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Breaking Down the NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships

San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons
NFC Championship
Saturday, January 20th, 2013 @ 3:00 PM ET on FOX

Mike - I think I owe an apology to Colin Kaepernick, as I thought he would be the downfall of the 49ers, instead he went out and set the NFL record for most rushing yards by a QB in a game. Woops.

With the 49ers coming into Atlanta, I think the Falcons will be somewhat prepared for what they are getting into with Kaepernick. They will use game tape from the Packers game and they just beat Russell Wilson who plays a very similar style of QB.  However after losing last year to the Giants in OT in the NFC Championship game last year I think the 49ers will be hungry to leave Atlanta with a W and get to the Super Bowl.

If Kaepernick wanted to run the QB option play on every down, I personally think he could and it would be a success every time. He ran that play so beautifully against the Packers that he had every linebacker and defensive back doing 360s trying to figure out who had the ball, and by the time they figured it out, Kaepernick was 50 yards down the field, or Frank Gore had just picked up the 1st down.  Aside from his blazing speed and ability to run, I think the best part about Kaepernick taking over at QB is the fact that he's turned Michael Crabtree into a star WR. I used to follow him very closely at Texas Tech and knew how talented he was and knew he was going to be something special in the NFL and I'm glad he's finally turning into that player.  In their last 2 games Kaepernick and Crabtree have hooked up 17 times for 291 yards and 4 TDs, an unstoppable duo right now.  Against the Packers Crabtree had 9 of the 17 completions for the 49ers, as Gore and Randy Moss each had 2 catches and 4 other players each had 1 catch.  So with his ability to run on every play, defenders are unsure if they should cheat on the play in case he decides to run it, and when they do, Kaepernick picks up on it and will find an open receiver.  If the defense doesn't cheat then he can easily run for 10-15 yards once the offensive line makes a hole big enough for him to fit through. Almost impossible to defend.  The Falcons definitely have a better defense than the Packers but the Falcons have to looking at the 323 rushing yards the 49ers had last week and trying to figure out how in the world they can stop it.  On the defensive side, the 49ers are still a pretty dominant defense, even though they will give up a lot of points to a good offense, as they can be thrown on. Their secondary is their weakness but their front 7 led by Aldon and Justin Smith will usually get to the quarterback before he can throw it.

For the Falcons, they will need to use up the clock as they'll want to keep Kaepernick on the sidelines.  Last week the Packers were only on the field for 22 minutes, which meant their defensive was on the field for 38 long minutes.  If the Falcons want to keep a fresh defense to contain Kaepernick, then Matt Ryan and the offense will have to put together long drives.  Against the Seahawks who have a very similar tough, physical defense like the 49ers, Michael Turner had a very good game, rushing for 98 yards on just 14 carries.  In fact it was his highest rushing total in 9 games and third highest of this season.  The Falcons will need to get Turner as well as speedster Jaquizz Rodgers going early on, otherwise Matt Ryan will have to drop back early and often, which you don't want to do against this 49ers front 7.  Yes Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez should have no problem getting open down the field against the 49ers secondary but Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis will get to Matt Ryan and either sack him or put pressure on him, which might result in a poorly thrown ball that could be intercepted.  If the run game is effective then Matt Ryan will have more time to drop back and hit his receivers.

I was a little disappointed by what I saw out of the Falcons in the second half of last weeks game against the Seahawks.  The offense and defense did not show up.  They dominated the 1st half, jumping out to a 20-0 lead but then basically changed their game plan and essentially threw the game away.  Luckily Ryan made two great throws with the little time they had left and Matt Bryant nailed a game winning field goal. However just knowing what Kaepernick can do on the football field with both him arm and his legs as well as the 49ers having a top 3 defense in the NFL, it's hard to bet against them.

49ers win 31-24

Keith - Colin Kaepernick has made watching the San Francisco 49ers fun again for non Niners fans.  You never know when he is going to break off that 56 yard run and the chemistry that he and Michael Crabrree have developed in such a short period of time has created one of the leagues best passing attacks.  San Fran is no longer a ground & pound team that milks the clock and relies on their defense to win them games.  Don't get me wrong, they can still run the ball with the best of them and their defense is scary good but NFL fans now WANT to watch the 49ers play. 

The Falcons offense is loaded and on paper looks like twice the offense compared to the 49ers, but so were the Green Bay Packers last week.  But just like the Packers, Atlanta struggles to run the football with Michael Turner.  Last week he averaged 7 yards per carry but that was his first game over 83 yards since a week 8 matchup with the Cowboys.  The fact that the Falcons defense struggles to sack the QB makes me believe that it will just create more time for a huge running lane to open up for Kaepernick.

If you are a fan of the NFL and don't live in New England that means you hate the Patriots too.  Unfortunately, they are going to beat the Ravens so you should be rooting for the 49ers to beat the Falcons.  The Niners defensive style, hard hitting and get at the QB, is exactly what it takes to knock Brady off rhythm and beat New England.

49ers win 27-23

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
AFC Championship
Sunday, January 20th, 2013 @ 6:30 PM ET on CBS

Mike - I want to start off by saying the Baltimore Ravens are extremely lucky to be in the AFC Championship game. Yes they played a lot better than I predicted against the Broncos but that Jacoby Jones 70-yard touchdown was a fluke.

Anyways, this is a rematch of last years championship game that resulted in a Patriots 23-20 win, after Billy Cundiff missed a game tying 32-yard field goal to tie the game with 10 seconds left, sending the Patriots to the Super Bowl. This years game will be very similar to last years, as the teams are almost identical. The only real difference is that the Ravens have a stud kicker with Justin Tucker who nailed a 47-yard field goal in double OT to send them to this game, and the Patriots will not have Rob Gronkowski who broke his left forearm (again) last week and the Patriots also no longer have Green-Ellis at RB as they use a committee in the backfield now with Ridley, Vereen and Woodhead.

Being that the Ravens just played a tough, physical, emotional, double overtime game and will have to fly across the country from Denver to New England, I think that might take a toll on the team.  I must say that Joe Flacco is playing very good football so far in these playoffs.  He put up 331 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs on the road in Denver, and has 5 TDs and no INTs in 2 games.  The Ravens offensive line has been outstanding, only allowing 1 sack in each playoff game and Ray Rice and Benard Pierce have combined for 171 and 145 rushing yards.  Torrey Smith will have to be a difference maker if the Ravens want to win this game.  In two games Smith has a total of 5 catches on 10 targets for 129 yards and 2 TDs. He's a big play waiting to happen and the Patriots can be thrown on, but he'll likely be blanketed by Aquib Talib, so he'll have to work to get open for Flacco.  On the defensive side, Ray Lewis is playing like a man on a mission, and he clearly wants to win the Super Bowl before retiring.  He has 30 tackles in 2 games so far, including 17 in that double OT win.  The Ravens have had 3 sacks in both games as they definitely made Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning feel a little bit uncomfortable in the pocket with a ton of pressure on those guys. The goal to beating the Patriots is getting in Tom Brady's face and knocking him to the ground. That's how the Giants beat him twice in the Super Bowl.

For the Patriots their goal is to get the run game going early. Once the Patriots establish an effective run game, they almost become impossible to stop, because they can beat you with the run or the pass at that point. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen last week against the Texans combined for 123 yards on 22 carries and they each had a rushing TD. The fact that they were able to do that, it made Tom Brady's job a whole lot easier as the Texans were unable to get pressure on him. Brady went 25/40 for 344 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs.  You'll never be able to beat the Patriots if Brady has all day to throw.  With Gronkowski out, the Pats won't miss a beat because he missed the 6 regular season games, and while he was out Brandon Lloyd did a nice job and really stepped up.  Also you'll see a lot of screen passes to RBs, as Vereen had 5 catches last week including 2 receiving TDs.  Of course, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez will get their catches over the middle as they should be able to outrun the aging Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. I just feel the Patriots have too many offensive weapons for the Ravens to stop, and the Pats defense has improved since the beginning of the season. Hate to say it but the Patriots will be back in the Super Bowl.

Patriots win 34-21

Keith - The Ravens are so incredibly lucky to be in the position they are in, but these are the plays that make these playoff games memorable.  And now for the 1st time all playoffs I will be rooting for the Ravens, but there is just no way to prove that they even stand a chance!  The Texans run game that features Arian Foster is top 3 in the NFL and the Patriots were able to keep him to just 90 yards last week.  While this had to do with many factors including a large lead, the Patriots are capable of pulling ahead early and forcing the Ravens to rely on Joe Flacco. 

Is Shane Vereen going to catch 2 more TDs? Probably not, but it's scary to think that anyone that gets slotted into the Patriots offense is capable of doing so.  On top of the Patriots unbeatable offensive scheme, the Ravens defense has played in back to back contests in which the other team took 87 snaps on offense.  That is NOT easy to recover from considering the Ravens aging defense and lack of depth. 

The Patriots mid season pick up of Aqib Talib is one of the biggest reasons why the Patriots will win this weekend.  Torrey Smith is one of the leagues best deep threats but Talib and the Patriots secondary have only allowed 8 passing plays over 30 yards in their last 8 games. 

Patriots win 30-27