Predictions are like opinions -- everyone's got 'em. And with us about to jump feet first into Conference Championship Sunday -- we are five-for-eight since the playoffs began, missing on Baltimore's two victories and Atlanta surviving -- welcome to the NFL's version of the Final Four. As such, here's how today's title games should go down…
NFC No. 2 49ers (12-4-1) at NFC No. 1 Atlanta Falcons (14-3)
Fox, 12 p.m. PT
Colin Kaepernick this, Colin Kaepernick that. Yes, the multi-threat quarterback and SI coverboy had his coming out party last week against Green Bay and thrust himself into the national sporting conscience, yet this game figures to be won in a more traditional manner.
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has been gone from San Francisco a generation, in football years, already but his intimate knowledge of the 49ers' skill position players, especially, will help. At least at first. Besides, while the Packers had not seen the zone-read option (and defensive coordinator Dom Capers did next to nothing to adjust) the Falcons have already gone up against Cam Newton twice, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson this season. So Kaepernick's bag o' tricks should not be as shocking.
Again, though, knowing it and stopping it are two different things. Still, Kaepernick's running game getting neutralized makes old war horses Frank Gore and Vernon Davis central players for the Niners. And as such, it comes down to commanding the line of scrimmage. And mindset.
Never mind history -- the 49ers' 'win, win, don't win' stretch of games this season and the fact that they have not won a road playoff game since winning at Chicago in the NFC title game on Jan. 8, 1989 -- the size of the chip on the 49ers' shoulders rivals that of Jim Harbaugh's ego and the Falcons just might be satisfied with finally winning a playoff game. It won't be pretty, but it won't be a blowout, either.
The prediction:49ers 26, Falcons 21
AFC No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at AFC No. 2 New England Patriots (13-4)
CBS, 3:30 p.m. PT
How different would this game be if Bruce Arians had been with Andrew Luck in Baltimore, rather than in a hospital bed two weeks ago? Or if Broncos safety Rahim Moore had not lost the flight of Joe Flacco's long bomb to Jacoby Jones last weekend? The Ravens seem to have the Colts' horseshoe ticked under one wing and a rabbit foot under the other, so it would be foolhardy to pick against them a third week in a row.
And while this postseason-long tribute to Ray Lewis as some sort of gridiron saint has been over the top -- whatever happened to his purportedly blood-stained white suit, by the way? -- Baltimore's inspirational leader has been playing some of the most inspirational ball of his career. But the run ends in Foxborough against a familiar opponent in Tom Brady, who is running as efficient and balanced an offensive machine as he ever has for the Patriots.
The loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski should not hurt with Aaron Hernandez able to step right on. Yes, last year's AFC title game between these two was a classic, as was the sequel, a 31-30 Ravens victory on a Justin Tucker field goal with time expiring on Sept. 23 in Baltimore. Flacco has been a model of consistency for the Ravens in this run, but the Patriots defense, while shaky at times, excels in creating turnovers.
New England is about to get Baltimore to fumble away its horseshoe and pick off its rabbit foot. Oh, and since we're taking about how different history would be were it not for some, ahem, luck, let's not get into the Tuck Rule or Spygate.
The prediction: Patriots 31, Ravens 27