2013 NFL Conference Championships

By Jeff Rapp, January 20th, 2013

Once again, we are looking at a legitimate shot at a Harbaugh Bowl.

And after the John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens proved they could hold up in a road shootout with an elite team and Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers went through Green Bay like, well, melted cheese, it is tempting to predict such things.

But those of you who frequent this column know I try not to get caught up in sensationalism, off-the-field developments and the general over-analysis that seems to always accompany big-time football in this country.

I look at the games from afar, without too much personal voodoo, but still with the knowledge of the facts and a willingness to trust the old gut.

Once again, my approach has netted admirable results. I posted a record of 19-10-1 in five versions of Rapp’s 6-Pack this season. That includes marks of 3-1 on Ohio State games, 13-6-1 on all college picks and 6-4 on NFL games vs. the spread.

So we are down to a pair of conference championship games to decide who will venture to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3.

Not only is much on the line but much will be rehashed because of the storylines coming into the weekend.

Can Colin Kaepernick continue to make the league, its fans and analysts drool over the impact of the athletic quarterback or will Matt Ryan and the AFC game remind this is still a dropback league? Will reports of investigation into 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree prove distracting? Can the Ravens keep winning on fortune and emotion? Is it time we hail Tom Brady as the best ever to line up under center? Did the Falcons grow up after surviving near disaster against Seattle?

It should be a memorable football Sunday and once again I will take my stab at predicting the outcome of the NFL final four. Here goes:

NFC Championship: 49ers (12-4-1) at Falcons (14-3)
When: Sun., 3 p.m. Eastern (FOX)
Line: San Francisco by 4
Analysis: There are lots of reasons to opt for San Francisco here. The Niners looked like world-beaters early on, won a marquee late-season game at New England, they have a fantastic defense, a wily head coach, a veteran tailback, and have gotten a shot in the arm at QB from Kaepernick. Also, their 45-31 demolition of Green Bay was perhaps the most eye-opening result of the playoffs so far. On the other hand, it would be foolish to dismiss the relief the Falcons no doubt felt after blowing a big lead and nipping the Seahawks at the wire last week – not to mention the very impressive body of work Mike Smith and company have registered in Atlanta. The Falcons have not run the ball very effectively this season but still have Michael Turner to complement Ryan and star wideout Julio Jones. Ryan was picked twice last week but also came through with a couple clutch throws in the final moments to set up the game-winning field goal. He completed 68.6 percent of his passes and 32 touchdowns in the regular season. He also has quite a secondary weapon in veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is as motivated as anyone in the postseason. The 49ers are just 7-4-1 against the NFC (including a tie and a loss to the middling Rams) and the last time they played away from home they were flogged 42-13 at Seattle. But the Falcons may not hold up in a close, pressure-packed game.
Also Intriguing: These two teams are former NFC West Division rivals but have met just six times since 2001. For what it’s worth, Atlanta has won four of those matchups including the most recent one – a 16-14 victory on Oct. 3, 2010.
Pick: City of champions? Maybe – Niners by 1

AFC Championship: Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4)
When: Sun., 6:30 p.m. Eastern (CBS)
Line: New England by 8
Analysis: Baltimore tailback Ray Rice hasn’t had a standout season but he takes a consistent pounding for a guy who’s 5-8 and has been a pretty consistent performer. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry during the regular season and is right on that figure in the playoffs. It’s been enough to keep the aggressive defenses of Indianapolis and Denver honest, which has allowed QB Joe Flacco to emerge and somehow outshine the likes of Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. So there is hope that Baltimore can keep up against a high-powered team like New England. Plus, the Ravens clearly are reinvigorated after losing four of their last five regular-season games. They can thank the announcement that Ray Lewis will retire after the season for that. Whether or not this will be his final NFL game will depend greatly on Baltimore’s ability to come up with takeaways. Brady is a tough nut to crack. In a season in which he slung the ball for more than 4,800 yards he totaled 34 TDs and just eight interceptions. In the third week of the season the Ravens posted a 31-30 over New England but they didn’t exactly corral Brady. He was 28 of 41 for 335 yards in that contest. His favorite target once again was Wes Welker, who caught 118 balls for 1,354 yards during the regular season.
Also Intriguing: Flacco – who, by the way is 6-6 and 245 pounds – has thrown for 613 yards in the team’s two playoff wins with five TDS and no interceptions. His quarterback rating was 46.8 during the regular season but is 75.8 for the postseason.
Pick: Pains me to go chalk here – Pats by 13