Who Are the Experts Predicting for NFL's Conference Championship Games?
After a week of utter foolishness perpetrated by factors outside of the control of both the fans and the media, the sports world finally gets a chance to actually watch something decided on the field.
The San Francisco 49ers take on the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome at 3 p.m. EST on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens travel to Gillette to take on the New England Patriots in a rematch of the 2012 AFC title bout.
Are we looking at a "Harbowl"? Will there be a rare matchup between two preseason favorites in the Super Bowl? Will Ray Lewis finally play his last NFL game after what has been a mighty impressive run for the Ravens?
These questions and more are guaranteed to be answered by Sunday night.
Bleacher Report figured it made sense to take a gander at what experts around the world of football are predicting for championship weekend.
This article will give you those predictions, as well as a bit of my own analysis.
Sorry, ESPN (and B/R head honcho Matt Miller), I may just take some exception to what you are proclaiming to be the "truth" heading into Sunday.
This should be fun.
Peter King, CNN Sports Illustrated
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Atlanta needs to win two things — time of possession and the turnover contest — to win this game. It's possible, but I can't see after Russell Wilson's 445-total-yard dynamism last week how Atlanta can shut down an equally difficult weapon behind center.
As one of my favorite writers around the world of football, Peter King makes some solid points here. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are both elite running quarterbacks who can actually pass the ball down the field.
Sorry Skip Bayless, but this rule does not apply to one Mr. Tim Tebow.
Equally as important here, San Francisco doesn't turn the ball over all too often. In fact, it is tied for the second-least amount of turnovers in the NFL.
Couple that with a complex game plan and the ridiculous two-pronged ability of Kaepernick, and you have a few different factors leading to a possible San Francisco victory.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if Baltimore wins. But I'm going New England. The Ravens have made life hard on Tom Brady in the last three meetings (two touchdown passes, five interceptions), so I don't think he'll hang 40-something on them — but I do think the chemistry Brady's developed with his backs will neutralize the loss of Rob Gronkowski. And as long as Wes Welker, his third-down crutch, is healthy, Brady will be the most dangerous weapon in this game. This will be a great game, though, the second straight weekend the league will produce an instant classic involving the Ravens.
As I indicated on my radio program Thursday, this is going to be a more difficult matchup for the Patriots than most experts are saying.
King is correct in assuming that we should expect a close game here. The loss of Rob Gronkowski definitely does hurt Tom Brady a great deal.
Moreover, Joe Flacco is playing damn near the best football of his career.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that New England will be able to run Baltimore off the field in Gillette on Sunday evening. Instead, we should witness a whale of a game in this rematch from the 2012 AFC title bout.
Michael Schottey, Bleacher Report
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?
Schottey has a great point here. San Francisco had not utilized that particular type of offense all season and definitely caught the Green Bay Packers a bit off guard.
With that in mind, Jim Harbaugh and Co. had two weeks to prepare for the divisional round game. They weren't as lucky in preparation for Atlanta.
It will definitely be interesting to see what San Francisco has planned in terms of offensive scheme. After all, it has one of the most complex playbooks in the entire league.
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.
There is definitely another aspect in play here that we have not seen a great deal of in the past. New England has created a really nice balance on the offensive side of the ball.
The idea that defenses cannot hone in on Tom Brady and the passing game has to be worrisome for Baltimore fans.
Including the postseason, New England is averaging over 126 rushing yards in its last 10 games (via Pro Football Reference).
Christopher Hansen, Bleacher Report
Baltimore can't rely on same mistakes we saw in Denver.
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
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.
A couple important points were brought up here. The turf should help Kaepernick a great deal in terms of getting to the outside in the read option.
Anyone who has ever witnessed a January game at Candlestick knows full well that the conditions are soggy and a bit slow on the football field. That won't be an issue Sunday in the Georgia Dome.
Chris Hansen also brings up a solid point about what the second-year quarterback has done in San Francisco. Teams didn't really have to worry about San Francisco's offense a great deal in the last two seasons. Now, that unit is nearly as impressive as the defense.
Definitely a multi-pronged attack here.
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.
As much as we want to give Baltimore all the credit in the world for going into Denver and defeating Peyton Manning and Co. last week, we also have to look at what the Broncos did to lose that game.
Champ Bailey and Rahim Moore were disastrous in the secondary. In addition, Manning made a horrible overtime decision in throwing across his body and into coverage. This doesn't even take into account two more turnovers by Manning and a bad coaching performance by John Fox.
Even with that, Baltimore needed two overtimes to come away with the victory.
Can it rely on New England to make the same mistakes?
Jeff Darlington and Albert Breer, NFL Network
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Jeff Darlington: Atlanta Falcons over San Francisco 49ers
While the success of the 49ers' defense is worthy of attention, it's also important to focus on the unit's deficiencies as it prepares for the Falcons. This has not been a very solid group in terms of stopping teams in the red zone, and the 49ers have given up far too many points in three of the past four games. Perhaps most notable? Aldon Smith doesn't have a single sack in that span.
Darlington makes a great point here. Aldon Smith doesn't have a single sack since the first half of the New England Patriots game back in Week 15. A lot of his lack of production had to do with Justin Smith being inactive for the final two weeks of the regular season, but this is still important to note.
The weakest link in San Francisco's defense is its secondary. If Matt Ryan is given ample time, he will be able to eat apart the defense throwing to Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White.
In short, the 49ers need to get pressure on Ryan to win.
Albert Breer: New England Patriots over Baltimore Ravens
If they (New England) can quicken the pace. Turning this into their type of game and playing fast would take the Ravens out of their comfort zone. If the Pats can build an early lead, they'll have an easier time protecting Brady, avoiding the big turnover and taking Rice out of the equation. In that regard, the first 10 minutes will tell us plenty.
I indicated this much in an article during the week. If New England gets off to a fast start, Baltimore really doesn't stand a chance.
It will take Ray Rice out of the game and force Joe Flacco into a one-dimensional quarterback duel with Tom Brady. That really isn't a recipe for success for the road team.
Instead, Baltimore needs to have a solid run/pass mix and keep the Pats guessing on the defense.
Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk
Al Bello/Getty Images
Many are pooh-poohing the ability of quarterback Colin Kaepernick to duplicate his performance from Saturday night when the 49er go to Atlanta, pointing to his struggles on the road in Seattle, where it is loud and hostile and challenging to operate. But in his first game as the starter at a time when Alex Smith was healthy, Kaepernick faced in the Superdome a Saints team that had clawed its way back to .500. And it was loud and hostile and challenging to operate. And Kaepernick got the job done.
Though the Falcons pulled out a stirring win over Seattle, the victory came in the wake of a historic defensive collapse. It’ll be a lot harder not to collapse earlier when facing Kaepernick, who is a shade better than Russell Wilson — and who has more to work with on both sides of the ball than the Seahawks rookie.
PFT's Mike Florio is 100 percent correct here.
Kaepernick was able to come out of both New England and New Orleans with impressive performances and, more importantly, wins. In fact, he won NFC Offensive Player of the Week in San Francisco's victory over the Patriots.
A lot of people want to focus on the Seattle game, but playing in the Pacific Northwest is an entirely different ball game for a young quarterback than going into the Georgia Dome.
Just look at Russell Wilson's performance last week. I expect Kaepernick to do just fine.
In September, I picked the Patriots to make it back to the Super Bowl. So how can I pick against them in the game that would put them there? Actually, it’s a convenient way to play both sides of the fence, and I’m tempted to pick the Ravens; it just feels like it’s time for them to get back to the Super Bowl, and I’d love to see a Harbaugh-vs.-Harbaugh battle for the NFL title. But it also feels like it’s time for the Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl and win it.
Florio is pretty much mirroring the sentiment around the world of football.
You want to go for Lewis and the Ravens over a Patriots team whose story is getting a little too old here, but it is nearly impossible to make that prediction after taking into account all the facts this game has to offer.
Can Joe Flacco lead Baltimore over Tom Brady in Gillette Stadium with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line? If you can envision that, go ahead and pick Baltimore.
If not, maintain what has been somewhat of a construct around the NFL circles that New England is just the better overall team.
Mark Schlereth, ESPN
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
I like the San Francisco 49ers here. So physical up front, their offensive line, the way they run the football. They're a counter team and they're a power team at the point of contact.....I mean they will just crush you. The other thing is you mix in Colin Kaepernick and his ability to stretch the edge of your defense and his athletic ability, especially in that read option.
I am going to agree with Mark Schlereth here—San Francisco's offensive attack is going to be incredibly hard for Atlanta to adjust to and stop after just one week of preparation and practice.
The Falcons are going to have to worry about the power game with Frank Gore inside, as well as Kaepernick and LaMichael James with the read option on the outside.
As we saw with Erik Walden last week, even good players can look bad going up against this type of offensive attack.
Couple that with the fact that Atlanta's linebacker trio isn't much more than average, and we could be looking at some major schematic issues here for the home team.
We always talk about the New England Patriots and the way they throw the ball, but when you break them down this is a great running football team. From an execution standpoint, their ability to run the football really sets up what they do offensively in the passing game. A good execution team will control the line of scrimmage.
As I mentioned in a previous slide, New England's running attack is incredibly important to the success of its offense. When it is able to create balance on that side of the ball, defenses are going to find it really hard to stop it.
Heck, Brady in a one-dimensional offense has success. Now we are seeing him being able to take that to the next level, if at all possible, with the way the Patriots backfield is running the ball.
This really is going to be a matchup nightmare for the Ravens on Sunday.
Pete Prisco, CBS
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The 49ers have not won a road playoff game since 1989. That's telling. But this 49ers team is built to win on the road. They are physical, tough, can run it and they play good defense. The key will be how well Colin Kaepernick plays in his first road playoff game. He was sensational last week against the Packers, but going on the road in a dome in the playoffs is tough for any quarterback, let alone a young one.
I have been a harsh critic of Pete Prisco throughout the years. And that will not stop right here. Maybe someone should tell Mr. Prisco that Colin Kaepernick was two years old when San Francisco won its last road playoff game.
I have absolutely no idea why that even matters here.
On the other hand, he does have a point as it relates to a young quarterback making his first postseason start on the road. It really is hard to predict how Kaepernick is going to perform in this atmosphere, especially considering that the NFC championship will represent just his ninth career NFL start.
Tom Brady is so good at finding the mismatches in the secondary that he rarely makes the big mistake. And he's got a great feel for avoiding pressure in the pocket. Brady will get his big plays against a Ravens defense that isn't quite what it has been in the past. I look for New England to spread out Baltimore and attack that way, with both the run and the pass. This has the makings of a fun, high-scoring game. The Ravens lost a close one last year in the AFC championship game to the Patriots and I think this one will follow suit.
Talk about a matchup nightmare for Baltimore.
Tom Brady is as good as Peyton Manning, if not better, at coaching an offense from the field. He also doesn't struggle like Manning does when all is on the line in the playoffs.
Look for Brady to exploit mismatches on the outside, especially looking to move Aaron Hernandez around to create open throwing lanes. And Hernandez going up against Ray Lewis in the passing game could be a huge issue here for Baltimore.
I fully expect Brady to do what he does best: dictate the tempo of the game.
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
My pick of the Niners has been consistent all year. The Falcons did get experience last week against Russell Wilson, who is a mobile quarterback, but Kaepernick is six inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier. He is a bigger, stronger runner....We saw him capitalize against the Packers by getting outside of their defense. I like what the 49ers can do against the Falcons, who have really missed a pass rush this year.
This seems to be a continuing theme from "experts" around the world of football.
Atlanta has struggled to generate a pass rush, and John Abraham will not be at 100 percent for this game.
If Kaepernick is given time to pass the ball and find running holes on the outside, Atlanta will not be able to stop the Niners offense. As is the case with San Francisco being able to put pressure on Matt Ryan, Atlanta will need to do the same against the 49ers.
If not, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be in for a long game against his former team.
I have said it all year. I don't pick against (Tom) Brady in the playoffs. I should probably be wearing a Brady jersey by now. This has been my pick all year...I think the Patriots offense is too balanced, too high powered for a Ravens defense that is too old, to slow. I know Paul Kruger has come along in the playoffs, but I think the Patriots tackles, Nate Solder especially, can stop that.
Matt Miller brings up a great point here. While Kruger has played stellar football in the postseason thus far, he hasn't gone up against an offensive line as dominating as what the Patriots have to offer.
If New England can contain him, which won't be easy, Brady will find the time in the passing game to attack the outside.
Even more importantly, he will have the necessary throwing lanes to hit Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in the slot against a questionable Ravens pass defense in the middle of the field.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
San Francisco 49ers over Atlanta Falcons
The matchups here definitely favor the road team. San Francisco should be able to exploit Atlanta's weak run defense and get Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and LaMichael James going early.
If the 49ers have the same type of run/pass balance we saw against the Green Bay Packers, it is really hard to imagine the Falcons standing much of a chance in this one.
In addition, Atlanta has tallied just five sacks in its last six games, while Kaepernick has gone down four times in his last four games. Couple that with the injury to John Abraham—Atlanta's only consistent pass-rush threat—and you have a major advantage for San Francisco.
I would, however, want to caution fans in San Francisco from being too cocky here. The Falcons didn't win 13 games this season by accident.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were in nearly this same position last January against the New York Giants. They have also struggled every third game this season. That is something to keep on the back burner before kickoff.
In terms of matchup advantages for Atlanta, look for it to try to exploit a weakness of San Francisco's defense: its secondary. If Ryan has time to pass the ball, Julio Jones and Roddy White should have a field day in this one.
In the end though, San Francisco may prove to be a bit too much.
New England Patriots over Baltimore Ravens
New England vs. San Francisco was my Super Bowl pick back in August, and I am not going to stray now.
While conventional wisdom dictates that one of the two favorites will go down on Sunday, I simply cannot pick against Tom Brady at home with a trip to New Orleans at stake.
A lot has been made about the "Ray Lewis factor," but New England can exploit his lackluster coverage ability and aging body to its advantage. As I mentioned earlier, Brady knows better than anyone how to create mismatches.
Expect New England's balance on offense to play a major role in the outcome of the game.
You simply cannot highlight the Patriots running game enough when drawing a conclusion that the Pats will make a return trip to the Super Bowl.