Don’t make any plans you can’t break this Sunday, for once again, the football gods have blessed us with Championship Weekend in the NFL. The Super Bowl on February 3. awaits the winners of these two games.
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons, 3pm EST
Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan has mostly lived up to his high valuation over his four-year career, but a postseason victory had eluded him until last Sunday’s nail-biter against Seattle. The Falcons, like the 49ers, have been touted as one of the league’s best teams all year, and with a trip to the NFC Championship, Atlanta has seemingly made good of one of the truly elite offenses in the NFL. With Ryan’s traditional pocket passing, the best tight end of all time —Tony Gonzalez — still near the peak of his powers, one of the best receiving corps in the league, and running back Michael Turner’s consistent high production, the Falcons are a classically explosive offense.
Colin Kaepernick started this season on the bench as a gadget-play running threat at quarterback. When starter Alex Smith got injured, Kaepernick didn’t look back once. There has been debate for years about the level of success a running quarterback could achieve. The first-year starter’s performance last week seemed a direct answer to that question. At home against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick delivered one of the finest performances ever seen during the playoffs, leading San Fran to a 45-31 rout with an all-time QB record of 181 yards rushing, in addition to 263 yards passing. Kaepernick accounted for four touchdowns. Combined with the postseason’s best remaining defense, the Niners are going to be hard for anyone to stop.
Prediction: The Falcons are good, but the 49ers have a chance to be one of the best teams of this generation. With a cadre of young stars leading them, none more than second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, they may have a dynasty on their hands in the Bay Area. I expect Matty Ice to be going home. 49ers 34, Falcons 27
AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, 6:30pm EST
At the end of a comfortable victory wild-card weekend, Ray Lewis ended his playing career on Baltimore’s field in style. Lewis announced his retirement prior to these playoffs, and last week it looked as if the desire for one last game was all that kept the Ravens’ vaunted defense going. Lewis and fellow future Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed will have their hands full this week. On offense, Joe Flacco showed characteristic grit in the last seconds last week, throwing one of the greatest late-game touchdowns we’ll ever see. Running back Ray Rice provides the engine of the Ravens’ offense, augmented by solid quarterback and receiver play. This is a team built to go deep in the postseason, but now that they’re here, are they truly elite?
Tom Brady has played at such a high level over the past decade, it’s easy to take for granted how excellent what we’re witnessing is. Once again, his pinpoint accuracy and unparalleled knowledge of the game has brought the Patriots to the doorstep of the Super Bowl. If they get in, it will be by vanquishing a very motivated and hungry Baltimore team. The Patriots are without All-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, but as we’ve learned over time, there is one thing that makes New England a juggernaut, and he’s still on the field. The Pats have a below-average defense, but if the Ravens are playing catch-up to Brady’s scoring at will, this may be tough for the visitors to pull out.
Prediction: I expect this game to justify its top billing on the day. The Ravens refuse to be denied and are built with great balance, but the Patriots may simply be too powerful on offense for it to matter much. Baltimore beat long odds to come back from Peyton Manning’s 35 points last week, and they won’t do it again against a quarterback of equal — greater? — talent. Patriots 38, Ravens 30
So no Har-bowl this year. Sorry.