was the pressure they were able to put on the quarterback. Tebow was sacked five times and hit on eight other occasions. DT Vince Wilfork and LB Rob Ninkovich each recorded 1.5 sacks, two QB hits and a tackle for loss in the victory.

    The Ravens struggled to protect Flacco last week, as they also allowed five sacks. Look for New England to try to rattle Flacco with pressure early.

    This just in—Tom Brady is really good. So is Rob Gronkowski.

    The duo hooked up 10 times for 145 yards and three scores in last week’s drubbing of Denver. This came on the heels of Gronkowski setting NFL records for both yardage and touchdowns by a tight end. Brady tied an NFL playoff record with six TD passes in last week’s win. This is a seemingly impossible connection to slow down.

    The rest of the receiving corps is always a threat for a big game as well, and none disappointed against Denver. Wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch each caught a touchdown pass and combined for 140 yards on just 11 targets, and TE Aaron Hernandez chipped in with 55 receiving yards and a score.

    What I found most interesting about last week’s game is the way New England is using Hernandez. Hernandez is equal parts tight end and wide receiver, and now the Patriots have begun to utilize Hernandez as a runner as well. Through his first 25 career games, Hernandez had just five rushing attempts. He then tallied 43 yards on four attempts over the last three games of the regular season, and bested that with 61 yards on five carries against Denver.

    Featuring Hernandez as a running threat adds an interesting dimension to New England’s offense, as they have struggled to move the ball much on the ground of late. Lead back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has not been able to break the 30-yard barrier or average four yards per carry in a game since November, and rookie Stevan Ridley did himself no favors by losing a fumble last week.

    Baltimore’s defense did what they were supposed to last week. They lured a rookie quarterback into making costly mistakes at inopportune times, which led to short fields for the Ravens offense. They forced four turnovers and held Houston to just 315 total yards. But there is still cause for concern for this heralded unit.

    First, they surrendered 132 yards on the ground to Arian Foster. That’s not necessarily an indictment on the Ravens, as Foster is among the best RBs in the NFL, but it’s something worth noting. Of greater concern is the fact that they will not be able to confuse Brady with zone coverage the way they did Yates. Brady had made his living picking apart zone defenses, so Baltimore will have to mix up its coverages.

    The most important point of emphasis for Baltimore will be disrupting Brady. First-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will be saddled with the unenviable task of trying to design a scheme to get pressure on Brady in the pocket, but Baltimore’s personnel may be up to the challenge. LB Terrell Suggs led the charge on the outside with 14 sacks for a Ravens club which averaged three sacks per game during the regular season.

    I can’t say that I’m rooting for either team. Either Tom Brady and Bill Belichick make it to another Super Bowl, or we have to endure two more weeks of Joe Flacco’s horrible Fu Manchu. I think that most teams heading into Foxboro might be a little enamored with the mystique of Brady and Belichick, but the Ravens certainly will not. They will remain focused on the task at hand.

    However, I worry about their ability to consistently move the football throughout the course of the game. And while I believe Baltimore’s defense will be able to get to Brady at times, I don’t think they will be enough to shut down the prolific Patriots passing attack throughout the course of the entire game.

    I see Gronkowski and Hernandez making enough plays against the Ravens’ aging linebackers to vault New England to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years.

    Prediction: New England 27, Baltimore 17

New York Giants (11-7, No. 4 in NFC) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3, No. 2 in NFC)

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    The second game on Sunday will feature Eli Manning and the New York Giants taking on the San Francisco 49ers. This is a matchup that I certainly did not anticipate, but both of these teams have proved me wrong and performed at their best when it has mattered the most.

    In Week 10, the 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20. There are things to take away from that game, but a lot has changed as well.

    The Giants are riding a tremendous wave of momentum heading into this game. They are coming off an impressive victory against the Green Bay Packers by a score of 37-20 last week, a game which arguably wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated. Meanwhile, the 49ers proved they can score with the big boys as they prevailed in a 36-32 thriller against the New Orleans Saints, a game which saw four lead changes over the final 4:02.

    Manning threw for three touchdowns and 330 yards against Green Bay last week and was especially effective when throwing to his wide receivers. When targeting the trio of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham, Manning completed an incredible 15-of-17 passes for 270 yards and those three scores.

    While the passing game has been solid throughout the season, the league’s worst rushing attack has shown signs of life during the playoffs. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have combined for 240 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per carry in victories over Atlanta and Green Bay this postseason. Bradshaw missed the Week 10 contest against the 49ers and will pose enough of a threat to keep the 49ers’ No. 1 run defense honest, which is critical due to Manning’s recent effectiveness with the play-action pass. Manning has averaged 15.6 yards per attempt on play-action passes this postseason.

    San Francisco’s defense was outstanding for most of the game against New Orleans. With 6:50 remaining in last week’s game, the Saints lined up for a critical 3rd-and-9 on their own 22-yard line down 23-17. Up to that point, the high-flying New Orleans offense had scored only 17 points and committed five turnovers. The 49ers had held New Orleans to 302 total yards including 36 on the ground.

    The Saints were 3-of-12 on third-down conversions, and Drew Brees had averaged just 5.6 yards per pass attempt. Then the wheels fell off defensively, as Brees completed nine of his final 11 passes for 169 yards and nearly ended the 49ers' season on two occasions with late touchdown passes. San Francisco will need to play well for 60 minutes on defense in order to earn their first Super Bowl berth in 17 years.

    In the previous matchup against New York, standout linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis led the charge, combining for 26 tackles and a sack as San Francisco held New York to just 3.2 yards per carry on the ground. CB Carlos Rogers intercepted two Manning passes in their prior meeting and figures to see a lot of Cruz in coverage this coming Sunday, as Rogers often covers the slot against three-receiver formations.

    This could leave Nicks matched up against Tarell Brown. This matchup may very well determine who wins this game. Nicks has been a flat-out beast this postseason, catching 13 passes for 280 yards and four TDs in two games. But Brown should be playing with a lot of confidence as he has racked up five interceptions in his last five games, including one last week.

    Just as the 49ers’ prospects for victory seemed to be fading away at the end of last week’s game, the offense picked up the slack in dramatic fashion. Quarterback Alex Smith led the Niners on two scoring drives over the final four minutes. Much like Brees, Smith had been rather pedestrian leading up to his late-game heroics. Prior to the final two drives, Smith was just 17-of-32 for 164 yards, as San Francisco relied on their running game for much of the contest.

    But the much-maligned Smith came through in the clutch, going 7-of-10 for 135 yards on the last two drives, including the game-winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with just 14 seconds left on the clock. Smith also added a 28-yard touchdown run with 2:11 remaining which gave the 49ers a momentary lead.

    Running back Frank Gore paced the offense with 127 total yards against the Saints and the 49ers will look to feed Gore early and often against the Giants. In the Week 10 game against New York, Gore was held to zero yards on six carries before hyperextending his knee late in the first half.

    Vernon Davis was a one-man wrecking crew against New Orleans, racking up 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He scored a TD against the Giants earlier in the season and New York has shown a propensity for giving up big plays to tight ends, so look for Davis to be featured prominently in the passing game.

    New York’s defense has been on an amazing roll as of late. Including the regular season, they have held their last five opponents to an average of just 12 points per game and have been even better so far in the playoffs. First they pitched a virtual shutout against Atlanta in a 24-2 victory. Then last week they went into Lambeau Field and held Green Bay to just 20 points, quite the feat when you realize that during the regular season the Packers totaled the second-most points in NFL history, averaging 35 points per contest.

    In last week’s divisional matchup, the Giants forced four Packers turnovers, registered four sacks and hit All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers on five other occasions. They held Rodgers to season lows in both yards per attempt (5.74) and QB rating (78.5) while becoming the first team to force Rodgers into more than one turnover this season. The longest passing play the vaunted Packers attack was able to muster was a 21-yard reception by Randall Cobb once the game was well in hand.  

    The biggest advantage the Giants have is their ability to create pressure on the quarterback with just four rushers. New York used four or fewer rushers on over 80 percent of Rodgers’ passes last week, which enabled them more manpower to defend Green Bay’s wide receivers. If they can generate a consistent pass rush on Smith, San Francisco may struggle to put points on the board. I would look for San Francisco to attempt some screen passes to try to take advantage of New York’s aggressive front four.

    This might not be the sexy matchup many people thought they’d see, but both teams are certainly worthy of being in this spot. The Giants defense is on such a roll right now that I just can’t see them giving up a ton of points. While Smith has come a long way this season and certainly proved he can at times go toe-to-toe with an upper-echelon quarterback, I’m not sure how he will respond to the pressure of the moment. If he struggles early, he could be in for a long day.

    I certainly don’t see New York’s offense running roughshod over San Francisco’s defense, but I believe Eli Manning and Company will do just enough to win this game, setting up a rematch of Super Bowl XLII with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

    Prediction: New York 24, San Francisco 20