And then there were four. We saw some fantastic match-ups in the divisional playoff games last week that, save for the Patriots beating up on the Texans for the second time this season, kept you glued to the TV set all weekend long. The Ravens battled with the Broncos every step of the way until finally finishing them off in overtime, Colin Kaepernick’s record-setting day made quick work of a Packers team unable to find any continuity, and that Seahawks/Falcons game was gut-wrenching right down to the final seconds. On top of the real world results, fantasy owners were treated to some big-time point totals as each game had its fair share of scoring.
But that’s all in the past now and it’s time to start looking at possibilities in the Conference Championship games. Whether you drafted prior to the Wild Card round and are following those that you still may have active or you get to make selections each week, there’s plenty to know about these next two games. So without further ado, let’s get to the breakdowns…
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
When the Falcons defense shut down the Seahawks in the first half last week, they turned quite a number of heads and the respect that they craved was finally theirs. But there are two halves to every game and that defense that shined so bright, slowly dimmed as the game progressed. If they don’t tighten things up, this one won’t even be close. The 49ers offense is on fire right now and they’re doing both on the ground and through the air. The game plan likely won’t change this week and you’ll see a heavy dose of Frank Gore early and often. The Falcons run defense ranked 21st in the league during the regular season and gave up an average of 123.2 rushing yards per game. Gore will continuously pound it between the tackles and when he’s in need of a rest, LaMichael James will be happy to put his explosive style on display.
That should easily open up both running lanes for Kaepernick, as well as allow the passing game to blossom even more. Kaepernick will lean heavily on favorite-target Michael Crabtree, so expect to see him get the majority of targets, as he has done since Week 11 when Kaepernick first took over. But given Seattle tight end Zach Miller’s huge week last week against a pass defense that ranked 21st in the league against opposing tight ends, there just might be some hope for Vernon Davis yet. He’ll still compete for targets with back-up Delanie Walker, but if the Falcons’ coverage falls apart, Davis could have himself his best day in weeks.
With the way the 49ers defense looked last week, having been motivated by the return of Justin Smith, things could get real tough for Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ aerial attack. I mean, if Aaron Rodgers couldn’t get anything going with all his receivers finally healthy, how will Ryan fare with just three legitimate targets at his disposal? Given how well the Niners clamp down on number one and two receivers and the tight end, Harry Douglass just might be their biggest asset. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez all should see plenty of targets, but yardage and endzone dancing might come at a premium.
In addition to that, running back Michael Turner is going to have to try his luck against one of the league’s best run defenses, and considering they give up an average of less than 95 yards per game all season, running room might be tough to come by. He did manage to grab 98 yards against a tough Seattle D, but this match-up is even more harrowing. If Atlanta comes out firing as they did last week, they’ll keep it close, but if they start to wither again as they did in the second half, they’re going to be in trouble.
If I were a betting man, I would lay the four points and take the Niners.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Obviously, the Ravens were the upset-special last week as they managed to contain Peyton Manning, force him into a few mistakes, and narrowly escape with the victory. Ray Lewis kept the defense motivated throughout the game and will need to maintain that same intensity if they want to contain Tom Brady and that high-octane offense; hopefully repeating that Week 3 success when they won 31-30. Even with the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Pats have enough weapons to keep any defense on its heels though. The Ravens pass defense ranked 17th in the league, giving up an average of 228 yards per game and ranking 20th and 30th in the league against opposing number one and two wide receivers. That says big plays and big days for Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Tight end Aaron Hernandez may find it slow-going out there, though, as the Ravens ranked ninth in the league against opposing tight ends.
But don’t forget about Stevan Ridley and the Pats running game. He and Danny Woodhead shared carries back then and collectively gained 71 yards on the ground, but as the season wore on, the Ravens run defense softened a great deal, allowing an average of 122.8 yards per game on the ground by season’s end. While the Pats will always be a pass-first team, they’ve utilized the run a whole lot more this year and should continue to follow that same game.
The Ravens offense will need to continuously expose that 29th ranked New England pass defense that coughed up an average of 271 passing yards per game and 27 passing touchdowns all season. They also gave up 343 yards through the air last week against the Texans. That means all eyes will be on Joe Flacco who threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots in Week 3. Back then he and Torrey Smith hooked up for 127 yards and two scores while Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta were the complements in the aerial attack. The Pats do a good job on number two receivers, so Anquan Boldin might not be at his best this week.
You also can’t rule out the ground attack as Ray Rice rushed for over 100 yards in their last meeting. He seemed to fix his fumbling problem last week and even though New England gives up an average of just under 102 yards per game, Rice should be able to break through some holes. He netted 131 yards on the ground last week and will be looking to make an impact early in the game.
If I were a betting man, I’d take the eight points and look for an all-Harbaugh Super Bowl.
Good luck to you this week!
Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For questions, thoughts or comments you can find him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.