For a rundown of eight potential difference makers in Sunday's conference championship games, bang it here.
Sunday's 3:00PM ET Game
San Francisco @ Atlanta
In-season quarterback change and the NFC's top-ranked defense may come to mind first when contemplating this year's 49ers, but San Francisco's most consistently dominant on-field attribute is punishing, game-controlling offensive line play. The Niners overwhelm opponents and impose their will in the trenches with football's most powerful front five. Although Atlanta mitigated the Seattle run game by grabbing a 20-0 first-half lead in the Divisional Round, forcing the Seahawks to lean on the pass, the Falcons will be hard pressed to repeat that formula this week. 49ers tailbacks Frank Gore, LaMichael James, and Anthony Dixon combined for 142 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries (5.26 YPC) in last week's demolition of Green Bay, and despite Colin Kaepernick's monster effort, stopping Gore should be Atlanta's primary concern early in Sunday's game. It's a lot to ask from a relatively undersized Falcons front seven prone to allowing chunks of yardage after contact. ... In the regular season, Atlanta struggled to defend offenses that utilized read-option run games. The Falcons needed a miracle last-minute comeback to defeat Cam Newton's Panthers by two points in September, before falling to Carolina 30-20 in December. In Week 5, the Redskins lit up Atlanta for 129 yards on 21 carries (6.14 YPC) in a 24-17 game from which Robert Griffin III exited early. Playcaller Greg Roman admittedly hid the 49ers' read-option package in Weeks 16 and 17, only to unleash it on the Packers and end their season. The Falcons know it's coming in conference championship week. Whether they're able to stop it may determine this year's NFC Super Bowl representative.
Michael Crabtree moves around the formation enough that he will line up against Falcons RCB Dunta Robinson, LCB Asante Samuel, and slot CB Robert McClain each on select plays throughout Sunday's game. Atlanta plays "sides" at cornerback, leaving Robinson, Samuel, and McClain at their designated positions rather than shadowing top receivers. Getting open versus Samuel can be difficult, but Crabtree has developed into an elite tackle breaker after the catch, and tackling is the one area in which Samuel struggles. With 44 receptions, 657 yards, and six touchdowns over his last six games, expect Crabtree to continue to carry the mail in the 49ers' passing attack. ... The Niners oddly do a better job of scheming No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker open than Vernon Davis, the latter of whom has been kept quiet while the former has displayed some of the NFL's poorest hands. Walker has four drops over his last three games, including two in the Divisional Round. It remains to be seen whether the 49ers will commit to getting Davis the ball in the NFC title game, but there's every reason to believe doing so would help them. Rather than a featured pass option, Davis has been lightly targeted with passes essentially only coming his way on low-percentage shots downfield. He has remained an impact run blocker. ... Anything the Niners get from Randy Moss, Ted Ginn, and A.J. Jenkins as role-player receivers can be considered a bonus. Moss no longer creates separation going on age 36, and Father Time has sapped his fluidity. Jenkins played only seven snaps against Green Bay. Ginn played 20, catching one pass for three yards.
After a sluggish regular season in which he failed to crack 4.0 yards a carry in 10 of Atlanta's final 12 games, Michael Turner was a force to be reckoned with against Seattle as the Falcons smartly attacked substitute defensive end Bruce Irvin on power runs. 31-year-old Turner also had fresh legs after a first-round playoff bye. The 49ers don't have front-seven defenders remotely as vulnerable as Irvin on the ground, so don't look for Turner to build on last week's effort. Atlanta's offensive line also cleared gaping holes against the Seahawks. San Francisco is considerably stouter up front. ... 49ers right end Justin Smith played effectively through his partial triceps tear in the Divisional Round, recording five tackles and commanding double teams as if he were never hurt. The Niners still couldn't free up Aldon Smith for any sacks, though he did hit Aaron Rodgers once and forced a fumble. Seattle's defense was picked apart by Matt Ryan last Sunday due in large part to its inability to pressure Atlanta's quarterback. While San Francisco is healthier and better equipped than the Chris Clemons-less Seahawks to formulate a pass rush, the Smiths and left end Ray McDonald will simply have to play better than they did against the Pack. The Niners' defense doesn't double team receivers or mix coverages much in the back end, so it'll be relying on more production at the line. Like Seattle, San Francisco is willing to leave cornerbacks on an island.
The 49ers' defense is heavy up front with NT Isaac Sopoaga (330 pounds), and DEs McDonald (290) and Smith (285) on the line. They back that up with sideline-to-sideline range at inside linebacker, as Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman each possess sub-4.5 wheels and -- most importantly -- play like it. Willis and Bowman's pursuit speed will be crucial for slowing down shifty Falcons change-up back Jacquizz Rodgers. ... Atlanta's defense can be run on, and it is only above average in pass coverage. The offensive run game has been inconsistent to be kind. The Falcons have been successful in two essential areas this season: The won-loss column and the pass game. Although the Niners trot out a formidable cornerback group with Tarell Brown on the right, Chris Culliver on the left side, and Carlos Rogers in the slot on nickel downs, the Falcons' receivers have shown the ability to consistently defeat coverage on the outside while Tony Gonzalez re-confirmed in the Divisional Round that he's still playing at a top-five tight end level. Defensively, containing Atlanta's vaunted passing attack comes down to mustering up pressure. If San Francisco can't get heat on Ryan, the Falcons will not struggle to light up the scoreboard.
Score Prediction: 49ers 33, Falcons 27
Sunday's 6:30PM ET Game
Baltimore @ New England
Popularly left for dead after top corner Lardarius Webb (ACL) and linebacker Ray Lewis (triceps tear) suffered major mid-October injuries, the resilient Ravens have trekked to the AFC title game despite dropping four of their final five regular season games. Rather quietly, though, Baltimore has played top-notch football since mid-December. Leave out a Week 17 game in which they sat starters at Cincinnati, and the Ravens have knocked off the Giants, Colts, and Broncos by a combined 95-58 margin. It may seem cliché or oversimplistic to deem the Ravens a hard-nosed team that refuses to go down without a fight, but that's precisely who they are. And they've never laid down for Bill Belichick's teams. ... Joe Flacco has been a big part of that. In Flacco's last three New England meetings, he's completed 77-of-110 passes (70 percent) for 973 yards (8.85 YPA), seven touchdowns, and two interceptions. All three games were decided by three points or fewer, and the Ravens defeated the Patriots 31-30 in Week 3 this regular season. The Pats' defense has improved markedly since then by adding No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib via trade and shifting Devin McCourty to free safety, where he has flourished, but the historical performance suggests Flacco will be on top of his game. New England's offense is inevitably going to rack up yardage and points, so Flacco's performance is most critical to Baltimore's chances. ... During the regular season, the Patriots surrendered the third most receptions, third most yards, and sixth most touchdowns in the NFL to tight ends. Texans TEs Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham also racked up 11 catches for 94 yards at New England in the Divisional Round. The Patriots' linebackers struggle in coverage, so look for Dennis Pitta to play a leading role in Baltimore's passing attack.
While Belichick is famous for scheming to minimize the impact of his opponent's top player, he's had mixed results with Ray Rice. In Rice's five career meetings with New England, the Ravens' feature back has amassed 518 yards and three touchdowns on 102 carries (5.08 YPC), chipping in 19 catches for 147 additional yards. Rice hung 150 total yards and a score on the Pats in Week 3, topping 5.0 yards per carry. Baltimore's offense is dangerous when two-dimensional, and it'll be that if Flacco and Rice further their past successes against the Pats in conference championship week. ... New England cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will attempt to jam Ravens outside speedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones with physical press coverage around the line of scrimmage. Talib and Dennard can be vulnerable deep, but getting by them is a daunting task. In the slot, Pats 5-foot-10, 195-pound nickel back Kyle Arrington will have his hands full with 6-foot-1, 223-pound Anquan Boldin over the middle and down the seam. Over Baltimore's last three full games, Boldin leads the team in catches (18) and receiving yards (309). Although Boldin lacks explosiveness as a route runner and rarely creates separation, his power and toughness will be difficult for smallish Arrington to handle. Getting receivers open has been an ongoing struggle for Baltimore throughout Flacco's career. If Smith, Boldin, and Pitta can win their man-to-man matchups, however, Flacco is capable of putting the offense on his back.
Tom Brady's box-score stats in the Week 3 Ravens-Patriots game don't particularly stand out (335 yards, one touchdown), but he was surgical against a Baltimore defense that generated little to no pressure. Brady roasted RCB Cary Williams with Brandon Lloyd (9-108), and Wes Welker (8-142) was an unstoppable slot machine as Baltimore oddly left him in coverage against tight-hipped safeties and linebackers. Unfortunately for Brady, the Ravens' defense has improved since then. Ex-special teams ace Corey Graham has proven a more-than-adequate replacement for Webb at slot corner. Terrell Suggs has returned from an Achilles' injury and is coming off a two-sack Divisional Round, also making his presence felt versus the run with a whopping ten tackles in last week's Mile High win. After a slow start, bookend edge rusher Paul Kruger is hurrying the passer at a level higher than any defender left in the postseason. And whereas the Patriots had Hall of Fame-caliber tight end Rob Gronkowski for all 80-plus snaps in Week 3, Gronk won't be available for any Sunday after re-fracturing his arm. Put simply, the Pats' offense isn't as good as it was when they lost to Baltimore. And the Ravens' defense is better. ... Expect Brady to attack Williams with Lloyd again, while Aaron Hernandez challenges 37-year-old Ray Lewis in pass coverage over the middle. Lloyd and Hernandez figure to be the Pats' primary means of passing success Sunday as Welker presumably tangles with Graham and Gronk dons street clothes.
Remember the Week 16 Broncos-Ravens game? Baltimore's defense got pushed around and Knowshon Moreno played unlikely hero in Denver's 33-17 win. As alluded to above, the Ravens have been a different team since, and it starts up front. Over its last four games, Baltimore has limited the Giants, Bengals, Colts, and Broncos run games to a combined 391 yards and a single rushing touchdown on 106 carries (3.69 YPC). Stevan Ridley will be the best back the Ravens have faced over the past five weeks, but Baltimore can keep Ridley in check if it continues to control the line of scrimmage. The Ravens' run defense is far from the pushover unit it was earlier in the season. ... Although his role for this game is unclear, Patriots No. 2 back Shane Vereen is a wildcard player Belichick has in his back pocket. Coming off a breakout, three-touchdown and 124-total-yard Divisional Round, Vereen's playing time increased only because Danny Woodhead exited early with a thumb injury against the Texans. Vereen brings to the table playmaking ability, especially in the passing game, but could return to a bit role if Woodhead is medically cleared for the AFC Championship. Belichick could also "promote" Vereen ahead of Woodhead after the dynamic performance. While Vereen is a weapon with which the Patriots can create mismatches, Woodhead has been a staple of New England's offense all season. It will be a situation to watch.
Score Prediction: Ravens 27, Patriots 24