Gridiron Guide predictions for AFC, NFC Championship Games

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, walks with his brother, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh before a game in Baltimore. Photo Credit: AP, 2011

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John Boell Newsday sports writer John Boell

Boell has worked in the Newsday sports department in various capacities since 1999. In 2010, he became Newsday's ...

If you like NFL playoff games with lots of points, last weekend was a quartet of instant offense. It was the highest-scoring round in NFL postseason history with 276 points (excluding an eight-game first round in 1982 because of the NFL strike).

The NFL's "Final Four" will try for an encore with plenty of interesting subplots, including:

There have been five consecutive NFC Championship Games that have been decided by seven points or less. This season's title game features the NFC's top two seeds.

For the sixth time in seven seasons, teams that played at least once during the regular season will meet in the AFC Championship Game.

Too soon to hype the "Harbaugh Bowl"? It nearly happened last season. I believe Jim Harbaugh's 49ers are New-Orleans bound, where they'll face the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVII.

Here's a closer look

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at the matchups:

 

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

49ERS (12-4-1) at FALCONS (14-3), 3 p.m.

49ers by 4; O/U: 49

TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

The early money strongly went toward the favored 49ers as the opening line of 3 quickly jumped to 4 and then 4 1/2. It has settled back at 4, but could very well climb back up closer to kickoff. There are some good reasons for this. People still don't believe in the Falcons, who blew a 20-point lead in the second half last week but escaped with a late field goal and a 30-28 win-but-not cover over the Seahawks. Also, the play of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been downright jaw-dropping. I'll admit it, I was wrong earlier this season, when I was critical of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to have Kaepernick be the No. 1 QB when Alex Smith was injured. Kaepernick has gone 6-2 as a starter, including last week's record-breaking performance of 181 rushing yards, the most ever by a QB in NFL history. Not to mention, he has set off a Internet craze with his "Kaepernicking": when he kisses his tattoos on his biceps after he scores. (I prefer kissing both my hands after I write my column. But I digress.) Atlanta QB Matt Ryan is now 34-4 all-time at the Georgia Dome, including 8-1 this season. However, the Falcons were 4-5 against the spread (ATS) at home. The Niners are an impressive 24-11-1 ATS in their last 36 games overall. The last five NFC Championship Games have been close, and maybe that trend continues, but I have to go with the better team here to win and cover.

THE PICK: 49ers

 

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

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RAVENS (12-6) at PATRIOTS (13-4), 6:30 p.m.

Patriots by 9; O/U: 51 1/2

TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game (won by the Pats, 23-20), as well as a regular season Week 3 tilt (won by the Ravens, 31-30). It's the first time there's been a rematch in the conference championship in 18 years. I still can't get the image out of my head from last weekend as QB Joe Flacco hurled a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones (over a falling Rahim Moore of Denver) with 31 seconds left in regulation that helped the Ravens win in double overtime. I also can't fathom the Broncos taking a knee at their own 20 with 31 seconds left, Peyton Manning under center and two timeouts. Can you say, 'too conservative?' Yikes! The Patriots always have their foot on the gas. Is there a better team the last decade? The Pats are 7-2 all-time in conference title games, including 4-0 at home. This matchup is intriguing because it features the NFL's best home playoff team by percentage (Pats are 14-3, .824) vs. the NFL's best road winning percentage team in the playoffs (Ravens are 8-5, .615) with teams with at least 10 postseason games. Quick stat: while New England is 4-2 overall vs. the Ravens since 2007, the average margin of victory is just 3.75 points -- the Patriots' lowest against any opponent during that span. I won't be surprised if the Patriots win, especially with Tom Brady and his record 17 postseason wins, but I just think the nine-point spread is too much.

THE PICK: Ravens

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John Boell 124-133-6 (12-7)

Playoffs: 3-5, 2-0 best bets

49ers (best bet) Ravens

 

Tom Rock 134-123-6 (13-6)

Playoffs: 5-3, 2-0

49ers Ravens (best bet)

 

Bob Glauber 118-139-6 (8-10-1)

Playoffs: 4-4, 2-0

49ers (best bet) Ravens

 

Kimberely A. Martin 139-118-6 (13-6)

Playoffs: 3-5, 1-1

49ers (best bet) Ravens

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