FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts to the fans as he warms up against the Denver Broncos during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The AFC and NFC Championship games are set as the 49ers will host the Giants and the Ravens will travel to New England. But which two teams will advance to Super Bowl XLVI?
Last week at this time we were debating the best possible matchup for the NFC Championship game and we selected the New Orleans Saints vs. Green Bay Packers. And now a week later both teams have been eliminated from the playoffs.
The San Francisco 49ers beat the Saints on Saturday and the New York Giants were able to beat the one-loss Packers on Sunday. The NFC Championship game will take place next weekend in San Francisco between the 49ers and Giants.
Over in the AFC, the New England Patriots did what so many expected -- dominated the Denver Broncos. Tim Tebow and Co. looked miserable as the Patriots took a commanding lead with five first half touchdowns. The game was over shortly after it began. The Patriots will now host the Baltimore Ravens, who beat the Houston Texans on Sunday, in the AFC Championship game.
Both games will be played on Sunday afternoon and the winners will advance to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. But who will those two teams be? We have our early predictions on the AFC and NFC Championship games.
Baltimore Ravens Vs. New England Patriots, January 22, 3:00 p.m., CBS
The classic game of a great defense vs. a great offense. The Ravens finished the season ranked third in the league in points allowed while the Patriots are third in points scored. Both these teems have been staples in the AFC playoffs for the last decade and they know how to win.
What I like most about the Ravens this year is that they've tested so well against the best competition. They've beaten the Steelers twice this year. Same with Cincinnati. And they beat the Texans and the 49ers, too. They've been dominating playoff teams so they're well aware that they're capable of winning this game. They should not be lacking in the confidence department. The defense is, per usual, one of the best in the league while the offense has been improving significantly, especially with Ray Rice leading the way. The passing game behind Joe Flacco is good enough to win with. The Ravens do a lot of things well and the development of the offense has turned them into truly a complete team.
The Patriots, on the other hand, have an obvious flaw -- the defense. They give up a ton of yards which is a concern. That said, they're in the middle of the pack when it comes to points scored which means, while they give up a lot of yards, they're able to step up when they need them to. Tom Brady is Tom Brady and he's the focal point of the Patriots offense, as usual. Wes Welker is one of his top weapons but the real challenge will be stopping the tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots are the type of team where you can take away one weapon, and they have two more they can beat you with.
Early Prediction: This isn't an easy game to predict because both teams are elite on one side of the ball, but I have to roll with the Patriots right now. The offense has always been top-notch but the addition of Gronkowski in particular has turned them into a unit that's extremely difficult to stop. Patriots win this one, 30-27.
New York Giants Vs. San Francisco 49ers, January 22, 6:30 p.m., FOX
One of the major story lines this season has been the explosion of offense as Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's passing record, Aaron Rodgers had one of the all-time great seasons, Tom Brady threw for over 5,000 passing yards and Eli Manning was 67 yards away from 5,000. That's the regular season story line. In the playoffs, however, the defenses have been winning out. The Giants defense has been getting hot at the right time as they got after Aaron Rodgers last weekend and beat the Packers while the 49ers have also been doing it on defense ending the season as the second ranked defense in the league.
The Giants are quickly becoming my Super Bowl pick. Like the 2007 team, they're rising at the right time and they have a formula on defense, despite being ranked 25th in the NFL, that can make them winners. The Giants defensive line is good enough to establish pressure on the quarterback while allowing the defense to drop enough guys into the secondary to stop the passing game. Guys like Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck are playmakers and they can change the landscape of the game with one big play. Offensively, the Giants are a difficult matchup as well. Hakeem Nicks had a monster game against the Packers and New York is unbeatable if he plays like that again. The running game is back and that's really when the Giants dominate -- when they can run the ball, control the clock and take advantage of the play-action fake.
The 49ers, on the other hand, should not be overlooked. It took me until about midseason to realize they had something special going on. They're similar to the Giants on defense in that they have a terrific front seven that can pressure the quarterback. Patrick Willis is a beast, as we all know, and rookie linebacker Aldon Smith almost broke the rookie record for sacks. They can stop the run, they can rush the passer and on offense they can run the ball well. They're an old-school type of team that wins with good defense and controlling both lines of scrimmage. In the year of the quarterback, the 49ers have rolled with Alex Smith who is efficient and protects the football. And, as we saw lat weekend, Smith can come up with the huge play when his team needs it.
Early Prediction: The Giants have the ability to win this game if they play like they have over the past few weeks, but the 49ers continue to surprise me. I'll stick with the Giants though. New York wins this one, 24-20.