A beginner's guide to the NFL Playoffs: Conference Championship edition

    Have you been keeping up with the NFL Playoffs? Perhaps you’re still reveling in Northwestern’s Gator Bowl win, or you’ve been glued to the frantic start to basketball season. Regardless, if you’re out of the loop, fear not. NBN Sports breaks down this Sunday’s pro football action, complete with predictions for which teams are on their way to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

    NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons, 2:00 p.m. CST 

    The NFC Championship Game will be the perfect chance for NFL fans to get a good look at two teams that have taken the league by storm in the last couple years. A lot of credit goes to Atlanta's head coach Mike Smith and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, as both have rapidly transformed the identity of these programs.

    Before Smith took over in Atlanta, the Falcons went three years without a playoff appearance. Since, they've hit the postseason four times in the past five years, earning their first playoff win in the Smith era over Seattle last week.

    The Niners had an even longer drought. Before Harbaugh was at the helm in San Francisco, the franchise didn’t see playoff action for eight years. Now, the team has strung together consecutive NFC title game appearances. 

    Home field advantage is incredibly important for Sunday’s matchup. Indoor stadiums, like Atlanta's Georgia Dome, get especially loud, which could cause problems for an opposing quarterback trying to get a snap count down, communicate with the offense or call audibles. Another reason the 49ers should be worried about playing in the Georgia Dome is the Falcons' reliable, efficient quarterback.

    They call Matt Ryan “Matty Ice” – not because of his propensity to consume cheap beer but because of the ice that flows through his veins when he’s behind center. During his tenure as the Falcons quarterback, Ryan has been an absolute stud at home, winning nearly 85 percent of his career starts in the Georgia Dome. The 49ers will have their work cut out for them in a hostile environment.

    Last year, the 49ers lost to the New York Giants on an overtime field goal in the NFC Championship. This year, a new quarterback leads San Francisco into a familar battle.  

    Veteran Alex Smith was benched due to a concussion midway through the season. After an outstanding Monday Night Football performance against Chicago the following week, dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick took hold of the starting position. After that, the young quarterback led the 49ers to five more wins, including a decisive playoff victory against the Packers last week. 

    With all of their weapons on both sides of the ball, it's hard to go against the 49ers. At almost every position, the Niners seem faster. 

    The combination of running backs LaMichael James and Frank Gore is lethal in a West Coast Offense; Gore provides the ground and pound aspect while James can speed around the corners. Meanwhile, Atlanta running back Michael Turner has had a mediocre season, averaging a career-low 3.6 yards-per-carry.

    The quarterback advantage should go to Matt Ryan at home, but Kaepernick has been playing like a Pro Bowler since he took over. After running for more than 180 yards and two touchdowns last week, there’s no doubting his monstrous athleticism.

    There shouldn’t be much debate on the defensive end. The 49ers smothered opposing offenses, allowing 294.4 yards per game, third-best in the NFL. At the other end, the Falcons are shaky in the secondary. San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith was ranked second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks, so he'll be a nightmare for Ryan, who struggles outside of the pocket.

    Prediction: 49ers 34, Falcons 20

    AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, 5:30 p.m. CST

    Sunday’s AFC Championship Game promises to be a good one. After the Patriots won last year's 23-20 thriller, both teams' quarterbacks sit on a hot seat. 

    Five or six years ago, there was no denying that New England’s Tom Brady was the best quarterback of our generation. However, after winning three Super Bowls in his first four tries, Brady has missed out on a ring his last two chances, falling to the Giants in 2008 and again last February.

    Every year, the future Hall-of-Famer puts up ridiculous numbers in the regular season – but great players are measured in championships, not missed opportunities. 

    On the other side of the spectrum, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is struggling to prove himself as an elite quarterback. Last year, Flacco made it to his first AFC Championship Game, but a dropped touchdown pass and a botched field goal prevented the Ravens from reaching the Super Bowl. Throughout his entire career, Flacco has been criticized for underperforming when it counts most.

    Though it looks like a re-run of last year's AFC title game, this game looks decidedly different with New England's backfield. 

    When these teams met earlier in week three, Brady threw for 335 yards and a touchdown despite a struggling ground game. Now, running back Stevan Ridley has established himself as a top-tier running back and should be able to help Brady out. 

    The Patriots' dependable ground game is almost unfair. For a change, not all the attention will go to No. 12, allowing the Pats to exploit the Ravens in play-action downfield. Baltimore was a sub-par 17th in the league in passing yards allowed per game, while New England’s passing offense ranked fourth.

    Losing Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowksi to a broken arm will be tough for Brady, but he still has standouts Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker to target. There's also flex 'back Shane Vereen to watch out for, as he lit up the Texans for three scores last week.

    In the teams' last matchup, Baltimore running back Ray Rice was a workhorse. Since then, the Patriots have improved their run defense. If Rice is held to double-digit yardage, it’s tough to see the Ravens winning.

    Sunday will most likely be veteran linebacker and future Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis’ last game in the NFL. After 17 seasons in the league, Lewis announced his retirement prior to Baltimore’s wildcard matchup against the Colts.

    Baltimore’s enjoyed a surprising run, shocking top-seeded Denver in double-overtime last week. In Foxboro though, the Pats will knock off the Ravens and head to the Super Bowl for a second straight time.

    Prediction: Ravens 10, Patriots 23

    The bottom line

    Every team has something to prove in these two championship games.

    The Patriots want to reassert their status as an NFL dynasty, while the Ravens seek to prove they can get over the hump, erase last year's blunders and reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 12 years. 

    In the NFC, the 49ers look to build something behind future franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick, while the Falcons want to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta for the first time in history. 

    Tom Brady is the only quarterback left in these playoffs to have reached the Big Game. Could we see two newbies under center come Super Bowl Sunday? The way New England is looking these days, it's hard to say.


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