Sorry about the AFC.
Yep, same old, same old is ahead, with the New England Patriots hosting the Baltimore Ravens for the second straight conference championship game Sunday. With a similar result, too.
New England (13-4) is a 9 1/2 point favorite to reach its sixth Super Bowl in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. The Patriots’ quarterback and coach are 3-2 together in the big game, but the last two appearances have been losses to the Giants.
That surely must irk the two men who otherwise have dominated the last 12 NFL seasons.
The Patriots have never lost an AFC title game at home (4-0, three of those in those 12 seasons). They certainly came close last January when Lee Evans couldn’t hold onto a pass in the end zone in the final moment that would have sent the Ravens to their second Super Bowl and first since the 2000 season, when they won it all.
New England will move the ball on Baltimore (12-6) and could resort to running it more often than in the past. Not only is Stevan Ridley a 1,000-yard rusher, something very rare for the Patriots, but the Ravens aren’t nearly as stout as they once were at stopping the run. With the emergence of Shane Vereen and consistency of Danny Woodhead if he is healthy, the Patriots are deep in the backfield, too.
The loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski will be damaging for the Patriots, but not overwhelmingly so. Aaron Hernandez will pick up the slack in receptions and the blocking of Michael Hoomanawanui against Houston was exemplary.
Where the Ravens could prosper is in a revitalized pass rush. Terrell Suggs finally is approaching his top defensive player status of 2011 after returning from a partially torn Achilles tendon. Paul Kruger already is a dynamic sack guy.
Ray Lewis’ pending retirement adds an emotional boost for Baltimore.
But in the end, New England’s offense will be too persistent, too sharp and too deep for Baltimore to stop. Look for Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Hernandez to have strong games, and for the Patriots’ defense to keep Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Baltimore’s dangerous offense from doing too much damage.
And look for the Patriots to be in New Orleans next month.
San Francisco (minus 3 1/2) at Atlanta
Had the Falcons kept the rout going against Seattle in last Sunday’s divisional round, the spread here would be different. But Atlanta (14-3) nearly blew it, raising questions among the odds makers about how good the Falcons really are.
They’re plenty good, as their last-minute rally to Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal to beat the Seahawks proved. The issue: San Francisco (12-4-1) simply is better.
Of the remaining four teams, the 49ers are the most balanced. They have the best defense by far; only Seattle’s unit really challenged them among all the playoff qualifiers.
Atlanta will struggle to run against Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Co. So the Falcons will take to the air, a wise decision when you have playmakers Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Problem is, the Niners’ secondary is as good as any, even if the interceptions were down this season. And the pass rush, sparked by Aldon Smith (19½ sacks), is formidable.
Where San Francisco has an edge over last year, when it lost at home to the Giants for the conference crown, is in its passing game. Second-year QB Colin Kaepernick has added a dynamic dimension with his strong arm, escapability and overall athletic skills. Michael Crabtree has developed into a dependable receiver with big-play abilities.
Add that to Frank Gore’s running, and Atlanta’s D will be overmatched.
Against spread: 3-1 (117-127-7). Straight up: 2-2 (164-95-1)
Best Bet: 9-8-2 against spread, 13-6 straight up.
Upset special: 11-8 against spread, 9-10 straight up.