After a lackluster Wild Card Round and a fantastic divisional round, the NFL world is buzzing with anticipation over the conference championships this weekend.
New England and Baltimore face off in a rematch of last year's epic battle where the Ravens were a dropped touchdown and missed field goal away from going to the Super Bowl. Over in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons' high-octane offense hosts the San Francisco 49ers' amazing defense as well as the NFL's newest "most exciting player"—Colin Kaepernick.
So, who is heading to the Super Bowl? Our panel has the picks.
Our B/R Panel of Experts
Note: All betting odds are for informational purposes only and courtesy of Statfox.com. Although spreads are provided, all picks are straight up.
B/R Consensus: 49ers (9-2)
Vegas: 49ers (-4.5)
I wasn't sure Colin Kaepernick could win a playoff game; now, I'm not sure I can bet against him. The Niners did a great job of slow-playing their hand and surprising the Packers. What do they have up their sleeve for Atlanta?
The 49ers' pass rush will dominate an average Atlanta left side en route to victory.
So the Falcons escape with a win by the skin of their teeth against the Seahawks, and suddenly they're "over the hump" when it comes to the playoffs? Sorry, I'm not buying. Colin Kaepernick won't have the crazy day he had against the Packers, but he'll do more than enough to get the 49ers the win.
It may not please the national media or the storyline, but the Falcons are defending the run much better over recent weeks. Roddy White and Julio Jones proved to be too much for even the top cornerback duo in the playoffs. The real problem I see for Atlanta is with the 49ers' front seven; if the offensive line can get their keys right and sustain blocks, Atlanta's offense could have similar success to what it enjoyed against the Seahawks.
The Atlanta Falcons rode quite the roller coaster in their defeat of the Seattle Seahawks, and an inconsistent performance like that against the San Francisco 49ers won't be enough to win this week. While it might be a major assumption to say the Niners will look as good this Sunday as they did in the divisional round against Green Bay, I feel confident enough in San Francisco to make it.
Kaepernick has turned the 49ers into a team that can beat their opponents with offense or defense. The turf in Atlanta will only make Kaepernick more dangerous. The Falcons were impressive against the Seahawks, but Matt Ryan was rarely pressured. Vic Fangio will find a way to put the heat on Ryan, which will make things easier for San Francisco's secondary to cover Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
At this point, Kaepernick looks like an unaccounted-for variable in the 2012 NFL season. I'm riding San Francisco.
After Saturday's beatdown of the Green Bay Packers, it's hard not to like what Colin Kaepernick and company have going right now. The Falcons have struggled against quarterbacks who can run this season, as was evident against the Seahawks. I expect more of the same this week as Kaepernick potentially has an even bigger day than Russell Wilson did in the Georgia Dome.
San Fran really impressed me this weekend, though perhaps the Packers also collapsed at the same time. Still, the way the Niners offense runs, they are a handful. The crazy thing is, the option isn't the only possibility the Niners have in the playbook. They're a team that can throw so many looks at you, it's hard to imagine how a team that barely held off the Seahawks on a late surge is going to contain them. Should be a great game, but the 49ers are my pick to come out on top as they have just too much talent.
Atlanta was lucky to get past Seattle. That doesn't feel like a Super Bowl team at all. The 49ers, meanwhile, dismantled a recent Super Bowl champion on Saturday night. Even in Atlanta, I'm going with the hotter, more balanced and more talented 49ers.
Don’t underestimate the power of getting the proverbial monkey off their backs; these Atlanta Falcons now know what playoff success feels like, and that should propel them into the Super Bowl. Expect the Falcons to work all week on replicating the success of Sunday’s first half against Seattle to execute for a full 60 minutes against San Francisco.
B/R Consensus: Patriots (8-3)
Vegas: Patriots (-8.5)
Like an old boxer, the Patriots survived years with just a haymaker for an offense. Now, with another Super Bowl experience in their sights, they get to show the Ravens all of their new, devastating punches—Aaron Hernandez, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, etc. Oh, by the way, this defense can hold its own as well.
Tom Brady. At home. The Patriots are rolling, and this new-found run game will be the difference against Baltimore.
No one is giving the Ravens a chance in this one (they opened as 10-point underdogs) and I have no idea why. Yes, Tom Brady is amazing. But everyone seems to have forgotten the fact that Joe Flacco outplayed him in the AFC Championship Game last year. He does it again this year, and this time it helps send the Ravens to New Orleans.
These two teams are vastly different than the ones that took the field in Week 3, but the Patriots now have the tools to take away what the Ravens were able to do so successfully against New England the first time around. With Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback and Devin McCourty playing well at safety, the Ravens may not have the success they had against the Broncos in the deep passing game.
The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots meet for the second straight year in the AFC Championship Game, and momentum appears to be in the Ravens' corner. Though the Patriots have the usual collection of offensive weapons, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has outplayed Patriots counterpart Tom Brady in their last two meetings—a telling statistic that shows just how well the Ravens respond to top-level talent. This is Ray Lewis' last stand, and I don't think his teammates will let him down.
Everything had to go right for the Ravens to beat the Broncos. It's not taking anything away from the Ravens to say that the Broncos choked away a game they had won. The Patriots aren't going to make a handful of huge mistakes, and Bill Belichick certainly isn't going to kneel the ball with 30 seconds left at the end of the game with two timeouts and Tom Brady. The Ravens are a great story, and their win over the Broncos was exciting, but I would be surprised if they were able to repeat their performance.
This comes down to which team is better. The Patriots are. They are playing at home. They are going back to the Super Bowl.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots look downright unstoppable. Despite losing tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots should have no problem running up the score against a mediocre defense allowing 408 yards per game in the postseason. Ray Lewis' final game will forever be linked to Mr. Brady.
Ray Lewis is a great story, and I don't discount the Ravens continuing to ride the wave, but the Patriots are just too good across the board. Defensively, they have a better unit than I've seen in a long time. Offensively, they just don't take their foot off the gas. They'll outlast Joe Flacco and company, and as great as the Ravens have played the last few weeks, their run ends at Gillette Stadium.
These teams always play close, exciting games, and this should be no different. Joe Flacco plays well against the Pats, so I'm tempted to pick the upset. Ultimately, though, I just think the Patriots are a much better team. Home-field advantage helps, too.
Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady last year in the AFC Championship Game and did so again in Baltimore’s Week 3 win over the Patriots this year. It’s time to start believing in the magic of Ray Lewis’ final run to glory. That emotion should carry the Ravens through two playoff wins, and beating Brady on Sunday will mark the second future Hall of Fame quarterback Baltimore can cross off the postseason list.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.