After a wild divisional playoff weekend, four NFL teams remain in the hunt to reach the 2013 Super Bowl.
A few of the favorites to win the title lost on Saturday. Peyton Manning and the No.1 seed Denver Broncos were eliminated from contention in a double-overtime defeat. The Green Bay Packers lost their first postseason game for the second year in a row, as Aaron Rodgers was outperformed by Colin Kaepernick.
Both conference championships will be played on Sunday, Jan.20. Three of the four teams that are still alive made it to their respective championship games in 2012. Only the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants are no longer playing.
Below is the schedule for the third round of the playoffs, as well as an early preview and prediction for championship weekend.
San Francisco 49ers (-3.5) at Atlanta Falcons, 48.5 (3:00 p.m. ET on FOX)
The top two seeds advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2010. Atlanta squeaked by Seattle with a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. San Francisco put up 45 points on Green Bay in a two-touchdown victory.
Matt Ryan and Kaepernick will face off for a trip to New Orleans. Both quarterbacks had big performances over the weekend, experiencing playoff success for the first time in their young careers.
Despite playing on the road against the team with the best regular-season record in football, the 49ers are expected to win. The San Francisco offense looked unstoppable on Saturday, scoring six touchdowns. Kaepernick proved that he can make big plays in the postseason, having one of the best individual games in playoff history. His 181 rushing yards set a new record for a quarterback, and he finished with four total touchdowns.
The Packers scored 31 points, though seven of them came on an interception return. San Francisco held Rodgers in check, giving him very little time in the pocket. Justin Smith seemed unaffected by his injury, recording five tackles.
The Falcons blew a 20-point lead in their win, and needed a drive in the last minute to pick up the victory. Atlanta had trouble with Russell Wilson, allowing him to pass for 385 yards and run for 60 more. That doesn’t bode well for them when having to face another mobile quarterback in Kaepernick.
Atlanta did, however, prove they can score on the NFL’s best defense. They put up 30 points against a team that allowed half that per game in the regular season. The 49ers were right behind the Seahawks in points allowed.
Playing at home, Atlanta should keep the game close. Ryan leads one of the best offenses in the league, and is very hard to stop on the turf.
However, the Falcons offense did struggle in the second half against Seattle, and might not score enough to keep up with the 49ers. If Alex Smith were playing, the Falcons would have a better chance. Kaepernick should be the biggest difference-maker in the contest.
Prediction: San Francisco 34, Atlanta 27
Baltimore Ravens (+9) at New England Patriots, 51 (6:00 p.m. ET on CBS)
Few teams know each other as well the Patriots and Ravens. New England beat Baltimore in last year’s AFC title game, and the Ravens were victorious in their Week Three matchup.
The Ravens road to this game hasn’t been nearly as easy as the Patriots. Baltimore came dangerously close to losing on Saturday, needing a 70-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining in regulation, and two overtimes to beat Denver.
The Patriots cruised in their matchup with the Houston Texans. They scored 41 points and totaled 457 yards on offense. The game was essentially over at the start of the fourth quarter, when New England took a 38-13 lead.
Tom Brady passed Joe Montana with his 17th career playoff win. He had another stellar performance, throwing for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. With Manning and Rodgers, once again, failing to advance to the championship round, Brady may be proving that he is the top quarterback in the NFL.
It will be difficult for the Ravens to slow down the Patriots enough to make the Super Bowl for the first time since 2001. Baltimore’s defense wasn’t dominant in 2012 like it has been in years past. They were 17th in yards allowed, and gave up 35 points in their first postseason game. It won’t be easy for them to stop an offense that scored 34.8 points per game, in the regular season.
Joe Flacco’s recent postseason play, though, indicates that Baltimore has a chance to pull off the upset. His 116.2 passer rating this past weekend was better than Brady’s. In Flacco’s last four playoff games, he has thrown nine touchdowns and just one interception.
New England is a heavy favorite, but it would be very tough for them to cover the nine-point betting line. The last two matchups between these teams have come down to the wire, and Sunday’s contest could also be decided by a late field goal. With both quarterbacks playing well, the Ravens superior defense could be enough to give them the win.
Prediction: Baltimore 31, New England 30