• NFC Championship Game a Matchup of Youth, Inexperience

    When the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons face off in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, there are bound to be some players with wide-eyed expressions on their faces.  That’s because neither team boasts many players with much playoff experience, as both Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick earned their first playoff victories last week.  With so much at stake, how these teams handle this unfamiliar territory will determine who moves on to the Super Bowl.  With that, here are a few storylines to keep in mind heading into Atlanta on Sunday:

    1) Can the Falcons’ Offense Fly High?

    Boasting a fearsome duo at the wide receiver position in Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta posses some serious talent at its skill positions on offense.  Oh, and they also have Tony Gonzalez, who’s still playing at a hall of fame level despite his age.  However, the 49ers defense, lead by linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Aldon Smith, is a physical unit that is capable of pressuring opposing quarterbacks at will.  How Matt Ryan handles San Francisco’s blitzes will play a huge role in this game.

    2) Slowing Down Kaepernick

    If the Falcons want to stand a chance, it’s imperative that they slow down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who amassed more than 400 total yards of offense against Green Bay last week, rushing for two touchdowns and passing for two more scores.  What makes Kaepernick most dangerous is his ability to get out of the pocket and throw on the run.  In order for Atlanta to be successful, they need to keep Kaepernick stationary and contain him when he runs the read-option.

    3) Fool Me Once, Shame on You. Fool Me Twice….

    The 49ers were that close to earning a Super Bowl appearance last year, when they lost at home to the eventual champion New York Giants in overtime, 20-17.  Here they are a year later in the same position, only this time they’re heading into the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons went 7-1 during the regular season.  Having gotten back to within one game of the Super Bowl for the second straight year, will San Francisco get over the hump, or will Matt Ryan earn his second straight playoff victory having none before 2012?  Either will be a hot topic come Monday morning.

    Prediction:

    Although the Falcons have been basically unbeatable in the Georgia dome over the past several years, history has shown that teams can challenge them there in the playoffs, as they lost to Green Bay in 2011 and narrowly escaping against the Seahawks last week.  Despite Colin Kaepernick’s inexperience, he will turn in a good enough performance to go along with a strong outing by the San Francisco defense, and the 49ers will be on their way to New Orleans for a long-awaited Super Bowl appearance.

    Score: 38-24, San Francisco

  • AFC Championship Features Rematch Between Hated Foes

    In game that few people expected them to be a part of, the Baltimore Ravens enter Sunday as nine-point underdogs to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.  However, the Ravens and fifth-year Quarterback Joe Flacco weren’t phased by similar circumstance last week, when they went into Denver and pulled out a double overtime victory over the Broncos.  Can they do it again?  Here are a few storylines to follow heading into Sunday’s AFC showdown:

    1) Oh, You Again

    The Pats and Ravens are very familiar with each other, as Sunday’s game will make it their second straight meeting in the AFC Championship game and third playoff contest in the past four years.  Although New England is virtually unbeatable at home in the playoffs, Baltimore blew them out 33-14 in 2009 and narrowly lost 20-23 after Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds.  Clearly, the Ravens aren’t afraid of heading into Foxborough.

    2) Matchup to Watch: Aqib Talib vs. Torrey Smith

    Plenty will be made of the chess match between QB Tom Brady and LB Ray Lewis in this game, and rightfully so.  However, a matchup that may be more intriguing will be between Pats’ corner Aqib Talif and Ravens’ wide receiver Torrey Smith.  Smith burnt New England for 126 yards and two touchdowns when the two teams met earlier this season, and hauled in another two last week with veteran corner Champ Bailey covering him.  However, Talib, who New England acquired from Tampa Bay midseason, has brought some swagger to the Patriot defense with his fiery attitude and physical style of play.  Can he contain Smith?  The answer to that may determine this game’s outcome.

    3) Can Joe Flacco Win the Big One?

    Flacco’s been heavily critiqued over the past several years, as many people in the sports world have begun to wonder whether or not he has what it takes to win a championship, despite the fact that he is the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.  After last week’s victory in Denver in which Flacco threw three touchdowns and outplayed four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning, people had better start acknowledging his abilities.  However, out-dueling Tom Brady in Foxborough is never easy, even if Flacco has done it before.

    Prediction:

    Although Baltimore is no pushover and will give the Pats all they can handle, New England just has too many weapons on the offensive side, even with Rob Gronkowski out with a broken forearm.  With Tom Brady playing like well, Tom Brady, and their defense playing its best football of the year, New England will make enough plays to defeat Joe Flacco and the Ravens.

    Score: 31-24