The NFL’s postseason field has narrowed even further after four more teams were eliminated during the divisional round. Picking NFL playoff games is problematic when so many talented and marquee players are competing.
Green Bay, Houston, Seattle and Denver all were given early exits and starts to their offseason conditioning programs after failing to make it to the next level. All four of them had excellent seasons and rosters full of top talents.
But that’s what makes winning the Super Bowl such an achievement. Running the gauntlet and surviving against the very best that the league has to offer is truly an accomplishment.
Let’s take a look at which teams will advance to the Super Bowl, and why, following next week’s championship games.
AFC Championship Game: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Baltimore shocked the surging Denver Broncos in Denver to advance to this game and earn a rematch with the New England Patriots. The last time these two teams squared off, the Ravens escaped with a last-second victory during the early part of the season.
A lot has changed since then, or has it?
Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are both in the lineup for the Ravens' defense and they are playing with a huge chip on their shoulders after losing four of their last five regular-season games. That has translated into back-to-back playoff wins leading up to this AFC showdown.
New England hasn’t had a tough road to get to the championship game. Its 12-4 regular season record seemingly came easy at times, and it continued that with a walloping of the Houston Texans in the divisional round.
What’s going to happen when Brady and the Pats square off against the Ravens? The biggest matchup to watch will be the Pats’ no-huddle offense against the up-and-down Ravens defense.
The Pats run the ball better than anyone when they stick to keeping it on the ground thanks to the nature of their offense. Asking Ray Lewis and company to stop the explosive Pats offense is seemingly asking the impossible.
But if they can keep it close, like against the Broncos, Joe Flacco may be able to find some magic and put his team ahead with his arm.
Can lightning strike twice?
Not in Foxborough in January against Tom Brady. Brady’s win over the Texans gave him the most playoff wins for a QB in NFL history. He’s just too good and the Patriots are even better with him at the helm of their offense.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 21
NFC Championship Game: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
The San Francisco 49ers have added a new dimension to their football team after switching to Colin Kaepernick at QB. That shift has prompted changes in their entire game plan. No longer do they strictly control the clock and pound the football with Frank Gore.
Sure, there is still a lot of that in the foundation of their offense. But Kaepernick gives them an added ability to connect on big plays down the field. He’s also a deadly runner when not accounted for out of the backfield. He set the record for most rushing yards in an NFL game last week with a 181-yard outburst in the team’s big win over the Green Bay Packers.
Atlanta impressed as well, winning its first playoff game with Matt Ryan at QB. The Falcons did it by beating a team that looked to be their Kryptonite, on paper at least.
Ryan and his team withstood a second-half onslaught by the Seahawks after blowing a 20-point lead to escape to the NFC Championship Game. Matt Bryant’s last-minute field goal put the team ahead after Ryan orchestrated a two-play drive that got them into position.
The biggest matchup in this one will be Atlanta’s defense’s ability to contain Kaepernick and win the matchups at the line of scrimmage. San Francisco is one of the strongest and most punishing teams upfront and could use that to dictate the pace of the game in the trenches.
If Kaepernick gets loose again, and he likely will, the 49ers will punch their ticket with another impressive performance next weekend.
There is also the seemingly rejuvenated Falcons’ rushing game that diced up the Seahawks in the divisional round. Atlanta could keep this game close and come away with a similar win if it can stay balanced by keeping the Niners from harassing Ryan.
In the end, the 49ers look like the best team of the four remaining contenders. It is going to take a complete game, even at home, for Ryan to get his second playoff win.
Prediction: 49ers 34, Falcons 28