The best day of the football season and on the short list of the best days of the sports year take place on today as both the NFC and AFC Championship Games take place. At a more optimum time, I will have a list of what are the best sports days of the year, but for now, the focus will be on the field. We've come off the heels of an outstanding NFL Divisional Round which the 49ers and Patriots showed us the best we can see in terms of offense and how many "HOLY $#!T" moments we saw in the Ravens and Falcons victories. And we are really desperate for real sports to occur after Manti Te'o and Lance Armstrong dominated our sports news this week. The Heat's win over the Lakers finally put the focus back on the field of play and the NHL FINALLY began its season and made the ice the focus. Today, we'll only be focused on Atlanta and Foxboro.
San Francisco at Atlanta. Spread: 49ers by 4
You see this spread correct, the Falcons are home underdogs in the NFC Championship game. This has happened before, last occurring back two years ago when the Packers were favored over the Bears. I don't think that Atlanta will lose close and cover, thus the spread shouldn't be a factor in my pick here. It seems to me that the Falcons have one chance to win this game and that's with a quick start on offense. Barring a particularly sloppy game by the 49ers where they turn the ball over too many times, drop passes and kill themselves with penalties, the Falcons would be better served if they can have their offense strike quickly. The biggest factor in Atlanta's favor is playing home in the dome and the way that building can be best utilized if getting an early lead and having the crowd in the game all day long. The other thing about an early lead is that the Falcons can then run the football. Now, Atlanta isn't very good at running the ball, but a good start for Matt Ryan might open up the running lanes and a lead will allow a more balanced offense; something that you must try to have against the San Francisco defense.
Last week, the 49ers put an absolute clinic on how to run an offense in 2012 as Colin Kaepernick seemed to have perfected the read-option that Jim Harbaugh has installed there. He threw a pick-six in the early going last week and I don't think anyone remembers that. Another thing that's been clear is Michael Crabtree has a more prominent role in the offense now with Kaepernick at QB. Now, I wouldn't expect a repeat of last week's performance because I'm sure the Falcons won't get beat repeatedly by both the passing game and running game. However, the 49ers defense won't have as bad a game as they had last week now that they aren't facing an Aaron Rodgers-led offense.
I don't think this spread is an overreaction to a great win for the 49ers last week; this team has been destined to go to the Super Bowl since Week 1. I really don't see an overrated Falcons team standing in their way, no matter where the game is being played.
San Francisco will win 30-17.
Baltimore at New England. Spread: Patriots by 8
Instead of Brady vs Manning, we get a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game as the Ravens have snuck back in. This is the first rematch since 1994 when the 49ers finally got the best of the Cowboys, and the first in the AFC since 1987 which saw The Fumble. History isn't on Baltimore's side here as the only times that a team won a Championship Game rematch happened when two teams faced in three straight Championship Games (1976 Raiders and 1994 49ers). Every other rematch saw the previous year winner remain on top. Thus, the Ravens have to try to end a historical trend.
Baltimore's defense is better as of late (of the 35 points given up last week, 14 were via special teams), though that had a lot to do with the Broncos injuries in the run game. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens try to defend the Patriots, but they can't allow the Pats to run on them. Tom Brady is going to have success at times. It makes his success much easier if Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen are running the ball well. Another thing needed by the Ravens is that the Pats secondary plays like Denver's did last week. Funny thing is that New England finally figured out a way to make a solid secondary after years of failed draft picks and just an overall lack of talent there (helps when Aqib Talib is just handed to them in midseason).
The familiarity that these two teams breed will keep this game close. Just like a Ravens-Steelers game is always within a score, so is a Ravens-Patriots contest. I'm confident that Joe Flacco will keep the Ravens in this one, but in the end, there's too much Brady and too much Bill Belichick to overcome all the emotion to win a Super Bowl for Ray Lewis.
Patriots will win 31-27.
Last week: 2-2