10 Bold Predictions for Today's Games
The NFL version of the Final Four kicks off on Sunday afternoon with a two-game slate featuring a few of the NFL's elite.
The weekend features two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, the league's two premier defensive units and a pair of head coach brothers, all looking to cement their names in the NFL record books.
If you're looking for a few things to keep your eye on when you watch the games on Sunday, then I have the inside scoop.
The following slides include 10 bold predictions for this weekend's AFC and NFC Championships.
Ravens Defense Will Hold New England Tight Ends in Check
As scary as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are, I do not, and would not ever want to mess with that face.
The dominant pass-catching duo erupted for 14 catches, 200 yards and four touchdowns in the Patriots' slashing of Denver in the divisional round.
However, the Broncos didn't employ the likes of Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard and Terrell Suggs.
The Ravens defense is one of the NFL's elite, and they're even stingier against opposing tight ends.
Ed Reed and company have been doing it all season, allowing the second-fewest yards (665) and second-fewest touchdowns (three) to opposing tight ends.
Along with that, they haven't allowed an opposing tight end to record over 73 yards receiving in a game.
As good as they are, those numbers don't bode well for Gronkowski and Hernandez, so don't be surprised if the two struggle to light up the stat sheet in the AFC Championship Game.
Alex Smith Throws for 250-Plus Yards
The San Francisco 49ers' playoff win over the New Orleans Saints has us all ready to anoint Alex Smith as the feel-good story in the NFL this season.
He threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns without turning the ball over en route to a 36-32 victory.
The hire of Jim Harbaugh has been Smith's life-saver, and it shows in his confidence and swagger on the field. That said, I see Harbaugh having Alex Smith primed and ready to perform in this game.
And while the Giants may have one of the best defensive fronts that love to get after the quarterback, the secondary did no justice by giving up 255 yards per game through the air in the regular season.
Look for a similar game to what we saw with the 49ers and Saints, meaning another strong outing from quarterback Alex Smith.
We're on Our Way to a "Harbaugh Bowl"
In order for a "Harbaugh Bowl" to take place, we would need to see San Francisco beat the Giants and also for Baltimore to beat the Patriots on the road in Foxboro.
Well there you go, I just picked your two winners for this weekend.
John Harbaugh, head coach of the Ravens, needs a smart game from the much-maligned Joe Flacco.
Flacco has been here before, making the playoffs each of his first three seasons including a trip to the AFC Championship Game his rookie season. He's just never played well enough to move past the final obstacle.
As for first-year 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, he's making his first ever appearance in a conference championship. His quarterback Alex Smith will look to piggy-back off his monster four-touchdown performance against the Saints.
The Patriots and the Giants stand in the way for the head coaching kin; it's only fitting if they each win and meet in the Super Bowl.
That's the true definition of a sibling rivalry.
Jason Pierre-Paul Records at Least 2 Sacks
Jason Pierre-Paul is a freak of nature.
I could end this slide there, and you would still agree with me 100 percent.
On the season, JPP recorded 16.5 sacks on top of the numerous quarterback hurries and passes he's altered.
He's made a name for himself as one of the elite pass-rushers in the NFL, and I think he's going to have a monster game in the NFC Championship.
The 49ers offensive line surrendered 44 sacks in the regular season, tied for seventh-worst in the NFL, and they also gave up four more against a Saints team who doesn't have a pass rusher near as talented as Pierre-Paul.
Two sacks is respectable, but I wouldn't be surprised if he goes higher.
Every time Alex Smith drops back in the pocket, he'll have Jason Pierre-Paul bearing down on him looking to cause havoc in the the backfield.
49ers Defense Shuts Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs Down
The New York Giants employ the league's worst rushing offense at 89.2 yards per game, and the San Francisco 49ers employ the best rush defense, giving up a minuscule 77.3 yards per game.
So what gives?
In the two teams' first meeting this season, the Giants ran for 93 yards on 29 carries—good for an unimpressive 3.2 yards per carry—however, they did it without Ahmad Bradshaw.
Ahmad Bradshaw isn't going to automatically make this Giants running game relevant against this 49ers defense.
Maybe the rushing attack breaks 100 total team yards but don't expect any individual player to amass the 77 yards per game the Niners allow.
Don't be expecting anyone to find the end zone on the ground, either.
Ray Rice Runs Wild Against the Patriots Defense
The Baltimore Ravens need a heavy, heavy dose of Ray Rice if they want to beat the New England Patriots on Sunday.
In all four of Baltimore's losses in the regular season, Ray Rice received 13 or fewer carries in every single game—a direct correlation if I may say so myself.
The Ravens won't beat this Patriots team in a shootout, that's where Tom Brady thrives. What they will have to do is control the clock with Ray Rice and even a little bit of Ricky Williams and open it up for Joe Flacco after that has been established.
Look for Rice to be a major factor in the passing game as well, serving as a safety net for Joe Flacco when routes aren't open down the field.
The Patriots' rush defense isn't very good, giving up 117.1 yards per game, and that's right where I expect Ray Rice to be at come game's end.
Joe Flacco Doesn't Turn the Ball over
This prediction is about as bold as Joe Flacco's Fu Manchu mustache.
Really, though, Flacco needs to play within himself and can't try and do too much on Sunday evening.
It may be tempting against this soft New England defense, but he can't be tempted because it's going to get him into uncomfortable situations, and he then is going to turn it over.
A lot of this relies upon the Ravens' game plan, but if they don't try and get ahead of themselves and control the clock with Ray Rice, it will help Flacco's cause out immensely.
Quarterbacks hate the term "game manager," but in the AFC Championship Game, that's exactly what Joe Flacco is going to need to be.
David Akers Adds 3 More Field Goals
David Akers set NFL records for both field goal attempts (52) and field goals made (44) in the regular season and added three more in the divisional round against the Saints.
The 49ers offense has trouble the closer it gets to the red zone, which is certainly a major reason for why Akers gets so many opportunities.
Look for that trend to continue in their showdown with the Giants.
I like the 49ers offense to get themselves opportunities to score touchdowns, but if they come up short, David Akers will be theirs to pick up the pieces.
A 3-of-3, maybe a 4-of-4 day from Akers seems appropriate.
Wes Welker Will Have an 8-Plus Catch Day
Normally it has been Rob Gronkowski who holds the majority of the conversation after Patriots game, but that won't be the case after the Patriots-Ravens clash on Sunday.
As I mentioned in a previous slide, I expect the Ravens defense to target the Patriots' tight ends, leaving Wes Welker as Tom Brady's main target.
On the season, Wes Welker caught 122 passes for 1,569 and nine touchdowns, which was tops in the league for receptions and second behind Calvin Johnson in yards.
I even expect him to find the end zone.
Welker will record his big game in typical fashion—quietly—but if you check the box score after the game, don't be all too surprised to see something like this: 10 catches, 130 yards and a touchdown.
Eli Manning Plays Good but Not Good Enough
With a win against the San Francisco 49ers Eli Manning will have the opportunity to play for his second Super Bowl. He won't get there.
I do like him to have a good game and give his team every opportunity to win the game.
However, I think the Giants offense as a whole will be too one-dimensional, lacking in the run department, to come out victorious.
Similar to Manning's first game against the 49ers, he'll put up fantastic numbers. In Week 10, Eli threw for 311 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw two interceptions.
On top of that, a week ago, Drew Brees was able attack the Niners' secondary for 462 yards and four touchdowns himself, leading me to believe that Eli is certainly capable of having himself a game.
That game won't end in victory.