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Fearless Rick's NFL Conference Championships Picks - Early Games

Rick Gagliano | January 19, 2012

All times Eastern - Click here for late games.

Sunday, January 22

AFC Conference Championship

3:00 pm Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (-7, 50) - Since 1995, the Patriots and Ravens have played eight times. New England has won seven of those games, though the last playoff encounter resulted in Baltimore's only win in 15 years, a January 10, 2010, 33-14 pasting that sent the Ravens to the AFC championship, only to be hammered by the Colts, 20-3.

Last season, both the Ravens and Patriots reached the playoffs, the Ravens winning in the wild card round at Kansas City and losing to Pittsburgh the following week, in the divisional round, 31-24.

The Patriots won the AFC East in 2010 with a 14-2 record, only to be ousted in the divisional round by the Jets, 28-21, so both teams have more to prove this time around.

The games played by the two contestants last week were consequential, but hardly similar. While the Patriots blew away the upset-minded Tebow-led Broncos, 45-10, for their ninth straight win, the Ravens held on valiantly against the up-and-coming Houston Texans and their rookie QB, T.J. Yates, for a 20-13 victory.

Baltimore, which picked off Yates three times, a feat they will find difficult to repeat against Tom Brady and the Patriots. In between Yates' errant throws, however, he managed to find Andre Johnson eight times for 111 yards. The Ravens also allowed Arian Foster to run free for 132 yards on 27 carries, though they probably won't have to worry as much about stopping the New England rushing attack, as RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley and mini-back Danny Woodhead dont' pose as great a threat as Brady's downfield throws, especially to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who have become Brady's favorite targets.

The Ravens finished third in the league in points allowed (16.6 per game) and were fourth overall in pass defense, allowing, on average, 196.3 yards per game with 15 interceptions. They led the league in passes defended, with 112, which will be key to stopping the Patriots' dangerous, up-tempo offense.

It's been widely noted that the Patriots have the weakest defensive units of the four remaining contenders for Super Bowl XLVI. They were second worst in the league in passing yards allowed, at 293.9 and total yards allowed, at 411.1. The team behind them? The Green Bay Packers, and we all know what happened to them in their humbing home loss to the peaking NY Giants, so, statistically, the Patriots must be concerned about stopping the Baltimore offense on early downs as well as early in the game. That means stuffing Ray Rice on the ground, and getting the ball out of Baltimore QB Joe Flacco's hands before he gets comfortable in the pocket.

New England may find some success with a strategy of pressuring Flacco, as they finished the regular season with 40 sacks. Stopping Rice will be a primary duty of the their defensive tackles, especially the monstrous Vince Wolfork, a giant of a man who generally takes on double teams. That should leave either Kyle Love or Gerald Warren to snatch ahold of Rice. Linebackers Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo will have their hands full, shedding tackles and launching after Rice, who runs low and hard and is a determined inside runner.

The Patriot secondary is, of course, the weakest link, but Baltimore doesn't have tremendous receivers, which may make their task a bit less daunting. However, if the Ravens can spring the fleet-footed Lee Evans for a deep throw or two, it might serve to open up the New England defense sufficiently to allow Rice some running room, as well as opening up shorter routes for Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.

Baltimore will probably get Rice out into the flat for the occasional sweep or screen pass, a nightmare scenario for the Patriots, as their secondary players are not, by and large, good tacklers in the open field.

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While the Ravens have plenty of weapons by which to pound opponents into submission, their game plan will revolve around running Rice and keeping the ball out of Brady's hands. Time-consuming drives resulting in scores will be primary on Baltimore's to-do list.

When New England has the ball, they will be facing possibly the best quarterback of the last ten years in Tom Brady, whose quick release and ability to read complex defenses has made him a certain future Hall of Famer. Short, quick passes to his talented tight ends has been a hallmark of the New England offense this season. Gronkowski got most of the press attention as he set a record for tight ends with 17 catches for scores, but Hernandez is equally dangerous in the open field. Gronkowski grabbed 90 balls for 1327 yards during the regular season; Hernandex caught 79 for 910, not bad for a secondary role.

Brady will also look to his stand-by, slot receiver Wes Welker, who led the Pats in catches and yards with 122 for 1569 yards. The Patriot offense was tops in the AFC in points (32.1), total yards (428.0) and passing yards (317.8) per game, so the Ravens certainly have their work cut out for them.

Special teams were not particularly strong for either team, though the Ravens have a slight edge in kick-off returns. Punters Zoltan Mesko (Patriots) and Sam Koch are both good at pinning opponents deep with angled kicks and both can boom them when necessary. The Patriots have an edge at place-kicker with Stephen Gostkowski, who has more range than the Ravens' Billy Cundiff, who made only one of six tried from 50 yards or more. Gostkowski made one of two from that distance, was 9-for-11 from 40-49 yards, and is accurate on 84.8% of his tries.

Whichever team comes out on top here will set up scenarios for the later NFC championship. If New England wins, a win by the Giants would set up a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, won, in dramatic fashion, by the Giants, 17-14. Should the Ravens emerge victorious, a win by San Francisco would set up a first ever, brother vs. brother coaching match-up between the Harbaughs, John of the Ravens and Jim of the 49ers.

In the final analysis, the one TD spread seems appropriate, as New England has proven, time and again, to be nearly impossible to stop for an entire 60 minutes of football, but the Ravens are ideally suited to put the kibosh on Brady and his troops. New England, being very vulnerable on defense, is a real concern, but Flacco's throws last week against Houston were sometimes wildly inaccurate. He'll have to be at his best, even against the porous Patriot secondary.

This looks nothing like a blowout for either team, but the Ravens can win a close game if they can contain New England until the final quarter.

Prediction: Ravens 27 Patriots 24

All times Eastern - Click here for late games

Copyright 2011, 2012, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.


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