NFL Playoff Predictions 2013: Breaking Down AFC and NFC Championships
Can the Baltimore Ravens defense slow down the fast-paced New England Patriots offensive attack?
How in the world will the Atlanta Falcons stop Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers read-option?
Two valid questions heading Conference Championship Weekend in the NFL.
Let's breakdown each matchup.
AFC Championship Game: Patriots Offense vs. Ravens Defense
Tom Brady threw for 335 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in the September 23 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore, and that was before Lardarius Webb was injured.
While Peyton Manning accumulated 290 yards with three touchdowns in the divisional around against the same secondary, Corey Graham intercepted two passes, and as a team, Baltimore defended eight passes.
Brady will get his yards—there's no doubting that.
But turnovers will be crucial in this one.
The Patriots iconic signal-caller did throw two interceptions in the title game a year ago, and the Ravens will likely be looking to jump routes to make a game-changing play.
Although he was relatively invisible against the Broncos, Ed Reed still roams in center field and Cary Williams and Graham have good ball-skills.
The absence of Rob Gronkowski makes New England's aerial offense less diverse, but doesn't necessarily slow it down.
Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and the running backs out of the backfield are used in a variety of ways—and they are all exceptionally difficult to cover in space.
Much will hinge on how well the Patriots offensive line holds up against Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger.
On the ground, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen complement each other extremely well. Both are shifty in the open field, but can hurt defenses between the tackles.
Remember, only the Seattle Seahawks carried the football more often than the Patriots in the regular season.
Ridley and Vereen combined for over 120 yards on the ground against a good Houston defensive front, and the duo will be a formidable test for Baltimore's.
However, despite running 41 times against the Ravens, the Broncos only mustered three yards per carry.
Although New England's offense is predicated on pace, it controls the clock well with frequent power running plays.
As usual, the trench battle will have a major impact in this title game clash.
AFC Championship Game: Ravens Offense vs. Patriots Defense
Just when we were expecting a dud game from Joe Flacco, he had arguably the most impressive outing of his professional career against the Broncos in Denver.
He completed 18-of-34 passes for 331 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, and made many bold and accurate throws when the Ravens needed them most.
Flacco diced the New England secondary for 381 yards with three touchdowns and a pick in the regular-season win, and outplayed Tom Brady in the title game of 2012.
As is typically the case, Baltimore's quarterback will be the ultimate deciding factor.
If he makes plays down the field with his impressive arm and limits mistakes, the Ravens should be in the game late.
Ray Rice is a dangerous, hard-nosed runner and can do damage as a receiver out of the backfield.
But the linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes will likely zero in on stopping Rice before he really gets his legs churning past the line of scrimmage.
While Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin have played marvelously for Flacco, don't forget about tight end Dennis Pitta.
He had five receptions for 50 yards with a score in the Week 3 win over New England and should be a primary pass-catching target for Flacco if the Patriots linebackers are looking to attack downhill to slow down Rice.
NFC Championship: 49ers Offense vs. Falcons Defense
The San Francisco 49ers offense is so difficult to defend because it's so innovative and so complex.
At its foundation, it's a power running attack that can maul a defense with its offensive line and the deceptively strong and agile Frank Gore.
But precisely when a team decides to dedicate more players to the "box," Colin Kaepernick runs the read-option and puts immense strain on the edges.
Gore and LaMichael James are well-versed in gaining positive yardage from the read-option, but Kaepernick's sneaky speed can create huge plays on the perimeter—just ask the Green Bay Packers.
More importantly, Kaepernick is a fine thrower of the football. He has demonstrated keen accuracy and veteran-like decision-making when asked to sling the ball down the field.
While the Atlanta Falcons dealt with the ultra elusive Russell Wilson in the divisional round, he didn't carry the ball on one designed run.
That will change when Mike Nolan's defense faces Kaepernick.
Atlanta's secondary is sound, but instant post-snap deception could throw it off its assignments.
NFC Championship Game: Falcons Offense vs 49ers Defense
When Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are making an impact on the ground, the Atlanta Falcons offense is one of the most dynamic attacks in football.
It won't confuse defenses with innovative plays or a running quarterback, but the pass-catching trio of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez is threatening on all areas of the field. They combined for 17 receptions for 186 yards and two touchdowns against a solid Seattle Seahawks secondary in the divisional win.
In other words, Chris Culliver, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers will have their hands full.
Donte Whiter and Dashon Goldson will be tested as well—Atlanta certainly won't shy away from going deep and both White and Jones can stretch the field vertically.
It will be interesting to see how Turner runs without two weeks of rest and how the Falcons offensive line holds up against a player of Justin Smith's caliber on the inside.
Joe Flacco will surprise the masses again, as he will move the ball with relative ease against the Patriots secondary. Ray Rice won't have a huge afternoon, but he won't be completely shut down unless Jim Caldwell doesn't give him the football.
In a back-and-forth battle, a steady balance of Tom Brady's passing prowess and the deceptive Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be enough in the second half to keep Baltimore's defense on its heels, leading New England to victory.
The Georgia Dome will be amped up throughout this game, and although Matt Ryan and his offense could get off to a good start, the San Francisco defense will be punishing enough to weather the storm early.
Ryan and Colin Kaepernick will put on respective aerial shows, but the read-option will prove to be too much for the Falcons to handle.
As a whole, the 49ers running game will be the most vital reason why San Fran reaches the Super Bowl.