The Thinking Man's Guide to NFL Conference Championship Games

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJanuary 17, 2013

Ray Lewis is going back to Detroit! Or was that Jerome Bettis?
Ray Lewis is going back to Detroit! Or was that Jerome Bettis?Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Three of the teams playing this weekend were in the same position a year ago, but only the New England Patriots moved on to the Super Bowl.

Will history repeat itself, or will we get a “HarBowl” after coming so close last season? Maybe it will be a rematch of the best game of the regular season with the Patriots getting another crack at the 49ers. It is possible the two quarterbacks from the 2008 draft could meet to settle that debate through the five-season point.  

No offense to the fans, but New England vs. Atlanta seems like the worst matchup, so here’s to a road upset on Sunday. Only twice in conference championship history have both road teams won (1992 and 1997), so those rooting for the Harbaugh family should take note of that.

The home team is 56-28 (.667) all-time on Championship Sunday. The home team has won six consecutive AFC Championship games, which is the longest streak ever. The only longer streak is the eight straight wins by the home team in the NFC Championship from 1980 to 1987.

49ers at Falcons: Duck, duck, goose for San Francisco?

Is that a strange title? It was easier than typing “WWL, WWL, WWT, WWL, WWL, WW_” and asking you to fill in the blank. Confused yet?

Those are the game results the San Francisco 49ers have produced this year. They win two games in a row, then they have a bad loss, or in the case of Week 10, a tie. The 49ers have not won three games in a row all season, and they are coming off two straight wins, including Colin Kaepernick's impressive offensive display against the Packers.

Surprisingly, the San Francisco offense has been underwhelming indoors this season.

There was the 24-13 loss in Minnesota with three giveaways, and while the 49ers won 31-21 in New Orleans, there were two interception returns for touchdowns off Drew Brees that inflated the score. A week later, Kaepernick had some miscues in St. Louis, and the Rams won 16-13 in overtime.

Now you go to the Georgia Dome where Matt Ryan, who finally has a coveted playoff win, has that sterling 34-6 (.850) record, and one has to wonder if this season-long lack of consistency from the 49ers is going to cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.

But hold on. Kaepernick is coming off the best game of his career, and while he will not run wild to the tune of 181 yards again (NFL record), he should have success against an Atlanta defense that was shredded by rookie Russell Wilson for 445 total yards last week.

While some may make a big deal out of Cam Newton’s success running the ball against the Atlanta defense (he had 86 and 116 yards in the two games this year), those were division games, and all three of Atlanta’s losses have been to division foes.

These teams last met in 2010, when Ryan led another one of his late game-winning drives for a 16-14 win. A lot has changed since then, especially for the 49ers.

The Falcons have played Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III this year, and they were successful against them. Wilson did have 60 rushing yards and a touchdown in the game on Sunday, but he is different from Kaepernick in that he keeps plays alive for a long time.

The Falcons had a very hard time sacking Wilson. But with Kaepernick, he can just sprint ahead and pick up a lot of yards in no time.

A simple zone-read run led to a 56-yard touchdown run against the Packers. By the time Green Bay’s Erik Walden realized Kaepernick still had the ball, it was an easy sprint to the end zone.

Atlanta will have spent plenty of time preparing for this, which is why the key to the game will be Frank Gore's conventional running and Kaepernick having to win the game with his arm. He still threw for 263 yards last week, but he must avoid mistakes like the pick-six, where his indecisiveness cost his team a touchdown.

San Francisco does not want to get behind early in the dome. Even though they are known for winning games late, the Falcons have been fast starters under Mike Smith. In fact, no team has a better first-quarter scoring differential than Atlanta since 2008 (including playoffs). Each of the final four teams in this year's playoffs make the top eight.

Atlanta is 23-3 (.885) at home when leading after the first quarter under Smith.

Should the game be tight in the fourth quarter, this is an area of concern for the 49ers. They have yet to win a game when trailing in the fourth quarter this season, with only one game-winning drive. Ryan has led seven game-winning drives in 2012, including three that started in the final minute of the game.

No quarterback has more one-minute drills than Ryan's five, and he can lay claim to having the best record in NFL history at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities (games with possession of the ball in the fourth quarter, trailing by one score).

Right now, you have to trust Ryan more than Kaepernick to deliver late, and you definitely trust kicker Matt Bryant over David Akers.

With all of that said, this still feels like a game where the 49ers are going to come in and be very physical with the Atlanta receivers, generate a pass rush that Seattle never could last week, and force Ryan into more mistakes. He was getting some incredible catches from his tight ends on Sunday.

Points may be at a premium with both teams ranked in the top five in points allowed, so go with the low-scoring game, especially after the highest-scoring weekend in playoff history.

Less scoring does increase the chances of a close game, and while the Falcons are arguably the best team in the league in crunch time with the four-minute offense and ability to come back, I have to side with the 49ers being able to win the battles in the trenches.

Ryan is 34-6 at home, but that only includes a 5-4 record against playoff teams. Barring another Kyle Williams situation this year, 49ers get the road win.

Ravens at Patriots: Is third time a charm for Harbaugh and Flacco?

Both New England and Baltimore are in the AFC Championship for the third time each since 2007. The Ravens have yet to break through in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era, losing in Pittsburgh (23-14 in 2008) and of course New England (23-20) last year.

But here they are again, marking just the sixth instance of a rematch or series of rematches in the conference championship. The previous rematches share some similar trends, which is bad news for Baltimore.

  • 1970-71 Dallas vs. San Francisco: Dallas won on the road, then at home.
  • 1974-76 Oakland vs. Pittsburgh: Oakland lost at home, lost on the road, then finally won at home.
  • 1978-79 Houston vs. Pittsburgh: Steelers won both games at home.
  • 1986-87 Cleveland vs. Denver: Denver won on the road, then at home.
  • 1992-94 Dallas vs. San Francisco: San Francisco lost at home, lost on the road, then finally won at home.

The 1976 Raiders and 1994 49ers shared the same struggles with their respective rivals from Pittsburgh and Dallas, but finally came through at home in that third meeting to go on to win the Super Bowl.

New England will be looking to do what the 1978-79 Steelers did, and that’s sweep their opponent at home. But it will not be easy.

Baltimore needs to get off to a fast start. The Ravens trailed 13-0 in the first quarter in Week 3, but they did come back for a 31-30 win. However, that game was in Baltimore, which is one of the best home-field advantages in the league.

But Foxboro might be the best home-field advantage.

These records are hard to believe, but they are accurate. You really have to get ahead of New England right away to have a chance. Sure, Kevin Kolb and the Cardinals won 20-18 earlier this season in New England, but that is looking like the biggest fluke of the season.

The Ravens will likely be unable to repeat their 24-0 lead they took in the first quarter in the 2009 AFC Wild Card Game, but getting down two scores early will be a death sentence this week.

Sustaining offense will be key for Baltimore, as its defense is going to need rest after facing 87 offensive snaps in each of the last two games. That does not include all the plays that became penalties either. These veterans have been on the field for a lot of plays, and the Patriots love to run the hurry-up faster than anyone.

The Ravens are the 17th team since 1940 to have even two games in the same season in which they faced 87-plus offensive plays. They are the fourth team to do so in back-to-back games, joining the 1986 49ers, 1984 Packers and 1976 Bears.

Did it matter for those teams?

Consider the 1984 Packers, a 1-5 team, played the following week in a snow game in Denver and only allowed three points on defense to John Elway. The 1976 Bears did allow 28 points to the Raiders, who won the game on Cliff Branch’s 49-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

The 1986 49ers allowed 14 points early, but they made up for it late with two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a 31-17 win. They were playing a 1-6 Green Bay team.

Does it matter that this is January and the team has played a long season, or that this is another road playoff game after last week’s double-overtime thriller? How about the fact New England is better at running the ball (by a good margin) than Indianapolis or Denver?

Alas, there is not enough evidence to make anything conclusive here. The Ravens are one game away from the Super Bowl. No one is thinking about being tired.

If there is a positive for the Ravens here, it would be that their defensive stars have not played as much this year because of injuries. The playoffs have been the only two games this season where Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed were all on the field.

That’s a good reason to ignore a lot of the season stats for Baltimore’s defense, which were not as strong as usual. Injury is why.

The offense can also argue any judgment under former coordinator Cam Cameron. He was fired and replaced by Jim Caldwell in Week 15. It was a disastrous first game against Denver, but the Ravens have piled up big numbers in their last three full games with the starters on offense:

  • Giants (Week 16): Scored 33 points, produced 533 yards; Flacco passed for 309 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and had a rushing touchdown.
  • Colts (Wild Card): Scored 24 points, produced 439 yards; Flacco passed for 282 yards and two touchdowns on just 12-of-23 passing.
  • Broncos (Divisional): Scored 31 points (offense), produced 479 yards; Flacco passed for 331 yards and three touchdowns.

If you want a team that is peaking at the right time, it would be Baltimore. These three games were against pretty good competition, and the offense was dynamic, Flacco had three of his best games, and the defense was limiting points and making plays.

The 2012 Ravens could be like that 2011 Giants kryptonite for New England, having already beaten them. New England’s last six playoff losses have all been to teams it played in the regular season that year.

Like Eli Manning last year, Flacco has talked about being an elite (or the best) quarterback, and he already has a game-winning drive against Brady’s Patriots this year. He should have had the game-winning touchdown pass in last year’s AFC Championship. Lee Evans, Sterling Moore and Billy Cundiff are all gone from this year’s game.

Also like Manning, Flacco loves the vertical throws this season. He is 24-of-83 on passes thrown at least 21 yards this season, and he has six touchdowns with no interceptions. In the playoffs, he has hit 8-of-12 deep passes for three touchdowns.

The New England defense is improved from Week 3, and the addition of Aqib Talib will likely lock up with Torrey Smith. Talib can limit those deep balls, which makes one think this needs to be an Anquan Boldin kind of game. Flacco can’t keep hitting these plays forever, and he even missed a couple in Denver.

Most would think Flacco is too inconsistent to keep up this high level of play and that he will falter this week on the road, where he historically struggles. But if he can keep away from turnovers and make some big plays on third down, the Ravens are definitely in this game late.

The last six meetings between these teams, all since 2007, have been very close except for Baltimore’s 33-14 rout in 2009. Usually the Ravens choke in the end, as was detailed here, which you can read as a further preview about this budding rivalry.

Just like in Week 3, I am once again going with New England, having learned a lesson from last week. You just have to trust the Patriots at home.

There are still plenty of reasons to like Baltimore, as the Rob Gronkowski injury is another advantage. Hopefully the game is at least as good as last season’s. This is not the time for a 2012-style marquee blowout.

But if you think the Ravens are the team of destiny and Ray Lewis is going to get that Hollywood ending, then here’s one last fact: The No. 4 seed is 6-1 in the conference championship since the current playoff format started in 1990.

Who was the only team that lost?

It was the 2006 Patriots against No. 3 Indianapolis.


Final score predictions

Last year I had the Ravens winning 26-23 in New England, but Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff had other ideas. Just going to play it safe this time around. Of the 84 conference championship games, only 18 have ended with a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, including both games last season. Historically, it is the playoff round with the lowest percentage of close wins.

  • 49ers over Falcons, 23-17
  • Patriots over Ravens, 27-23

Whatever happens, hopefully incredible special teams errors are not a deciding factor like a year ago.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.