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NFL Tipping Sheet: Conference Championship Previews and Handicap picks

Can Brady put an end to Lewis' farewell tour?

"In a repeat of last years AFC Championship Game, who is going to win this weekend?"

We are almost there. Super Bowl XLVII is calling. No one wants to slip up this late in the day. Which of the fab four will make it the big one? Lets get to it...

San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons
Sunday 20:00

So Atlanta got the job done during the playoffs against Seattle but they really went about it the hard way and were at one stage almost determined to give up the victory. After putting up 20 points at half time they decided to allow the Seahawks back into the game and they almost allowed the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history when Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left on the clock. But Matt Ryan had other ideas and forced the Falcons further up the field with two long passes after the kickoff and set up Matt Bryant's 49-yard winning field goal with only 8 seconds left and broke the hearts of the brave Seahawks. So just because the Falcons scrape through the playoffs are they now getting ready to finally build on that success and mount a serious challenge for the Vince Lombardi Trophy? I'm not too sure.

The team in their way this weekend are the San Francisco 49ers. They faired much better in their playoff game against the highly fancied Green Bay. Colin Kaepernick is a player who continues to impress and was masterful again at quarterback, made a QB playoff-record of 181 yards, two touchdowns and he threw two scoring passes. In his first playoff he managed to excel against reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who never really got out of 3rd gear. Kaepernick also beat the rushing mark of 119 set by Michael Vick. The Niners also put together 579 total yards with 323 on the ground.

So, who to pick as a winner? With the form that Kaepernick finds himself in, I'm not sure I could bet against him. While I don't expect as impressive a game as against the Packers, he still has more than enough in his arsenal to help the Niner's over the line. I think the key to victory for the Niner's lays with their pass rush. The Falcons ranked 21st in the NFL during the regular season in rush defence (123 ypg), so the 49ers have to push forward and take advantage of the weakness and try to dominate an average Atlanta left side. Another weapon that they have to call on is Michael Crabtree. Kaepernick needs to get his radar on early and pick out his No.1 receiver with laser precision. Doing this should create panic and even if it doesn't come off every time, it will force the Falcons to identify Crabtree as a deep threat and back off more in coverage which will open up other avenues for tight end Vernon Davis to work in.

For the Falcons to try and get a result the key will be to get on the scoreboard early on in the first and second quarter and do it often. Scoring early will force the 49ers defence back on their heels and put early pressure on Kaepernick. If they manage that then they can really delay the game and work on wasting some time and run the clock down with running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael Turner.

For me though, my money will be on San Francisco as they bid to reach their first Super Bowl since 1995. Kaepernick has morphed the 49ers into a team that can beat their opponents with offence or defence. Although this is a home game for the Falcons, the playing surface in Atlanta will only make Kaepernick that bit more dangerous as the Falcons tend to struggle against quarterbacks who can step on the gas and run which was clear for all to see against Seattle and Russell Wilson. I think Kaepernick will do more of the same this week and San Francisco will take the NFC Championship title and a seat at the big table for Super Bowl XLVII.

Recommended Bet: San Francisco -3.5

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Sunday 23:30

Did anyone really think that Baltimore Ravens could actually go to Mile High and beat the red-hot favourites Denver Broncos? The game exploded into life in the first quarter when Trindon Holliday scored a 90-yard punt return touchdown, the longest in playoff history. It was a huge effort put forth by the Ravens and it took overtime to finally separate these two teams who matched each other blow for blow and ended each quarter level on points. It was another game that was decided by a big field goal and Justin Tucker was the man in place to secure the win. He kicked a 47-yarder in overtime to help the Ravens eventually down the Broncos 38-35 and keep Ray Lewis' farewell tour going for one more game.

They square off against the magnificent New England Patriots who dominated the Houston Texans in their playoff game 41-28. Tom Brady became the most successful quarterback in postseason play. His career postseason record is 17-6; his playoff win total is the highest in NFL history. They took apart the Texans and while Brady threw for three touchdowns, rarely used Shane Vereen proved he could do what he is required to do when called upon and scored three times with two of those from receptions.

In a repeat of last years AFC Championship Game, who is going to win this weekend? The Patriots look the more impressive and Brady is in scintillating form. They will be without Rob Gronkowski but that isn't the end of the world. The Patriots are 5-1 without him and that includes last week's rout of Houston. Similar to an aging fighter, New England persisted years with only a haymaker for an offence. Now they can show Baltimore all of their new and destructive punches in Aaron Hernandez, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to name a few.

On the other hand, the Ravens have been amazing this year. Joe Flacco has been in great form lately and his quarterback ratings from his last three meaningful outings are 114.2, 125.6, and 116.2 respectively. He is also 7-4 in the playoffs and he has thrown 12 touchdowns against only two interceptions in his last six playoff starts. That is a pretty impressive. Flacco outplayed Brady in last year's AFC Championship and did it again when Baltimore downed New England in Week 3. There is also the small detail of Ray Lewis. This is his last stand. The retiring superstar has led the Ravens this far and has been at his awesome best, inspiring the rest of his team. Could it be written in the stars for him to end his career in the best place possible and go all the way to the Promised Land?

My heart says Ravens but my head says Patriots. Don't be surprised if the Ravens do manage to put it all together and come out with the win but Brady is 5-1 in AFC Championship games. This isn't his first barn dance. He knows how to get the job done. This game comes down to which team is better and sadly for Lewis and the Ravens, the Patriots are purring at the minute. They are playing on home soil and their newfound run game should be enough to make the difference against the Ravens.

Recommended Bet: Baltimore +8.5

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18 January 2013



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